On the first of April, 1801, having come from Cuba, Alexander von Humboldt found himself at Cartagena de Indias, on the coast of New Grenada (present day Colombia). From there he wrote a letter to his brother Wilhelm:

« If you received my last letter from Havana, you’ll know that I’ve changed my original plan and that instead of making for Mexico and North America, I’ve come back to the Southern shores of the Gulf with the idea of travelling on to Quito and Lima. It would take too long to go into all he reasons for my making this decision… »

When he wrote that letter, Humboldt was well into what he called his « journey to the equinoctial regions of the New World » that had begun on the 5th of June 1799 and was to continue till August 3rd, 1804. It was a geopoetic trip of the first order. What I want to do in this essay is go into the reason for this journey, all the reasons, try to get at its total logic, for it was the culminating act of a lifetime’s work, the crest of a whole range of knowledge, the end-point of a whole process of thought.




Humboldt was born in 1769, in Prussia. On his father’s side, his grandfather had been a sea-captain, and his father was both a commandant in the army and chamberlain to the imperial prince. On his mother’s side, there were Scottish and French ancestors, among them an emigrant protestant from the Gard region in France whose name was Jean Colomb.

At Tegel castle, the Berlin residence of the family, young Alexander, in his early years thanks to tutors, received an excellent education marked by the German Enlightenment (the Aufklärung), French encyclopedism (the legacy of Diderot, d’Alembert, Rousseau) and the first movements of Romanticism. What all this induced and encouraged was vigorous thought, intellectual clarity, an extensive field of knowledge, a transnational horizon (he’ll talk of « peoples who think they’re aboriginal simply because they don’t know where they came from ») and a desire for a complex unity not to be satisfied with any kind of facile regression or any simplistically imagined construction. He had no time for religion, in which he saw a geological dream of genesis, a moral code (sometimes, but not always, admirable) and, after that, nothing but a « little historical novel. » And while ideas excited him, he was sceptical of ideology.

There’s only one element missing in this highly promising initial context: that elusive something commonly called happiness. He’s only ten when his father dies, and he doesn’t get much affection from his mother. At the age of twenty-three, thinking back to Tegel, he’ll speak of the « wretched existence » that was his in those years.

Travel, that was to be such an important part of his life, was, in the first instance, a way of getting out of a miserable context. This deep desire was nourished by the reading of books, the study of maps and the contemplation of images: the story of the expedition of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the first European to see, from the heights of Quarequa, in the isthmus of Panama, the Eastern part of the Pacific Ocean; the intriguing form of the Caspian Sea; a painting of the banks of the Ganges; a tropical tree seen in the botanic garden of Berlin…

The notion of some kind of travel was already fixed in his head when, after university studies at Frankfurt and Göttingen, he met Georg Forster, geographer, writer, lecturer, who had been on Cook’s second world voyage (1772-1775) and whose descriptions of Tahiti had aroused throughout the whole of Northern Europe not only ethnological interest but a welter of erotic fantasies. Having started up a friendship, Forster and Humboldt travelled to England and France. In France, there was political excitement in the air, and Alexander was glad to carry sand for the new « temple of liberty ». But those political hopes were to be dashed. Forster died in Paris in 1794, completely disillusioned. Later, after the first flush of libertarian ideas, Humboldt would see Napoleon bringing back slavery. But all this was ultimately secondary in Humboldt’s mind. Outside this cycle of hope, agitation, disappointment and despair, which is the history of humanity, Humboldt already knew he had a great programme of a different order ahead of him.

At the beginning of the 1790s, we find him at the Academy of Commerce of Hamburg. Thereafter, he frequented an academy of geology and mineralogy in Freiberg. Graduating from that academy, he took up a state post at the Department of Mines and Foundries of Prussia. Three years later, he was « superior advisor » for mines.

All this may seem very « prosaic ». But Humboldt was gathering in materials, preparing the ground for his fundamental enterprise. It should not be forgotten too that a great deal of new thought was emerging from geology (the stratification of the earth) and from what Humboldt was to call geognosis (the configuration of surface ground).

Anyway, this incursion into the bowels of the earth was to be only a stage in Humboldt’s itinerary. Pretty soon he was going to get back to the open air, open space. He had never forgotten the ultimate reaches of his programme. So that when his mother died in 1796 and he received his share of the family inheritance, about 312 000 gold francs, a considerable sum, he knew the decisive moment had arrived. Giving up his official career, he was ready to move into wider territory. As is clear from this letter of 1797: « My mind is made up. It’ll be my travel plan from now on. A few more years of preparation here, to make sureI’ll have at my disposal all the tools and instruments I’ll need. Then another year or a year and a half in Italy, so as to know all that’s known about volcanoes. Then it will be England, via Paris. And, finally, the Indies of the West. »

I spoke of a programme. If there was a psychological motivation in Humboldt’s travelling (freedom from constricting ties, disencumbering of the mind) there was also, and more significantly, an intellectual one. Travel with Humboldt meant nothing like an adventure trip, nothing like a happy-go-lucky vagabondage, it meant a thorough investigation into reality, a total field of experience, knowledge and perception.

Before actually setting out, Humboldt continued his studies: in astronomy, chemistry, galvanism, botany…

In 1798, he was back in Paris, for conversations with French scholars and scientists. It was there he met Aimé Bonpland, from La Rochelle, on the French Atlantic coast, who was going to be his companion on the great equinoctial journey.

It was in Paris too he began to envisage specific itineraries.

Bougainville had proposed a voyage round the world, organised by the Directory: first year, Paraguay and Patagonia; second year, Peru, Chile, Mexico, California; third year, the south Seas; fourth year, Madagascar; fifth year, Guinea. Humboldt was ready to accept this proposition, but the project was cancelled, for lack of funds.

Undaunted, determined to make a start by any means available, Humboldt left for Marseilles: As he wrote in a biographical text: « I wanted to spend the winter in Algeria and the Atlas mountains. According to Desfontaines, in the province of Constantine alone, there were still 400 unknown plants ». From there, his idea was to join the caravan to Mecca and then meet up with Bonaparte’s expedition via Sufetula, Tunis and Tripoli. He waited two months there in Marseilles but the frigate he’d meant to sail on got wrecked. Thereafter, he tried to find another boat that would take him to Tunis, but the bey of Algiers decided to suspend  for an indefinite period all sea-traffic. Still determined to get going, Humboldt left Marseilles and, in the company of Bonpland, moved down the coast of Spain: Catalonia, Tarragona, Galaguer, Valencia… And then finally, by a stroke of good luck, for the thing was rare, he managed to obtain a passport for the Spanish colonies of America.

