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October 22, 2017

Boone, Byron & Coleridge

On this day in 1734 Daniel Boone was born. Boone was an inspiration for not just the romantic legends but the Romantic poets. In Byron's Don Juan he is imagined as "happiest amongst mortals anywhere," if not as Adam in Eden:
    Crime came not near him--she is not the child
    Of solitude; Health shrank not from him--for
    Her home is in the rarely trodden wild,
    Where if men seek her not, and death be more
    Their choice than life, forgive them, as beguiled
    By habit to what their own hearts abhor,
    In cities caged. The present case in point I
    Cite is, that Boon lived hunting up to ninety;

    And, what's still stranger, left behind a name
    For which men vainly decimate the throng
    Not only famous, but of that good fame,
    Without which Glory's but a tavern song--
    Simple, serene, the antipodes of Shame,
    Which Hate nor Envy e'er could tinge with wrong;
    An active hermit, even in the age the child
    Of Nature--or the Man of Ross run wild.
Daniel Boone
Daniel Boone
Much of Don Juan is tongue-in-cheek, so it is hard to say what Byron truly thought about the Frontier Life, but these verses apparently did much to popularize Boone. So did John Filson's Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke, published in 1784 and widely-read in Europe. Filson's own promotion of Boone and the Kentucky-life may have been self-serving -- among other things, Filson was a land speculator, and his book came with a how-to-get-there map -- but it said what many wanted to hear. Readers fired by Enlightenment ideas of Natural Man could skim over the references to winter starvation or scalp-hunting and linger upon descriptions of "the most extraordinary country that the sun enlightens with his celestial beams." At the end of his book, and purportedly speaking from the mouth of Daniel himself, Filson promised all would-be woodsmen that in present-day Kentucky, "Peace crowns the sylvan shade."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge almost bought it. In the summer of 1794, while on a break between two unenthusiastic semesters at Cambridge, Coleridge met Robert Southey, the future Poet Laureate. The two twenty-one-year-olds shared such common ground philosophically -- Rousseau and the back-to-Nature movement, the ideals of the French Revolution -- that they decided to share real land in America. At first this was to be in Kentucky, but the dream was soon relocated to the sunny banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, and given a name by Coleridge: "Pantisocracy," or government-of-all-by-all. The "all" was a shifting group of some dozen -- the shifting caused in part by the jockeying of the young men for the hands of the five Fricker sisters of Bristol, all of them budding pantisocrats -- but the easily-diverted Coleridge held firm, even when back at Cambridge again that autumn:
    Since I quitted this room what and how important Events have evolved! America! Southey! Miss Fricker!... Pantisocracy - O I shall have such a scheme of it! My head, my heart are alive - I have drawn up my arguments in battle array....
Coleridge was even then a famous talker, and he argued his vision of Susquehanna at large -- with family, Cambridge dons, and anyone who might wish to share a pint and a bowl of oronoko tobacco at the Salutation & Cat. The debate was often speculative -- Could twelve people clear three hundred acres in five months? Could servants be allowed? -- but it inspired some practical conclusions. In his letters, Coleridge advised that the winter should be spent not just in raising the necessary cash, but in exercising for "full tone and strength," and in learning the "theory and practice of agriculture and carpentry." Departure was set for April, 1795.

The picture of the famous poet doing push-ups for Pennsylvania is an attractive one, and the planning went on for more than a year, but no pantisocratic cabins would go up on the banks of the Susquehanna. Blame, or thanks, lies with the usual reasons of youth -- and, in Coleridge's case, the usual irresolution, a trait which he and others would lament throughout his life. Biographer Richard Holmes, from whom much of the above is taken, says that "Coleridge was a man who could confess spiritual despair at midday, and dine out brilliantly at midnight." But Holmes also says that, far from being youthful fancy, the ideals and questions which inspired the Pantisocracy lived on, informing Coleridge's major poetry and prose.

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