Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 17: Nos 1-2) >> ''A Forest of Sharp Bayonets at Your Breast'': The Nature of Resistance in ''Notes from Bartram'' >> Page 104

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Secondary Scholarship | 2009
Transcription 104 THE SIMMS REVIEW

The tone of this last line of "Palmetto Royal" differentiates it
from the conclusion of "The Snow Drop." In contrast to the defensive
posture of the leaves in "The Snow Drop," the fronds of the palmetto
have adopted an offensive pose "aimed at your breast" directed at the
reader him or herself, emphasized by the speaker's use of the second per-
son pronoun. The poem invites the reader to contemplate the tree, but the
palmetto's defenses demand that a distance be maintained. This enforced
buffer precludes any meaningful examination, reflected by the poem's
comparative brevity. The curtailed study is also figuratively reflected
by the absent translation of any metaphorical virtue. Simms does not
offer any interpretative signposts in "Palmetto Royal" like those in "The
Cypress" or "The Snow Drop" that help shape the translation of the tree's
qualities or explain their relevance to humanity. In contrast to the dignity
of "The Cypress" and the chastity of "The Snow Drop," it is impossible
to tease out the emblematic spiritual value of the palmetto other than its
adversarial nature.
Other poems in "Notes from Bartram" also contest Simms's abil-
ity to explain nature's spiritual and poetical importance by the way the
plants and animals return the speaker's objectifying gaze. In this defiant
maintenance of their subjectivity, there is a quiet refusal by the environ-
ment to submit to or even acknowledge the authority of man or language,
especially the latter's power of signification. In "Wood Pelican," for
instance, the speaker draws the reader's attention to their collective mis-
taken assumption of human power and mobility:
Think you we move unseen?
Look, now, where broods yon sad Wood Pelican,
A sentinel, perch'd on topmost height of spire,
That watches, like some venerable sage,
The sports of the unconscious tribes below.
(Selected Poems 119)
The reader, again included by the speaker in the act of observation by the
use of the second and then the first person plural, is initially ignorant of
being watched. The narrator must point out that those who are ostensi-
bly surveying the environment are themselves under scrutiny by nature.
Rather than allowing itself to be reduced to an object of study, the pelican
remains independent and watchful, akin to a "sentinel."
Unlike "The Cypress" and "The Snow Drop," the speaker of
"Wood Pelican" does attempt an explanation of environmental behavior,