The port of embarcation would be La Coruña. Destination: Venezuela.

« What sheer happiness », he wrote in a letter. « My head’s dizzy with joy. What a wealth of observations I’m going to be able to make to enrich my work on the formation of the earth! I’ll collect plants and fossils. I’ll be able to pursue my astronomical studies with excellent instruments. But all that is not the principal aim of my journey. I must never lose sight of the fact that the horizon of all my studies is the harmony of concurrent forces, the influence of the inanimate universe on animal and vegetable life. ».

I’ve emphasized those last two sentences, for there we have the first clear formulation of what is really at stake. As we’ve seen there’s a search for happiness, for mental and physical fulfilment. There’s a scientific quest. But beyond both, there’s a sense of planetary poetics. Humboldt’s work-plan had several strata at one and the same time.

On July 16th 1799, at Cumana, on the Araya peninsula, he wrote this:

« Here we are, at last, in the most divine and marvellous country. Extraordinary plants, electric eels, tigers, monkeys, parrots and hordes of pure Indians, half-wild, a very beautiful and interesting type of humanity. Since our arrival, we’ve been running around like madmen. I think I’m going to be happy here. »




It’s no part of my intention to recount the whole journey, retell the story. Before projecting the total accumulation into a more general field, I’ll simply bring to the fore some passages and some points.

The first thing to be noticed, perhaps, is that, in contrast to more modern expeditions, Humboldt never presents his journey as an exploit, moral or physical. That the going was often tough and hazardous, there is no doubt. Right from the beginning, Humboldt treats the physical difficulties with humour. Here’s his description of travel conditions on the way to Caracas: « The dirt road from Cumana to new Barcelona, and from there to Caracas, is in roughly the same state as it was before the discovery of America. » Imagine soft, marshy territory, scattered boulders, dense vegetation, torrents, precarious passages – with twenty odd porters and beasts of burden (bullocks, mules), loaded with instruments and provisions. Imagine a complete absence of maps: « These countries are so wild and so little frequented that, apart from a few rivers, the Indians had no name at all for the places I tried to get compass readings on. » Imagine a canoe, about 40 feet long and three in width, which was in fact no more than a tree trunk hollowed out with axe and fire. At the slightest unexpected or unannounced movement, such an embarcation could capsize, with men floundering in the water, and luggage, instrument boxes, collection cases, adrift. » Add to that the fact that Humboldt risked his life more than once, notably at the Pichincha volcano where, in order to make his observations, he took up position on a shaky bit of rock projecting out over the precipice. But very little of all this gets into the story. Humboldt wastes no time or space exploiting such events for armchair thrills. Writing about Horace Bénédict de Saussure, the Swiss Alpine explorer, whose work he admired, calling him  « the boldest of travellers and the most eminent of scientists », he nevertheless feels he has to make the point that « these difficult and dangerous excursions, the stories of which excite the interest of the general public, don’t really bring in that many results ». And one can refine the mental portrait of Humboldt still further. He is a scientist, undoubtedly, he is out for exact knowledge, but he loathes the heavy weight, the slowing up of movement, that a scientific expedition entails: « When after travelling for thousands and thousands of miles from one continent to the other, loaded with all kinds of physical and astronomical apparatus, one is tempted to say, at the end of the day: ‘Happy are those who travel without instruments that can break, without herbariums that can get soaked, without collections that can become spoiled. Happy are those who can travel the world and see it with nothing but their own eyes, gather in emotions from a vision of nature and try to understand it all.’” One can understand this nostalgia for a simpler way of going about things, with immediate pleasure and less anxiety. One can even accept the notion that « the simple » is what one finally has to get to. But to get at a deep simplicity can require a good deal of complication. What Humboldt was ultimately after lay beyond both the kind of complication and the kind of simplicity he evokes.

On February 7th 1800, Humboldt left Caracas for Puerto Cabello, on the Caribbean coast. From there, on the waters of the Apure, a tributary of the Orinoco, he moved down towards San Fernando. Thereafter he moved back up the Orinoco river country, to the Rio Negro, on the frontier of Brazil, then returned to the Orinoco via the Casiquire. All in all, seventy-five days, two thousand two hundred kilometres, given over to specimen-collecting, measurements of all kinds (barometrical, thermometrical, trigonometrical, astronomical, etc.), and to the writing of his Journal.

What comes over and over again in the Journal is his feeling of exceptional well-being: « I was made for the Tropics. I’ve never felt so fit and well. I’ve been in towns where yellow fever was rampant and I’ve never had even a headache. »

This inner well-being coincides with an ever more sensitive and cognitive approach to the reality outside.

Here’s Humboldt evoking the llanos (the great plains to the south of Caracas):

« The landscape lay before us in a monotonous sameness. There was no moonlight, but the great clusters of nebulae that fill the southern sky were enough, as they set, to illuminate a part of the horizon. The great vault of the starry sky, the cool breeze that crosses the plains at night, the undulating movement of the grass wherever it had any height, made one think inevitably of the surface of the Ocean. The illusion was all the greater (one never tires of saying it) when the sun rose, its image doubled owing to refraction. »

There are maybe several things to be noted here. First of all, that astronomical-telluric-oceanic sensation. Then the juxtaposition of immediate, phenomenological perception with a scientific explanation (« refraction »), a juxtaposition that is not yet a complex unity. And, finally, the sheer pleasure of expression, and even of repetition (« One never tires of saying it »).

