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'When this world shall be former': Catastrophism as imaginative theory for the younger Romantics

  • Christine Kenyon Jones

…plus d’informations

  • Christine Kenyon Jones
    King's College London

Corps de l’article

In Don Juan, canto nine, Lord Byron envisages a future time

When this world shall be former, underground,
Thrown topsy-turvy, twisted, crisped and curled,
Baked, fried, or burnt, turned inside-out, or drowned,
Like all the worlds before, which have been hurled
First out of, then back again to Chaos,
The Superstratum which will overlay us.


In this new age, Byron hypothesizes, the bones of the hugely fat George IV might be dug up, to the astonishment of the "new worldings of the then new East," who will "wonder where such animals could sup" and view the relics "like the monsters of a new Museum." John Keats, too, predicts how in future the parson or "black badger with tri-cornered hat" will have become extinct, and will be placed—as unknown animals were by the great eighteenth-century French naturalist Buffon—in the appendix of some "natural history of Monsters" (Letters 2: 70). [1]

This game of looking back at his own time from an imaginary vantage point in the far-distant future was also a favourite with Percy Shelley. In December 1819, for example, he addresses Thomas Moore in the Preface to Peter Bell the Third by foreseeing an era

When St Paul's and Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins, in the midst of an unpeopled marsh; when the piers of Waterloo Bridge shall become the nuclei of islets of reeds and osiers and cast the jagged shadows of their broken arches on the solitary stream.

Then, Shelley predicts, "some transatlantic commentator will be weighing in the scales of some new and now unimagined system of criticism" the respective merits of his own and Moore's work and that of William Wordsworth, whose verse Shelley unmercifully satirizes in this poem.

Byron, Keats, and Shelley are performing here what Marilyn Butler describes in an essay of 1989 (the bicentenary year of the French Revolution) in which she delineates the main English literary response to the Revolution as being one in which "symbolic narratives of the destruction and construction of worlds" are told by Romantic writers, in order to create "a re-enactment of that devastating experience, a means of criticising, of containing, or of naturalising it" (12). Butler discusses how poets and writers—and in particular Thomas Malthus, in his Essay on Population (1798)—drew upon contemporary scientific discourse such as the geology of James Hutton and early evolutionary theories such as those of Buffon, as sources for the creation of the "symbolic narratives" she mentions.

Twelve years later, at the opening of a new millennium, my paper aims to carry forward Butler's account of this kind of storytelling and to apply it to a new generation: by giving attention to the next wave of geological theories which developed in reaction to Hutton's, and to the evolutionary concepts—associated with geology through palaeontology—which succeeded them in the early nineteenth century. It considers these scientific hypotheses as the basis of imaginative theories with particular appeal for the second generation of Romantics: writers who perceived themselves as latecomers to Revolution and as political radicals searching for new myths to make sense of the world in the wake of the post-Waterloo restoration of the monarchies. These can be related to a change from the broadly "Uniformitarian" geology of Hutton, which Butler discusses, to theories based on "Catastrophism" (although contemporary geologists themselves did not use these terms), or, as Stephen Jay Gould would have it (in his 1987 distinction between geological theories based on a one-way thermodynamic heat-path, and those dased on cyclical time) from one based on "time's cycle" to one which privileged "time's arrow."

The Titans of Keats's Hyperion are of course themselves a race or species which is about to become extinct. H. W. Piper argues that Keats might have gleaned ideas for Oceanus's pronouncements on "the eternal law/That first in beauty should be first in might" (Hyperion 2: 228-29) from a paper on natural selection according to "beauty" by W. C. Wells, a physician at St. Thomas's Hospital during Keats's period of training as an apothecary there (Piper 158-59). [2] Fiona Stafford convincingly makes the case that Keats's comparison of the Titans to "a dismal cirque/of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor" (Hyperion 2: 34-35) indicates that he associated the Titans with the Celts, in the manner of Ossian ("Fingal"; Last of the Race). [3] Both of these interpretations can read the fall of the Titans as part of an evolutionary racial theory of "survival of the fittest": not one, however, which envisages extinction as the result of a slow Darwinian biological change over millennia, but one which proposes that successive disappearances of species are brought about by sudden upheavals in geographical conditions. Keats's emphasis on the swiftness of the Titans' fall, and Apollo's instantaneous transition from humanity to godhead, appear to reflect the latest evolutionary theory available to Keats, in the form of Georges Cuvier's theories on Catastrophism. These were published in an English translation by Robert Kerr in 1813 as Essay on the Theory of the Earth, and were widely discussed in contemporary periodicals. Cuvier posited that the animal species known from fossils had been made extinct by sudden and "terrible events—calamities which, at their commencement, have perhaps moved and overturned to a great depth the entire outer crust of the globe." "Nature also has had her intestine wars," he claimed, "and the surface of the globe has been much convulsed by successive revolutions and various catastrophes" (7), and it is certainly possible to read the "knowledge enormous" which "makes a god" of Apollo , and which includes "dire events, rebellions,/Majesties, sovran voices, agonies,/Creations and destroyings" (3: 114-16) which "all at once/Pour into the wide hollows of [his] brain," as reminiscent of parts of Cuvier.

