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Enduring Darkness: Romantic Visions of Apocalypse

In the second of our Romantic Climates blog posts, Dr Catherine Redford (Oxford) discusses depictions of apocalyptic climate change in Romantic writing.

In the Christian tradition, it is said that the end of the world will be marked by a terrifying and all-encompassing darkness. Across the gospels, Christ advises his followers of the signs of the end days, warning that the sun will darken, the moon will fail to give light, and the stars will fall from heaven. These prophecies are echoed in Revelation, the final book of the Bible, in which the opening of the sixth seal on doomsday prompts a great earthquake and leads to the sun becoming ‘black as sackcloth’ (Revelation 6. 12).

The eighteenth century saw a particular fascination with this eschatological tradition. Numerous poems were written at this time that depict the fire and brimstone of Christian apocalypse, with bones rising from graves into a fiery world in which the wicked are judged. A number of these texts explicitly draw on the terror of darkness at the end of time: in his On the General Conflagration, and Everlasting Judgment (1710), John Pomfret describes how the sun is ‘to substantial Darkness turn’d’ during the ‘black Days of Universal Doom’, while Edward Young’s A Poem on the Last Day (1713) imagines the ‘exstinguisht Sun’ of doomsday and John Ogilvie depicts the ‘eternal night’ of the apocalypse in The Day of Judgment (1753).

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the concept of apocalypse took on a new significance that combined Christian prophecy with the experiences and theories of the contemporary world. Whereas the popular understanding of apocalypse had previously been rooted in the theological, it now began to be influenced by new scientific thought – specifically, by the emerging fields of geology and palaeontology. The biblical account of the earth being but a few thousand years old, which had previously been widely accepted, had been shaken by the discovery in the eighteenth century of fossil records suggesting that the earth was in fact far older than this. In 1813, Baron Georges Cuvier published his Essay on the Theory of the Earth, a scientific tract arguing that the presence of the fossils of different animals within separate layers of the earth’s strata indicates the occurrence of many sudden and violent ‘revolutions’ in the world’s history, whereby dramatic natural catastrophes wipe out entire populations and clear the way for new species.

With the publication of Cuvier’s theories, the idea of apocalypse thus shifted; no longer necessarily a single event at the end of time presided over by a controlling deity, apocalypse could be plural and cyclical, marked by the rise and fall of species and habitats. But while Cuvier’s apocalyptic revolutions were dramatic and multiple, others predicted a more lingering end for the earth. In 1749, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon had published La Théorie de la Terre, a work that suggested the earth was gradually cooling and would continue to do so until it was eventually completely encased in impacted ice – a hypothesis that was in stark contrast to the Christian ‘fire and brimstone’ model of doomsday. Buffon’s theory of natural climate change, which went through several editions in the decades following its publication, became particularly resonant following the volcanic eruption in 1815 of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. A hundred times more powerful than the famous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, this geological event killed an estimated 10,000 people instantly and released around 55 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the air. This sulphur dioxide formed fine particles of sulphuric acid that created a ‘veil’ in the atmosphere, leading to a darkening of the skies across Europe and a fall in global temperatures by 2-3 degrees Celsius. As a consequence, the 1816-17 global crop yield dropped by approximately 75 per cent, resulting in food riots and civil disruption. 1816 came to be known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’, with the newspapers and periodicals of the time filled with reports of torrential rain, flooding, hail, and thunderstorms.

With the origins of these climatic conditions remaining a mystery to those in Europe, the weather events of 1816 were interpreted as apocalyptic in both the older biblical and more modern scientific sense. The dark skies immediately brought to mind the New Testament prophecies of the end days in which the sun turns black, but the falling temperatures also held echoes of Buffon’s vision of an icy end for the world. At this time, scientists also observed an entirely coincidental increase in sunspot activity; combined with the unseasonably gloomy weather, this led to rumours that the sun was dying and that doomsday was surely imminent. The so-called ‘Bologna Prophecy’, which can be traced back to an Italian astronomer, predicted that the world would end on 18 July that year, and in England the April edition of the Literary Panorama ran a headline that announced ‘The End of the World! The End of the World!’.

In Geneva, the poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley were confined to the house for long spells due to these freak weather events, and spent time considering the apocalyptic implications of the recent climate change. In a letter to Thomas Love Peacock dated 22 July 1816, Shelley referred to Buffon’s ‘sublime but gloomy’ theory that ‘this earth which we inhabit will at some future period be changed into a mass of frost’, and in a conversation with Byron later recorded by Cyrus Redding speculated about how ‘if the sun were to be extinguished at this moment’, the human race would perish ‘until perhaps only one remained’. A devotee of Cuvier, Byron perhaps introduced Shelley to the concept of catastrophic apocalyptic revolutions at this time; in Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’, a poem written that summer, we can certainly locate the destructive yet cyclical power of apocalypse in the image of the race of man flying in dread, ‘his work and dwelling’ vanishing ‘like smoke before the tempest’s stream’ (ll. 118-19).