Here’s another text, this time devoted to the falls of Maypures:

«There’s a certain spot there from which one discovers an absolutely marvellous horizon. The eye takes in a foaming surface about two leagues in extent. From the flow of waters emerge rocks as black as iron and like ruined towers. Every island, every rock is embellished with strong-branched trees. A thick cloud, a vapour of foam, floats constantly above the mirror of the waters and through it rise the lofty tops of the Mamitia palms. When, in the evening, the burning rays of the sun are diffracted in the humid cloud, the light effects are magical. Rainbows appear, disappear and reappear. During the long rainy season, the murmuring waters deposit masses of vegetable on the bare surface of the rocks, and out of it grow melastome and drosera, ferns and little silver-leaved mimosa trees: flowering islands amid the bare desolation of the rocks. The European is reminded of those blocks of granite called courtils by the people of the Alps that, covered with flowers, are to be found here and there in isolation in the midst of the glaciers. On the bluish horizon, the eye runs over the range of the Cunavami, a long line of mountains that ends abruptly in a truncated cone. At sundown, this cone, which the Indians call Calitamini, was a burning mass. The same phenomenon took place every evening. Nobody has ever approached this mountain. Maybe its blaze comes from plays of light produced by the reflections of talcum or mica schist. During the five days we spent near the falls, we realized, to our surprise, that the noise is three times greater by night than by day. One can observe the same phenomenon with waterfalls in Europe. But why should it be the case in a desert where there’s nothing to interrupt nature’s silence? No doubt it’s ascending currents of warm air that, disturbing the balance of the atmosphere’s elasticity, prevent the sound from spreading by interfering with its waves. These warm air currents disappear in the coolness of the night. »

There again, you have a multiplicity of sensations and perceptions, a prose that carries them along with technical terms (melastome drosera), scientific hypotheses (about light and sound-waves), but a conceptual horizon still subsumed by an unsatisfactory word such as « magical ».

Let’s turn now to a « geognostic » vision of another part of the Orinoco:

« The geographical aspect of this country, the form of the rocks of Keri and Oco, which look so much like islands, the excavations made by the waters in the first of these hilly areas, which lie at exactly the same level as that of Unitari opposite, all this would suggest that the Orinoco once filled the now dry bay. It’s highly likely that the waters formed a vast lake as long as they were held in by the northern dyke. When this obstacle gave way, the savannah nowadays inhabited by the Guareca Indians emerged from amid the waters. Maybe for a long time after, the river surrounded the rocks of Keri and Oco which, arising out of the ancient riverbed like towers built on a mountain, offer an extremely picturesque spectacle. As they decreased in depth, the waters receded finally in the direction of the mountain range to the east. Several circumstances would bend to confirm this supposition. Like the Nile near Philae and Suez, the Orinoco blackens the reddish white granite massifs it has been laving for thousands of years. Anywhere the waters can reach, one finds on the riverbank rocks a thinnish layer of grey matter made up of manganese and perhaps carbon. This black colour, and the aforementioned cavities mark the old level of the Orinoco. In the rock of Keri, between the islands of the cataracts, in the gneiss hills of Cumadaminari whose range runs above the island of Tomo, as well as at the mouth of the Jao, those blackish cavities are raised about 49 to 59 metres above the present surface of the waters. Their existence teaches us, as indeed do all the riverbeds of Europe, that the rivers whose grandeur excites our admiration today are only the feeble remains of the enormous masses of water that existed in prehistorical times.

Simple facts such as these have not escaped the attention of the uncultivated aborigenes of Guyana. In so many different locations, the Indians would point out to us the traces of the ancient level. On a grass plain near Urvana, one can even see an isolated granite rock on which, as has been recorded by bona fide observers at a height of 26 metres, have been chiselled rows upon rows of images representing the sun, the moon and several species of animals, notably crocodiles and boas. Nowadays, nobody could scale the abrupt sides of this rock without an elaborate system of scaffolding. This rock merits the most scrupulous attention of future travellers. The hieroglyphs engraved on the mountains of Uruana and Encaramada are also placed at inaccessible heights. […] At the northern limit of the cataracts one can see images representing, as I am told, the sun and the moon. The rock called Keri in fact derives its name from a white mark that can be seen shining from a great distance and in which the Indians see a replica of the moon at its full. I was unable to climb the steep sides of this rock but I have every reason to believe that the white mark must be a great lump of quartz standing out against the background of the grey-black granite. »

As with the other texts quoted, one appreciates the reading of the landscape, the precision of detail – but again, the inadequacy of the global vocabulary (« a very picturesque spectacle »). I like that Enlightenment mentality too, which, in contrast to so many other travellers in exotic countries ready to grab at the slightest « mystery », sees in the moon of Keri a lump of quartz. Elsewhere, in Inca country, Humboldt makes it clear that the so-called « blood of Atahualpa » one is supposed to see on a certain stone is in fact an aggregate of amphibole and pyroxene naturally formed. Not that he is a positivistic scoffer – he knows that a legend can be the indication of a truth. It’s just that he finds nature so interesting, so breathtakingly beautiful, that he has no need of the supernatural.

The road went on. Here’s an evocation of the « superb Orinoco » itself:

« Coming out of the Rio Apure, we found ourselves in a completely different-looking country. What we had before us was a great plain of water, stretching away out of sight. Whitening waves rose to several feet owing to the encounter of wind with current. The air was no longer filled with the piercing cries of the herons, the flamingos and the spoonbills that fly from one bank to the other in long lines. Our eyes looked in vain for those aquatic birds whose tactics and manoeuvres offer such extraordinary variety. Nature as a whole seemed less animated. All we could see were some great crocodiles threshing the surface of the furious waters obliquely with their long tails. The horizon was bordered by a belt of forest, but at no point did the forest come down to the river bank. Great beaches, perpetually burned by the sun, dry and deserted like the beaches of the sea, looked from a distance (the mirage effect), like pools of standing water. Far from fixing the frontiers of the river, those sandy banks made them more uncertain. At times they seemed closer, at others, farther, according to the variable play of inflected rays. It’s these scattered features, along with a general sensation of solitude and grandeur, that characterize the Orinoco, one of the most majestic rivers of the New World. On all sides, the waters, like the land areas, are highly characteristic and individual. The bed of the Orinoco is different from those of the Meta, the Guaviare, the Rio Negro and the Amazon. It’s not just a question of breadth or swiftness of flow. The difference stems from a whole congeries of relationships which it is possible to grasp when you’re on the spot, but which it is very difficult to define. »

There we’re really getting into the quick: that « congeries of relationships », and this is where geopoetics is really making one of its early appearances. But, for the moment, not wanting to hurry things and arrive too fast at a precocious definition, I propose we keep accumulating elements.