Cuvier pays particular attention to the sudden transposition of sea and dry land. That an "off-stage" geological catastrophe of this type may have been responsible for the Titans' fall is suggested by the harsh features of the landscape where the defeated giants meet:

    a den where no insulting light
Could glimmer on their tears; where their own groans
They felt, but heard not, for the solid roar
Of thunderous waterfalls and torrents hoarse,
Pouring a constant bulk, uncertain where.
Crag jutting forth to crag, and rocks that seemed
Ever as if just rising from a sleep,
Forehead to forehead joined their monstrous horns [. . .]
Instead of thrones, hard flint they sat upon,
Couches of rugged stone, and slaty ridge
Stubborned with iron.

Hyperion 2: 5-17

Although Hyperion is more revelatory than revolutionary, it has been read as a commentary on the politics of Keats's times: on revolution and counter-revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon, and the dethronement and restoration of the Bourbons and other monarchies of Europe. [4] The story of the poem also combines what Gould would call time's cycle and time's arrow: although the Titans may be only the latest in a series of conquering races who are then themselves conquered, the myth Keats is using implies that Apollo and the new, Olympian, gods will be permanent and eternal and will not be ousted in their turn—the cycle, in other words, will give way to the arrow. [5] If there is geological metaphor here, it is one which conceives of a series of cycles leading to a final, apocalyptic event which (with an element of wish fulfillment) establishes an inspired and permanent new order: and this—and Apollo's detachment, usually interpreted as "negative capability"—might be alternatively construed as the world-weary response of a young man who had lived through an exceptionally turbulent political era.

Percy Shelley's work has usually been read in association with Huttonian or what was later called "Uniformitarian" geology: theories which proposed that the forces which shaped the earth in the past were similar to those which shape it now. Broadly, these are erosion by weather causing deposits in the sea, which are then uplifted as a result of tectonic movement to become the new dry land, which is again subjected to erosion followed by uplift. The essence of such a process is that it is cyclical and appears eternal: as Hutton memorably puts it, "we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end" (304). This is a theory which proposes that the earth is permanently and literally in a "revolutionary" or revolving state: like Shelley's Cloud, it can "change, but [it] cannot die" (Cloud 76). The way in which the "Ode to the West Wind" accords with this geological cycle of continued rupture and renewal is made clear by Charles Lyell's use, in the 1830s, of the metaphor of the earth's "Great Year" to explain geological cycles over aeons of time, with the four seasons indicating epochs of different climatological types, so that in a metaphor which is geological as well meteorological, "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?" (Ode 70). Read in the context of Shelley's radical politics, the "winter" is of course the post-Napoleonic spread of repressive and monarchical regimes, while the "spring" is the hope of a return to republicanism, enfranchisement of oppressed groups, and equality of the sexes: features characteristic of phases of the French Revolutionary era, a generation before Shelley was writing.

The geology expressed by Shelley's Panthea in Act Four of Prometheus Unbound is, however, of a different kind. Invoking the distant past, Panthea describes

The wrecks beside of many a city vast,
Whose population which the earth grew over
Was mortal, but not human.

IV, 296-8

The "monstrous works" of these creatures lie "Huddled in grey annihilation, split,/Jammed in the hard, black, deep" and, over them,

The anatomies of unknown wingèd things,
And fishes which were isles of living scale,
And serpents, bony chains, twisted around
The iron crags, or within heaps of dust
To which the tortuous strength of their last pangs
Had crushed the iron crags.

IV, 303-8

These and other alligator-like creatures, Panthea says, once

Increased and multiplied like summer worms
On an abandoned corpse, till the blue globe
Wrapped deluge round it like a cloak, and they
Yelled, gasped and were demolished.