Lord Byron’s work that summer also took inspiration from the dark skies and apocalyptic anxiety of 1816. In the short poem ‘Darkness’, which was written between 21 July and 25 August that year, Byron presents a vision of the end of the world in the form of what the speaker cryptically describes as ‘a dream, which was not all a dream’ (l. 1). In Byron’s depiction of the apocalypse, the ‘bright sun’ is ‘extinguish’d’ (l. 2) and the stars ‘wander darkling in the eternal space’ (l. 3) of the ‘moonless air’ (l. 5). The parallels with Christ’s description of doomsday here are striking, but Byron simultaneously weaves in references to a more modern understanding the end of the world; indeed, perhaps this is ‘not all a dream’ because a version of it is being played out in Byron’s own time. The poem is filled with icy imagery that is possibly a response to Shelley’s interest in Buffon’s apocalyptic theories; not only does the speaker refer to the ‘icy earth’ (l. 4) in the opening lines of the text but, if we turn to Byron’s undated rough draft of the poem (MS. T), we can observe that he originally imagined the ‘frozen depths’ of lakes and rivers and described the ocean’s waves as ‘folded up and frozen’.

One of the great mysteries of Byron’s poem is whether this is a secular version of apocalypse or not. On the one hand, God appears to be startlingly absent: while the poem opens with familiar biblical imagery of apocalypse, it quickly becomes apparent that the promised second coming and accompanying millennium will not be taking place. Instead, the poem ends in nothingness, the universe conversely defined by absence, void, and an all-encompassing darkness. On the other hand, it’s possible that Byron engages with the biblical model of apocalypse in order to suggest that God has deliberately withdrawn himself from a world that has rejected Christianity; after all, the scriptures repeatedly figure the act of turning away from God as the acceptance of darkness, and hell itself is depicted as a space into which no light can enter.

This engagement with the darkness of apocalypse can also be found in other works of the early nineteenth century that consider the end of the world. In the 1820s, the figure of the Last Man on earth became particularly popular, and appeared in numerous poems, plays, novels, short stories, paintings, and songs of the time, the most famous of which is Mary Shelley’s post-apocalyptic novel of 1826, The Last Man. In Thomas Campbell’s ‘The Last Man’, a short poem of 1823, the Last Man on earth watches as the world dies around him at the end of time. Thought by many to have been inspired by Byron’s ‘Darkness’, this poem in fact bears little relation to its predecessor, presenting the Last Man as a prophet figure who is sure that doomsday is being controlled by God and is ultimately confident of his place in heaven. The contemporary accusations that Campbell copied Byron’s idea stem, in part, from the fact that Campbell chooses to frame his apocalypse with the death of the sun. While Byron plunges the reader into total darkness from the opening of his text, however, Campbell presents the sun as slowly dying, its ‘sickly glare’ (l. 11) functioning as a metaphorical sunset for humankind. There are clear parallels with Christ dying for humanity from the start of the poem, with the Campbell punning on sun/Son as the speaker states that ‘The Sun himself must die / Before this mortal shall assume / Its immortality!’ (ll. 2-4).

Another depiction of the death of the sun at the end of time occurs in a short story of 1826 that was published anonymously in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. ‘The Last Man’ tells the tale of a man who falls asleep – in a manner reminiscent of Rip Van Winkle – in the mouth of a cave and wakes up at the end of time in a dying world. Written ten years after the Year Without a Summer, it’s unlikely that this vision of the apocalypse was influenced by the climate change of 1816, nor does it appear to respond to the depiction of doomsday found in the Christian eschatological tradition. The text, however, is indebted to the grand geological timescale of scientists such as Cuvier and Buffon, whose understanding of the history – and future – of the planet extended over millennia. Upon waking from his extended sleep, the narrator of ‘The Last Man’ immediately observes both the geological changes to the landscape and the alteration of the heavens. He notes that the skies have an ‘unnatural dimness’ at night, with the moon emitting only a strange ‘broken light’ and the planets appearing ‘larger, and redder, and darker’ – that is, older – than they had been in his own time. Even when the sun rises the Last Man is surrounded by the same ‘dark atmosphere’, with the aged sun having become a ‘dark orb of reddish flame’, sinking towards the earth as it slowly dies. The landscape, too, has altered beyond recognition: the river has dried up, the vegetation has decayed, and the very rocks have ‘mouldered away’. The Last Man explicitly notes that this destruction is not the result of the ‘rapid devastation of an earthquake’ but the product of the ‘slow finger of time’: this darkness has not descended upon the world suddenly and dramatically, as in Byron’s poem, but gradually and naturally.

Visions of apocalypse can be traced back to Judaic texts from the third century BC and occur throughout both the Old and New Testaments, but in the early nineteenth century there was a shift in the popular understanding of the end of the world. While visions of doomsday from this period continue to respond to the eighteenth-century Christian eschatological tradition – most notably in the fascination with the death of the sun and the darkness that follows – they also draw on emerging scientific theories of deep time, revolutionary catastrophe, and slow, geological change. The darkness and climate change experienced across the world in the summer of 1816 compounded this new way of framing the apocalypse, prompting a new generation of modern apocalyptic texts that saw humankind at the mercy not of God, but of time itself.

