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

  • Christine Kenyon Jones

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  • Christine Kenyon Jones
    King's College London

In Don Juan, canto nine, Lord Byron envisages a future time 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). 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 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). Fiona Stafford convincingly makes the case that ...