For example, at the raudal de Atures, those vultures and whippoorwills with croaking voices flying in the canyons, their shadow appearing suddenly over the naked surface of the rock and just as suddenly disappearing. Or the icy plateau of the Andes, surrounded by smoking volcanoes. Or again, the « Inca road », that enormous artefact, seven metres in breadth, made of brownish black blocks of trappean porphyry, covering, at an altitude of 3,391 metres, the four hundred leagues between Quito and Cuzco,.

When Humboldt came back to Europe, he made Paris his principal base, living there from 1804 to 1827. While still moving around a lot, lecturing (Rome, Naples, Venice…), while filling the post of Chamberlain of Prussia (to which he was nominated in 1805) at a distance, in absentia, till the king called him back to Berlin, while working with the Institut de France and the Parisian Société de Géographie, while keeping up a voluminous correspondence with scholars and scientists all over the world, he devoted the most precious part of his time to the preparation for publication of the observations and cogitations of his American journey.

The thirty volumes that finally appeared were laid out as follows:


Vol. 1 and 2     – Equinoctial plants.

Vol. 3 and 4     – A Monography on Melastomataceae.

Vol. 5               – A Monography on Mimosas and other Leguminous Plants.

Vol. 6 and 7     – A Survey of Grasses.

Vol. 8 to 14      – Nova genera et species plantarum.

Vol. 15 and 16 – A Picturesque Atlas of the Journey.

Vol. 17              – Physical and Geographical Atlas.

Vol. 18              – A Critical Examination of the History and Geography of the          New Continent.

Vol. 19              – A Geographical and Physical Atlas of the Kingdom of New      Spain.

Vol. 20              – A Geography of Equinoctial Plants.

Vol. 21 and 22 – A Collect of Astronomical, Trigonometrical and Barometric       Measurements.

Vol. 23 and 24  – A Collect of Observations on Zoology and Comparative Anatomy made in the Atlantic Ocean, the Interior of the New Continent, and in the southern Sea.

Vol. 25 and 26  – A Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain.

Vol. 27               – The Story of the Journey.


The panorama is, to say the least, extensive and impressive. But Humboldt’s work didn’t stop at these fifteen thousand or so pages written in French and Latin. To them must be added his Views of Nature, written in German (Ansichten der Natur) published in 1808, and his Cosmos, the Sketch of a Physical Description of the World (Kosmos, Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung), published in five volumes between 1845 and 1862. Not forgetting other texts such as his Travels in Central Asia (1843). The total amount constitutes an enormous corpus for study and reflection.

The French astronomer and physicist François Arago, one of Humboldt’s friends and interlocutors in Paris, had this judgement on Humboldt’s writings: « You don’t know how to construct; your books are like pictures without frames. » This was true enough. If Humboldt wrote a 15-page essay, he’d immediately follow it up with 150 pages of notes. But I’d be loathe to see in Humboldt’s « non-construction » a fault. It’s the very fact that it can’t be « framed » that constitutes the value of his work. This goes for both composition and conception.

Humboldt was seen as a geographer, but his geography went away out beyond the bounds of the classical conception of geography, as it had become fixed, in France as elsewhere.

In the field of geography, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, France had distinguished herself. I’m thinking, for example, of the foundation, during the reign of Louis XIV, in 1666, of the Academy of Sciences, whose mission was to obtain precise measurements of the planet and graph its form. One of its most brilliant members was Picard, who founded the Paris observatory. Then there were the maps of China drawn up by Jesuit missionaries, and the observations made at Cayenne by the astronomer Richer, the first to establish the fact that the planet Earth isn’t a sphere, but a spheroid flattened at both poles. Other great names of French geography and map-making come to mind: La Condamine, Maupertuis, Nicolas Sanson, Guillaume Delisle, d’Anville… With Sebastien de Beaulieu, the king’s first engineer, and field marshall, there’s a serious reduction, geography and map-making being tied in to military manoeuvres, just as with Berthier they’re tied in to hunting – I’m thinking of his Map of the King’s Hunting Grounds. But French geography maintained its high reputation, with cartographical monographies such as Roussel’s of the Pyrenees, Raymond’s of the Alps, and Lerouge’s of France’s seacoasts. And then there were the series of the « Neptunes »: the French Neptune by Sauveur; the Oriental Neptune by Mannevillette, the Northamerican Neptune by Bonne, the Neptune of the Kattegat and the Baltic by Brache.

It’s when we come to the nineteenth century that French geography begins seriously to recede. The last big monumental work was perhaps Maltebrun’s Universal Geography, published in 1810. From that date on, and for some time (till Reclus), geography was virtually going to disappear in France. There was only one chair of geography, at the Sorbonne, and it tended to restrict itself to the study of ancient geography (Homer, Herodotes…). There existed a Society of Geography, but it had few members.

It was Germany that continued the high line, with the enormous mass of work done by Karl Ritter, beginning with his Erdkunde (Knowledge of the Earth) in 1817: « Geography in its relationship to nature and to humanity or universal comparative geography, considered as the basis of all teaching in the physical and historical sciences. »

Whatever his affinities with French culture, and they were both deep and lasting, Humboldt’s work has to be seen in the context of this German school. But it has its own characteristics.

Take his method first of all.

Here’s what he has to say right at the beginning of his journey: « Our attention aroused by so many objects at once, we find it difficult to stick to a steady routine. » That said, all along the way, Humboldt did, dutifully, take measures and do calculations – only once did he forget his barometer, the first time he set eyes on the Pacific Ocean. But there's always in his mind a sense of the unmeasured, maybe the unmeasurable, as well as a sense of openness outside any closed system. He wants to avoid both « systematic dreams » and « abstract theories ». An empiricist, he’s never content with a simple accumulation of facts; a theoretician, he’s wary of overhasty conceptions and ideas. « What I wanted to do », he writes, « was to stay midway between the two methods usually followed by scientists. Some draw general conclusions from a small number of isolated facts – their hypotheses are brilliant, but they have no solid basis. Others pile up fact after fact but never get anywhere near a general idea, which is sterile. » He was out to steer a middle course, then, between, these two methods. But there’s perhaps even more to it than that. This « more » comes across in scattered little phrases, where he says, for example, that his work consists in « collecting, observing, verifying and combining », or in « gathering the various elements of a vast landscape ». I’d say that Humboldt knows how to be extravagant (in the original sense of « wandering outwards ») without losing the place, and that he can be rigorous without turning his method into a rigor mortis.