IV, 313-6

As an alternative to this diluvialism, Shelley and Panthea have another narrative, which posits that

                                  some God
Whose throne was in a comet, passed, and cried,
"Be not!"—and like my words they were no more.

IV, 316-18

The prominent feature of this account is the violence of the creatures' destruction and the finality of their endings. They have been wiped out by catastrophic floods, volcanic upheavals, earthquakes, or—as in the preferred geological stories of our own time for the extinction of the dinosaurs—by comets (or rather meteors) which have struck the earth. The successive layers of creatures described by Panthea are also of different types: and here the narrative diverges from ours, since the succession of creatures seems to be not an evolving but a degenerating one, and it is not until after the extinction of these that humankind appears on the earth: punier than them all. This makes the geological situation of the play a complex one: like Keats in Hyperion, Shelley seems to wish to break out of time's cycle into the mode of time's arrow and, in the end-of-time moment he has presented in the previous acts of the play, it is these (human) creatures which, although weaker than all their predecessors, have the power to break the cycle of creations and destructions and to establish a permanent alternative. Shelley's myth, like the Christian story it sometimes mimics, presents a post-lapsarian situation and a specifically belated narrative which seeks through sacrificial mediation and metaphor to redeem a situation which appears beyond repair.

Shelley's ideas about degeneration are not found in Huttonian geology, nor could they have come directly from Catastrophism as outlined by Cuvier. [6] Shelley appears instead to be drawing upon ideas expressed in the eighteenth-century French natural philosophical tradition, as pioneered by Buffon and culminating in Rousseau, about the relative inferiority of that which is sophisticated or civilized—in both animals and human beings—over that which is primitive and "natural." [7] Buffon attached great significance to the "degeneration" of animals. This was a term by which he (and Cuvier and Lamarck, and later Darwin) meant specifically the way in which a "genus" of animals is changed by evolution: a development or moving away from the original type under the influence of climate and food or, in the case of domestic animals, under what Buffon called the "yoke of slavery" (Buffon 14: 317). Rousseau, and after him both Shelley and Byron, deployed the term in something more like its current English usage to imply deterioration and decline: successive recreations of the earth have caused a diminution in the size and vigour of its inhabitants, so that human beings now are mere weaklings in comparison with their forbears. [8]

This takes us back to the quotation from Don Juan with which the paper began. The Titans, according to Byron's facetious reckoning, are "fellows of about/Some hundred feet in height, not to say miles," while elephants are mammoths and crocodiles have wings (9: 302-12). "Even worlds miscarry, when too oft they pup," the narrator claims,

And every new Creation hath decreased
In size, from overworking the material—
Men are but maggots of some huge Earth's burial.

IX, 310-2

Byron here, and of course in the Preface to Cain, specifically names Cuvier as his source. Only a decade later, however, Charles Lyell in his Principles of Geology presents a caricature of Cuverian Catastrophists as a ridiculously conservative and fanciful group, unconcerned with fieldwork and obsessed with proving the literal truth of the Bible as a geological record. Not surprisingly, Lyell's denigration of Cuvier added to the disparaging reception of Byron's work and intensified the critique which saw him using a tendentious theory for nothing but his own tendentious purposes. Lionel Stevenson, for example, characterizes Byron's use of Catastrophism as nothing but "the cultivated man's polite interest in the peculiar geological theory that was midway between the Book of Genesis and the book of Charles Darwin" (34), while Philip W. Martin describes Cain as "as potent an affirmation of Byron's bankruptcy as a philosophical poet as we are likely to find [. . .] bad poetry and worse drama" (148).

Gould has since demonstrated how Lyell grossly miscast and misrepresented the Catastrophists, using the rhetorical skills he had honed as a barrister to ridicule his rivals. Gould seems not have been aware, however, that Cuvier had been crucially misrepresented to English-speaking audiences from the start, and that the issue of proving the literal truth of the Bible through geological evidence had been the subject of sharp debate long before Lyell's attacks in the early 1830s. Robert Jameson's remarks in the preface to the translated edition of Cuvier's Essay on the Theory of the Earth (1813) aimed to convert an essentially agnostic scientific treatise, by a writer who was probably a religious sceptic or even an atheist, into a work which demonstrated the historicity of the Deluge and thus vindicated the authority of the Bible. [9] Jameson's "make-over" of Cuvier's work was followed, however, by the argument of the prominent Calvinist minister Thomas Chalmers that it required the authority of scripture to indicate the true character of God, since the God revealed only through the world of His works (including the geological ones) was just as likely to be an evil and malignant spirit as a benevolent creator. [10] Reverend William Buckland's enthusiastic—and royally-patronized—attempt at the vindication of the proof of God's beneficence from the literal truth of the Bible (Vindiciae Geologicae, 1820) was a specific response to Chalmers (as Buckland states in his appendix) which provided fresh support for Jameson's "interpretation" of Cuvier and for a time seemed to clinch the argument. [11]

