Gritty Names

The literary movement known as Romanticism was well under way in the British Isles by the time Meriwether Lewis (born 1774) and William Clark (born 1770) were on their way to the Northwest. Romanticisms's leaders, contemporaries of those intrepid American explorers, included William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and Robert Southey (1774-1843), who wrote in sensuous, often sentimental, and always lyrical cadences. To them, and to their own audiences, the gritty names those American explorers uttered sounded like throwbacks to a cruder, more barbarous epoch, boding ill for the future of poetic taste in the New World. Southey, who reviewed Biddle's edition of the Lewis and Clark Journals for London's Quarterly Review in 1815, rummaged around in them to find plenty of evidence, and capped off his discoveries with fifteen lines of verse that slobbered with pseudo-Romantic sarcasm.

Of all people who ever imposed names upon a newly discovered country the Americans have certainly been the most unlucky in their choice: witness Bigmuddy River, and Little-muddy River, Littleshallow River, Good Woman River, Little Good Woman Creek, Grindstone Creek, Cupboard Creek, Biscuit Creek, Blowing Fly Creek, cum multis aliis [with many others] in the same delightful taste. When this country shall have its civilized inhabitants, its cities, its scholars, and its poets, how sweetly such names sound in American verse!
Ye plains where sweet Big-muddy rolls along,
And Tea-Pot, one day to be famed in song,
Where swans on Biscuit and on Grindstone glide,
And willows wave upon Good Woman's side!
How shall your happy streams in after time
Tune the soft lay and fill the sonorous rhyme!
Blest bards, who in your amorous verse will call
On murmuring Pork and gentle Cannon-Ball;
Split-Rock, and Stick-Lodge, and Two-Thousand-Mile,
White-lime, and Cupboard, and Bad-humoured Isle!
Flow, Little-Shallow, flow! and be thy stream
Their great example, as it will their theme!
Isis with Rum and Onion must not vie,
Cam1 shall resign the palm to Blowing-Fly,
And Thames2 and Tagus3 yield to great Big-Little-Dry.

The closest that either of the captains ever came to the level of onomastic sophistication that the English Romanticists might have applauded may have been the moment when Clark decided to call a previously unnamed stream in today's Nebraska Roloje,"a name given me last night in my Sleep."4

It would remain for Walt Whitman (1819–1892)—"broad shouldered, rouge fleshed, Bacchus-browed, bearded like a satyr"—to find the poetic soul of America in the rhythms and textures of American speech, with that "barbaric yawp" that he titled Leaves of Grass (1855), grinding the tremulous strains of the English lyricists into the immensely varied, pungent American soil.

1. A source of the Ribble River, in North Yorkshire and Lancashire, England, which flows through rural farmland that once was typically ploughed leaving a space between furrows, on which the soil from the adjacent furrow was piled, creating prominent ribs of soil.

2. The major river of southern England.

3. The longest river on the Iberian Peninsula, which to the English Romantic poets was an exotic place.

4. August 22, 1804. Moulton, Journals, 2:500.