Then there’s the « new world » thing. Humboldt’s research ground, his territory of investigation, was the continent of America, especially the southern sections. « If American has played no great role in the history and evolution of humanity », he writes, « it presents a vast field of interest to the physicist. Nowhere else does Nature incite him more vigorously to rise to the level of general ideas concerning the causes of phenomena and their mutual inter-relationship. » At that time, politics, while present, were less of a preoccupation than in more recent history, and, especially, less of a constriction, and the sciences were less divided the one from the other into several compartments: freedom of movement with the need to be, naturally, multidisciplinary went considerable freedom of movement. Humboldt was an Americanist, in the large sense of that word (which means more than to be able to talk about « American literature »). America was vastitude and variety. Humboldt belongs to a band of wide-eyed, large-minded Americanists that included, for example, Samuel Hearne, who started off as a cadet in the Royal Navy before becoming a Hudson’s Bay Company agent, and who was to explore the Coppermine River country right up to the Polar Sea (during the Franco-British War in America, Lapérouse found his manuscript after taking a British post – and returned it to him, on one condition, that he publish it, which was done in 1795). Among other figures of like mentality and similar purpose, there was Alexander Mackenzie, agent of the North-West Fur Company, who directed his attention first to the Polar Sea, then to the Pacific. Not forgetting Lewis and Clark, who went up the Missouri and crossed the Rockies; Zebulon Pike, who explored the sources of the Mississippi, the basin of the Arkansas, New Mexico and Texas; Major Long, Nicollet, Duflot de Mofras, Fremont… Humboldt was aware of all that great work done in the North. He was maybe even more aware of what had been going on in the South, from the descriptions of Patagonia by Father Falkner, the expeditions of Don Felix de Azara to the Rio de la Plata, the expedition of Dr Martins to Brazil, that of Walter Bates in Amazonia, that of Fitzroy in the Straits of Magellan, that of Basil Hall in Chile, that of Pentland in Bolivia, that of Alcide d’Orbigny in the Andes, that of Schomburgk in the basin of the Orinoco… He had the totality of American space and the whole corpus of Americanist research in his head. And he followed those American tracks himself, not only with curiosity, not only in a spirit of investigation, but with a sensation of joyance: « The pleasure one feels doesn’t arise only from the naturalist’s interest in the object of his study. It’s something more general, and common to all men raised in the habits of civilization. One realizes one is in touch with a new world, whose nature is wild and untamed. Here it will be a jaguar, that magnificent panther of America, stalking along a riverbank. At another moment, it may be the crested black-feathered curassow walking slowly along the sauso. Animals of the most different type follow the one on the other. Es como en el Paraiso, said our pilot, an old Indian from the missions. » Humboldt’s mind is full of this paradisal sensation, but never once, unlike so many others, will he refer to the myth of the Golden Age or the Noble Savage. Things are complex, and not without contradiction. In the course of his peregrinations through those wild lands, Humboldt would sometimes imagine trading posts, warehouses, centres of civilization. He’s not « against » civilization. He just doesn’t want too much of it. And in places, too much of it was already there. Towards the end of his journey, he regrets the disappearance of palm trees and bamboo in the vicinity of Havana, and notes bitterly that « civilization is on the march ». The America he loved was going to be threatened more and more, to the point of annihilation. Perhaps he knew that. Maybe that was why he was anxious to get as much as he possibly could into his work.

Maybe too that was why he tended to go back in his mind to the first contact, what I’d like to call the Columbian Moment.

« At no other period since society began », he wrote, « was the sphere of ideas concerning the external world and space relationships so much and so suddenly enlarged and in such a marvellous way. » Into the « sphere of ideas » had come flowing information about the composition of the atmosphere, the distribution of climates, the laws of magnetism, the connection between volcanoes, the rise of mountain ranges, the direction of pelagic currents, and so on, in profusion. But, Humboldt insisted, there was not only science. It was as if a new sense had been added to humanity and a charm to the mind. The « new work » developed in concentric circles, from knowledge of all kinds to a kind of horizon of knowledge, an aura of knowledge. « In the heroic times of their history, the Portuguese and the Castillians were not motivated simply, as has often been said, by the lust for gold. Everybody was attracted to the hazards of expeditions to faraway lands. The names of Haiti, Cubagua, Darien had fired imaginations in the sixteenth century the way, after the travels of Cook, the names of Tinian and Otahiti have fired them since. Later, when the initial rage had subsided, this feverish curiosity fed on other causes and took a different direction. Minds were set afire by a passionate love of nature. As the circle of scientific observation widened, conceptions were formed in a higher level. The poetic tendency came to the fore at the end of the sixteenth century, giving rise to literary works of a type hitherto unknown. »

But all this movement and creativity I’ve just evoked was concentred for Humboldt in the person (the body-mind) of Christopher Columbus himself. Despite the fact that he had no precise scientific formation, by sheer power of observation, Columbus had made important contributions to science, concerning, for example, magnetism, isotherms and botany, as in this letter, quoted by Humboldt, written from Haiti in October 1498: « Every time I leave the shores of Spain and make for India, as soon as I’ve come a hundred sea-miles West of the Azores, I feel an extraordinary change in the movement of the heavenly bodies, the temperature of the air and the state of the sea. Paying scrupulous attention to these changes, I noticed that the magnetic needle, which had hitherto pointed north-east, now pointed north-west. Once beyond that line I found the sea covered with such a mass of seaweed that it looked as if the ships might run aground. I noticed also that, coming to this line, I repeat, a hundred sea-miles west of the Azores, the sea suddenly grew calm, with scarcely a breeze to break its surface. When we came down from the Canary Islands to the Sierra Leone parallel, the heat was terrible. But after the aforesaid line, the climate changed, the air became gentle and the freshness increased the farther we went west. »

But it’s something even beyond all this that deeply attracts Humboldt to Columbus. It’s the « feeling for nature » that comes across in the letters and the journal, as well as « the noble simplicity of expression » with which he describes « the life of the earth, and the sky » that his eyes were seeing for the first time. « In this journal of a man with no literary education », writes Humboldt, we see the powerful effect the characteristic beauties of nature can have on a sensitive soul. The writings of the admiral, especially when, already aged 67, he accomplished his fourth voyage and related his marvellous vision on the coast of Veragua may be less polished but are poetically more powerful than the pastoral novels of Boccacio, the Arcadia of Sidney or the Diana of Jorge de Montemayor. »




Beyond all the scientific date collected, beyond all the refinement of discourse they would induce, a poetics of this kind he had in mind. For him, it meant the realisation of one of those « grand thoughts that lie in the depths of the soul ». This was to be the ultimate horizon of his work.