It is this debate which Byron explores in Cain: addressing both Jameson's and Buckland's geological, optimistic Natural Theology and Chalmers' presentation of God as potentially a cruel and vindictive Jehovah. Writing as he said as "an imaginative man," Byron creates in his play an elaborate alternative fiction which fantasizes ebulliently on the known "facts": both those presented by the scientists and those in the biblical account, which he disingenuously presents as if it were of equal status to the other commentaries on the geology of his time. [12] In doing so, he produces an ironical critique not only of the specific controversy about the complementarity between Cuvier's theories and the Mosaic writings, but also of the way in which both the geologists and the theologians were creating huge "systems" of scientific theory or belief in this area out of the flimsiest of material. [13] Cuvier himself had described Lamarck and other scientists (45) as "carried away by [. . .] bold or extravagant conceptions" and cast doubt on the reliability of the biblical account by referring (152) to "the incoherence of all these traditionary tales" which "attest the barbarism and ignorance of all the tribes around the Mediterranean."

Shelley described Cain as "apocalyptic [. . .] a revelation not before communicated to man" (Letters 2: 388). Such terms were not bestowed on the play for the power of its philosophy or because Shelley believed in the fantastic alternative myth of mankind's fall from grace which it presents, but because he approved of Byron's iconoclasm and envisaged the play as stripping away the veils of false interpretation which he saw as obscuring scientific and political debate. To revert to the terminology of the West Wind Ode, Shelley conceived of Byron's work as the first step towards forcefully clearing away the undergrowth of the old systems of belief which was necessary before his own preferred new radical seeds could be sown in men's minds.

Cain is also determinedly degenerationist. Lucifer claims that the first inhabitants of earth—"Living, high,/Intelligent, good, great, and glorious things," (II. i. 67-68)—were not only "As much superior unto all thy sire,/Adam, could e'er have been in Eden" (69-70), but also as superior to Cain as he will be to his own descendants: "The sixty-thousandth generation [. . .]/In its dull damp degeneracy" (71-72). [14] In the Preface to the play, Byron claims that Lucifer's assertion "is, of course, a poetical fiction to help him make out his case." Diabolical fiction or not, however, this proposition forms part of Byron's deliberate and consistent de-centring of humankind in the universe, which is of one piece with his widespread satirical and other use of non-human creatures—spirits, devils, angels, animals—to present a view which is alternative to that of humankind. This provides a re-ordering of priorities in a manner that seems to anticipate Darwin's geological narratives by demonstrating, as Gillian Beer says, "that it was possible to have plot without man—both plot previous to man and plot even now regardless of him" (21).

The final act of Byron's Catastrophical drama takes place not in Cain, but in speculative conversation recorded by Thomas Medwin in 1822. Byron outlines a scenario which would have been ridiculed by Hutton before him and Lyell just after him, but which has in our own time, with the latest turns in the cycle of geological fashion, become scientifically respectable again. [15] The latter part of it is also familiar to us from several late-twentieth-century fictions and films:

we shall soon travel by air-vessels; make air instead of sea-voyages; and at length find our way to the moon, in spite of want of atmosphere [. . .]. Who would not wish to have been born two or three centuries later? We are at present in the infancy of science [. . .]. Who knows whether, when a comet shall approach this globe to destroy it, as it often has been and will be destroyed, men will not tear rocks from their foundations by means of steam, and hurl mountains, as the giants are said to have done, against the flaming mass?

Medwin 226-28

This scenario reverts to "time's cycle": Byron's earth here is one which "often has been and will be destroyed." [16] Two centuries later, however, our own millennial fictions would have us believe that the earth might just be saved once and for all by the advent of some latter-day Byronic hero: a Mel Gibson or a Bruce Willis, armed with the twenty-first-century equivalent of a steam-engine, come to rescue humankind from Armageddon.

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