On this day in 1734 Daniel Boone was born, becoming an inspiration for not just the romantic legends but the Romantic poets. In Byron’s Don Juan Boone 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….” Much of Don Juan is tongue-in-cheek, so it is hard to say what Byron truly thought about the Frontier Life, but the poem apparently did much to popularize it and 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 his book appealed to those fired by Enlightenment ideas of Natural Man, provided they 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.” 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 much common ground philosophically – Rousseau and the back-to-Nature movement, the ideals of the French Revolution – and they soon hit upon the idea of sharing real land in America. At first this was to be in Boone’s 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. His journal entries brim with enthusiasm – “America! Southey! Miss Fricker!… Pantisocracy – O I shall have such a scheme of it!” – and his letters, in anticipation of a springtime sailing, advise the group to spend the winter in raising the necessary cash, learning the “theory and practice of agriculture and carpentry,” and exercising for “full tone and strength.”
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. Coleridge’s biographers attribute the usual reasons of youth – these compounded, in the poet’s case, by his characteristic irresolution, a trait which he and others would lament throughout his life.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.