Work of any depth and scope requires not only time and space but a certain amount of resources. Humboldt had spent half of his fortune on his journey. He was going to spend the other half in the publication of its results. He might well have envied a little the Columbian botanist Don José Celestino Mutis, who had been the friend of Linné, and who not only received a royal yearly stipend of ten thousand piastres, but, at the moment when Humboldt met him, had thirty painters at his disposal.

But, however thorough and brilliant, Mutis’ programme could still be recognized within an established framework. Not so Humboldt’s. Not only would any scientific commission have trouble ascertaining it, they would probably have rejected it as « non scientific ». Let’s recapitulate before trying to go farther.

As a scientist, Humboldt had made significant contributions to several fields of science. He had contributed to geodesic study of the planet with his horde of astronomical and trigonometrical measurements. From his journey he had brought back 58,000 types of plants, 3600 of them hitherto unknown. With his geography of plants (at several points in his journey he drew up diagrams of the levels of vegetation) he is at the origin of what is sometimes called tridimensional geography. And his interest in all branches of science had never decreased and never would. « Whether it be electromagnetism, the polarisation of light, the effects produced by diathermane substances, the physiological phenomena of living organisms », he wrote, « we have a vast amount of marvels lying before us that is like a new world of which we’re hardly even on the threshold! »

And yet it’s something else that attracts him and inspires him. With a little play on words, one might say that he’s out for a quadridimensional geography. As I read him, he wants to add another dimension to science and knowledge. And this dimension is more than « humanist » (as in what is called « human geography »). During his journey, Humboldt had become aware of a dimension of existence where a human conscience is of course still present but where the image of humanity to which we have become philosophically and psychologically accustomed seems not only to be beside the point, but to be a cumbersome blot on the landscape: « Here in the interior of the new continent, one begins to consider man as no longer essential to the order of nature. » A certain deposition of self-important and all-imposing humanity seemed to be called for. To find a new vocabulary for this new awareness, this new « being », was certainly not easy. Our conceptual vocabulary in general is hardly satisfactory, with its welter of -isms, -graphies and -logies. To take a case in point. If ethnography restricts itself to collection and description, ethnology, on the basis of ethnographic collections, tries to work out a theory. So far so good. By analogy, if geography is a description of the earth, geology ought to mean « a theory of the earth ». But it doesn’t – geology is a special branch of geography. As we’ve seen, Humboldt has a predilection for the word « geognosis », perhaps giving it a meaning going beyond the normal sense of that word at Humboldt’s time: the configuration of the earth – not the figuring out of that new conception of things which Humboldt had in mind. In the course of his trip, Humboldt had come across people with confused notions of astronomy and physics in their head mouthing concepts like « new philosophy ». Humboldt found that absurd, just as he would have found absurd so many other new -isms. Via his experience of the New World, he was out for an extension both of science and of philosophy, but he wanted no « new world » fantasies.

I think in fact the best word for what was emerging in Humboldt’s mind is what I’ve called geopoetics. Humboldt’s work is one of the most interesting approaches to geopoetics that can be found anywhere.

Lest it be thought that I am forcing things, let me refer now to two books that Humboldt wrote in the margins, as it were, of his scientific work. The first was entitled: A History of the Physical Contemplation of the Universe. The second: Poetic Descriptions of Nature.

On first sight, A History of the Physical Contemplation of the Universe might seem to be no more than an abridged history of science, the sciences. But in fact, Humboldt is trying to create a bridge between the sciences and what he calls « the science of the cosmos » or « the development of the idea of cosmos » or yet again « the poetic idea of the earth ». For a start, he quotes his brother, Wilhelm von Humboldt: « It may seem strange to wish to ally poetry, which delights in variety, form and colour, with the most general and the most abstruse ideas. But in fact this is fully justified. Poetry, science, philosophy and history are not essentially separated the one from the other. They come together when a certain stage of human progress has been reached that situates man in a unitary field, or when an authentically poetic inspiration casts him into that state ». he then goes into a history of this conjunction, taking care to point that he’s going to be moving fast, not wasting time in details, but always keeping to the high line, the crest. Some periods, some works may contain only a fragment of this high line. It’s these fragments he wants to bring together. In this book, Humboldt distinguishes, in Western culture, seven periods, seven areas: 1. The Mediterranean; 2. Macedonia under Alexander the Great; 3. Egypt under the Ptolemys; 4. The Roman Empire; 5. Arabia; 6. The great discoveries in the ocean; 7. The great discoveries in the sky.

Thanks to the « lively and mobile » mind of the Greeks, the Mediterranean had seen « a rapid expansion of the circle of ideas. » But in the Mediterrranean, the Greeks weren’t alone. There were the Phoenicians, with their far-flung travels and their alphabet; and the Etruscans with their « cultivation of the intimate relations between humans and natural phenomena ». What we have then is an expansion of human being towards the exterior world, and an enlargement of contemplative vision. With Alexander, the « new field to be considered » took on even greater proportions: new materials required new coordinations, an extended intellectual comprehension, was empirical research combined with high-flying speculation, and these innovating combinations demanded a new language. If, in Egypt, the Alexandrian School tended to restrict itself to pure erudition, exceptional figures like Eratosthenes had « an intellectual eye ». Again, if Rome, with its empire and its army, had a tendency to neglect « the formation of superior conceptions », yet there were figures like Strabo who, after writing forty-three books of history, turned, at the age of 83, to geography, writing from a good knowledge of the Imperial territory, from Armenia to the Tyrrhenian coast, from the Black Sea to Africa, or like Pliny (Plinius Secundus) who felt he was walking on tracks that had never been, trodden before him (non trita autoribus via). When it comes to the Arab countries, Humboldt is particularly interested in the nomad tribes who know « the open face of nature » and have « a fresh vision of things ». Arab travel and geography also excite his mind, because in the travel-geography of the Arabs he finds a sensation of space, a knowledge of space greater even than in Marco Polo or the Buddhist monks. He refers to El-Istrachri and his Book of the Regions of the World, the philosophers Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) and ibn Ruschd (Averroes), and the botanist Ibn Baithar, all masters in following « the lonely travels of intellectual development ». From there he moves to the great cosmographies that opened the gateways to trans-oceanic discovery: Albertus Magnus’s Liber cosmographicus de natura locorum, Raymond Lulle’s Fenix de las maravillas del Orbe, Roger Bacon’s Opus maius and Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago mundi, much read by Columbus. Follow then evocations of European travellers such as John of Piano Carpini, Sir John Mandeville, Balduccio Pegolotti, Ruy Gonzalez de Clavigo, and Columbus himself, ardent student not only of Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago mundi but of the carta de marear which Toscanelli of Florence had sent him. In the wake of Columbus, Magellan, Balboa, Cortez and, in the more strictly intellectual and poetic sphere, Leonardo da Vinci, whose most interesting ideas were consigned to manuscripts in mirror-writing (the Codex Atlanticus) and Dante, who had read the celestial maps of the Arabs, who had conversed with travellers from the East, and knew how to combine in an original way erudition, intellectual errancy and inspiration. And finally we come to the seventh stage, concerning the opening of greater astronomical space via the telescope, the significant figures here being Euler, Kepler, Huygens, Herschel, Galileo and Copernicus (De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestrium).

Humboldt insists on the fact that this study, written in « fragmentary and general » way, has no claim to completeness nor perfection. But if there’s no incrimination to be made of the essay as sketch (what kind of totality would be possible anyway, and the sketchiness itself can be more exciting to the mind), a valid criticism, if subtle, that can be made is that he doesn’t stick to the sketchiness. For example he has a long development on the polarisation of light studied by Arago, something which belongs to a « special science » and not to the « science of the cosmos » he is trying to sketch out. With this question of sketchiness is linked a problem of composition. How, beyond a poetics of perfection and its corollary, a poetics of imperfection, to achieve an open form that would, at one and the same time, be informed, intelligent, animated, joysome, illuminating, inspiring ?

We’ll come back to that question, the ultimate geopoetic  question, later.

What has to be noted, and appreciated, highly, about Humboldt’s fragmentary essay on the « physical contemplation of the universe » is that there we have the first outlines of what he hoped would eventually become a great poetic vision of the world. He expected no approval from small minds. « Small minds, he writes, « whatever the period, are always ready to declare that the ultimate in the intellectual progress of humanity has been attained. » His feeling is the opposite. Instead of being satisfied with perfections within a limited field, he sees the field widening more and more. « There are forces », he writes, « operating silently in elementary nature as well as in the delicate cells of organic tissue of which we are not yet conscious. » Consciousness of these forces would lead not only to a new, extended field of knowledge, but a to new type of expression.

Here we come back to the question of expression we left suspended in the air.

It’s in another foundational study, Poetic Descriptions of Nature, that Humboldt goes into the genealogy of poetic expression. Just as the previous essay was more than a history of science, this book is more than a mere history of literature. By means of certain perspicacious and perspectivist incursions into the corpus of world literature, what Humboldt tries to get at here is a kind of geography of poetic power-points way beyond and outside what most poets can conceive of as « poetry ». Doing so, he will, inevitably, use some of the vocabulary of his time, which will now seem inadequate: for example, « picturesque », « romantic », « sentimental ». But his trajectory goes out beyond his vocabulary. His exploration of poetic expression from Greco-Roman times up to « our recent travellers » opens up a world of unheard-of possibilities.

For Humboldt, classical Greek literature laid the accent almost exclusively on humanity: passion and politics, with nature coming in only as backdrop or as a repertoire of similes. Even when nature is a specific theme, the approach is descriptive, didactic « inspired contemplation » being at a minimum. But there are exceptions to this rule, among them the Dionysiaca by Nonnos of Panopolis. As for the Romans, their mentality is legalistic, military or domestic, and their language has less « ideal mobility » than the Greek, but Lucretius stands out with his « fertile genius » and there’s a fine presence of nature in Virgil, Horace, Tibullus and Ovid, not forgetting « the beautiful description of a druid forest » in Lucan. This reference to a « druid forest » is the occasion for Humboldt to note that the Celtic and Germanic tribes had a real « veneration for nature » expressed in « primitive symbols ». With the Hebrew poets, nature is the living expression of the omnipresence of God, but Humboldt makes the interesting point that they’re less interested in isolated phenomena than in « large masses ». Who would deny the grandeur of Psalm 104: « The trees of the Lord are well watered, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted… », or of this passage in the Book of Job: « The Lord walks on the heights of the sea, on the crest of waves piled up by the storm… », but who could avoid the sneeking feeling that God is really taking up too much of the scene ? In Humboldt’s estimation, Christianity liberated the contemplative eye by turning away from the gods and towards nature in and for itself – still creation and expression of (a distant) God certainly, but in a less theocratically imposing way. He quotes as one of his favourite texts a letter by Basil, a Greek from Cappadocia, who was a Christian hermit on the banks of the Iris, in Armenia: « Will I tell you of the beautiful songs of the birds, or the profusion of flowers? What charms me the most about the region is its absolute tranquillity. » In such a letter, comments Humboldt, one finds sentiments and sensations closer to a modern sensibility than anything one can find among the Greeks and the Romans. But Christianity was going to turn away from nature, seeing in it the devil, and from the study of nature, seeing in it magic and witchery. In Asia, dawn and the sun are superbly present in the Rigveda, as symbols of a cosmic religion, elements of which can be found in popular mythology, as in the forest life of Rama, or in the poetry of Kâlidâsa who, in the Meghadūta, describes the passage of a cloud as well as the landscapes it crosses. With the Persians (Firdusi, Hafiz, Saadi, Al-Rumi), great nature is less present, the attention of these poets being directed rather to the intimacies of a garden and elaboration of form. The Arabs for their part like to sing of war and love, but there is also the life of the desert, such as one finds in the Beduin romance, Antar.

After this investigation of the ancient world, Humboldt, still searching for elements of a satisfying « poetics of nature », turns to more modern times, beginning with Dante Alighieri, whom he describes as « the founder of the new world » (enough in itself, let it be said in passing, to show that when Humboldt says « new world », he does not mean simply America). Dante not only has knowledge (a wide field of reference) and intellectual power, but is exquisitely sensitive to immediate impressions, as when he evokes, for example, in simple but graphic language, il tremolar della marina. Another sign of the times (even if he confines himself to allegory and morality) is Petrarch’s ascension of the Mont Ventoux. A more physical presence of the mountain can be found in Bembo’s Aetnae dialogus, which offers a lively picture of the geography of plants in the region, from the wheat fields of Sicily to the margins of the crater. It’s here, on the rough chronological line of the presentation, that we come across Columbus again, describing, enchantedly, the new earth with its trees and fruits and its lindas aguas, feeling that « a thousand languages would never suffice to say it all ». On then to Camoens in Macao, that navigator of the soul, singer of sea, wind and cloud, but who nonetheless tends to talk more about spices, with commercial value, than about other tropical plants. As for Shakespeare, if there are passages in his work which show a deep sensitivity to nature and the highly original expression of that sensitivity, he tends to concentrate more on kings, queens and other tragi-comical characters on the stage of the world. Milton can be sublime, but his descriptions tend to be more magnificent than graphic. With the eighteenth century, the times of Buffon, Rousseau, Chateaubriand and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, we have a whole new series of attempts to get close to nature and express the area of relationship in a manner both exact and inspiring. Buffon piles up exact facts, but his phrases are artificially constructed and he never gets to that « mysterious analogy between the movements of the mind and phenomena perceived by the senses » which was the object of Humboldt’s research at this latter stage of his physical peregrination and mental explorations. With Rousseau, his own person gets in the way. As for Chateaubriand, he can’t see a landscape without bringing in historical references. For Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Humboldt has a liking, but finds his theories completely absurd. In short, on this question of nature-writing, it’s difficult to get out of the context of the pastoral, the elegy, the idyll, the didactic or the excessively sentimental. The writing can be magnificent and sublime, but the poverty of the basic materials, the restricted scope of information, is all too evident – style itself can in fact be seen as a kind of compensation for this basic lack. In the past, in the old travel-books, for example, the poverty of the material was compensated for by a naive freshness, a faculty of wonder. But that is no longer possible. Something else has to be found and worked out. We have, at base, an unprecedented mass of information. It all has to be ordered, coordinated. But beyond that order and form, there has to be a light, an aura. It ought to be possible to attain to « a kind of intellectual delight » that the Ancients simply could not know. But what literature in the modern age was anywhere near that ? One can find odd passages here and there, but what is required is « a complete extension of the field of art », a poetics able to « present to the contemplative and imaginative mind the rich materials of modern knowledge ». Humboldt wants more than vague analogies, hollow metaphors or symbolist myths. He wants definition and expansion, exactness and ecstasy, deep sensoriality and high intelligence, all combined in an original way. He wants a type of writing that will be more than « style », more than any kind of mannered « poetic prose ».



Throughout his work (in its triple aspect: travel, observation and cogitation, followed by composition) Humboldt made his own attempts to get at the type of literature which he considered necessary and which he saw emerging vaguely on the mental horizon. It’s no exaggeration to say that his work, especially in its latter stage, is an essay in poetics. Elements of it can be found, as we’ve seen, in the travel-accounts and in the studies. Humboldt also devoted a specific book to this theme, his Ansichten der Natur. Its usual English translation is Views of Nature. But it’s worth remarking on the fact that, in a letter addressed to his London publisher, Humboldt himself wrote: Views into nature. It would be possible to attribute this simply to an imperfect command of English, but one can also see in that « into » an interesting nuance. Humboldt’s aim in the Ansichten (we might almost push the title up to « Insights into Nature ») is to present « integral pictures » of « the cooperation of forces » in nature. The book contains six sections: « Deserts and Steppe-lands », « The Cataracts of the Orinoco », « The Nocturnal Life of Animals in the Primitive Forest », « Ideas for a Physiognomy of Plants », « On the Structure and Activity of Volcanos » and « The Plateau of Caxamarca ». To say that those essays corresponded completely to his desires would be too much, let’s say simply that this is the book which, in the final instance, he cherished most. It’s in these pages he put the most and perhaps the best of himself.

Here he is on the llanos, the great plains of Venezuela:

« It’s via the Mesa de Paja, at 9° latitude, that we came into the basin of the llanos. The sun was at its zenith. Wherever it was bare of vegetation, the earth had a temperature that went up to 50°. At the height on which we and our mules were, there wasn’t a breath of wind. Yet, in the middle of this apparent calm, whirlwinds of dust rose repeatedly into the air, provoked by the little currents that run along the surface of the ground and which are caused by the differences of temperature between the naked sand and the grass-covered areas. Those sand winds increase the suffocating heat. Every grain of quartz, warmer than the air which surrounds it, radiates in all directions, and it is difficult to measure the temperature of the atmosphere, what with molecules of sand striking the thermometer’s bulb. All around us, the plains seemed to reach to the sky, and this deep, vast solitude appeared to our eyes like a sea covered with wrack or pelagic algae. »

But however graphic and, if I may say so, proto-geopoetic this text, and others like it, is, it’s not with it I want to close this essay. It’s with a paragraph on the Chimborazo, which I’m going to present in verse-form, because its rhythm invites it:


So it is that, on the Pacific coast

after the long winter rains

when the clarity of the air

has suddenly increased

you see the Chimborazo

like a cloud on the horizon

distinct from all neighbouring summits

rising over the whole chain of the Andes

the way that majestic dome

born of the genius of Michelangelo

rises above all the ancient monuments

that surround the Capitol…


Humboldt never reached the summit of the Chimborazo (is that a symbol?), having fallen victim to mountain-sickness, but surely he was the first in the modern period to rise so high in thought and conception, taking with him such a quantity of information.


Kenneth WHITE
in Cahiers de Géopoétique n° 2
repris dans Le Plateau de l’Albatros
sous le titre: « Les neiges du Chimborazo ».