Dr Catherine Redford is a Career Development Fellow in English at Hertford College, Oxford. Her research interests include the depiction of apocalypse and dystopia in literature of the long nineteenth century, and she has published on Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and H. G. Wells. She is currently writing a book on the Romantic ‘Last Man’ tradition. Website:

This entry was posted in Romantic Climates.

News: Second Mediating Climate Change Call For Papers

The second Call for Papers for the conference Mediating Climate Change is now available.

Mediating Climate Change is an international, multidisciplinary environmental humanities conference organised as part of the British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe project.

Visit the Conference section of our site for further details about the conference.

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There’s a Planet Outside the Text—Notes toward a Deep Historicism

In the first of our Romantic Climates blog posts, Professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood (Illinois) reflects on Deep Time and the humanities.

In Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1833-48), geological Deep Time signifies a pitiless Nature and the subjugation of all species, humans included, to the logic of extinction:

From scarpèd cliff and quarried stone
She cries, “A thousand types are gone;
I care for nothing, all shall go. (56: 2-4)

1830s texts by Charles Lyell and Tennyson revealed the trendlines of the intellectual elite, but the true popularization of Deep Time—which Stephen Jay Gould has called the most momentous epistemological revolution since Galileo—would wait until the 1860s. Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, followed by Lyell’s The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man (1863) and John Lubbock’s Pre-Historic Times (1865) imprinted a new, abyssal figure of time on the popular imagination. Deep Time applied not only to Theories of the Earth, but to the Descent of Man also. For generations of English professors, the “darkling plain” of Matthew Arnold’s 1867 poem “Dover Beach” has stood for the theological upheaval and heartbreak of the 1860s. Thank God for “Dover Beach”! It condenses the decades-long intellectual “roar” over Deep Time theory into a satisfying 37-line lyric, eminently teachable in a single 50-minute class.

So goes the familiar history of the Victorians, Evolutionary Theory, and Deep Time. But what has happened since—in academia, at least—is less easy, or comfortable, to describe. The Victorians discovered Deep Time, but we, as cultural historians of the period, while enshrining that discovery, have excused ourselves from its true implications. Historiography was the first emergent discipline to feel the shuddering impact of the Deep Time revolution of the 1860s. Sacred history must be abandoned, but what to replace it with? Professional historians of the late nineteenth century, faced with their own extinction, responded with truly Darwinian ingenuity. The biblical timescale of 6,000 years would be preserved by substituting the creation of the Earth with a refurbished chronology called “the birth of civilization,” with the Mediterranean as its “cradle.” The geography—ancient Mesopotamia—remained intact—with only minor adjustments: Genesis and the Garden of Eden gave way to the ziggurats and tablets of Sumer. Shored up against the abyss of Deep Time, human history was stabilized within a bible-deep chronology, only with writing and mathematics, the rule of law, and building of cities as the new narrative of origins, replacing Original Sin.

150 years since “Dover Beach,” a century since the secularization of Biblical chronology, and the Deep Time revolution has yet to reach the academic humanities. Scholars in the twentieth century combined ingenuity with simple denial to keep at bay the intellectual revolution that continues to define and drive the modern bio-physical sciences. Evolution’s bastard intellectual offspring—eugenics and social Darwinism—brought Deep Time theory into toxic proximity with institutional racism. For an academic historiography committed to modern nation-state narratives and cultural identity formation, Deep Time and evolution signified an insidiously deterministic counter-narrative, at odds with the consensus Hegelian model of progress, agency, and self-realization.

From century’s beginning to end, therefore, the practice of history (and its sibling literary and cultural historiographies) was defined by almost exclusively by the study of writing: by the accumulation of textual primary sources for general information, and by the “close reading” of select texts for the discovery of more subtle intentions and ideologies extrapolated to represent the age. Visual objects—paintings, architecture, landscapes, fashions—might be included, to be interpreted as “texts.” With nineteenth-century intellectual history in mind, the hegemony of writing in twentieth-century historiography appears on a continuum with the “shallow” timeline mandated by scriptural chronology and its secularized offspring. Scripto-centrism in the humanities since Victorian times has prevailed at the direct expense of Deep Time theory, to the point where our estrangement from the natural and physical sciences, of which Deep Time is the founding, enabling principle, is absolute.

Wait a minute! you say: twentieth-century critical theory has destroyed precisely that “grand narrative” paradigm of teleological history I just described! No respectable scholar today champions a triumphalist “History of Western Civilization” model beginning in the Mediterranean 5,000 years ago. Yes, indeed, but the problem of shallow historiography has only gotten worse with the rise of techno-industrial and postcolonial narratives of modernity, which radically foreshorten history’s timeline to the period of European industrialization and global expansion since 1750. Where once the period before Sumer and the invention of writing was cast into the oblivion of “pre-history,” now a post-1750 modernity narrative reigns supreme, with scholars of the Renaissance forced to fight for their lives (and tenure lines) as Early Modernists, and medievalists voted off the island entirely. [Of the five trained medievalists in my department, one teaches comic books; another lectures on Tolkien and Game of Thrones; while two others have ridden off into the sunset of the Deanery]. We are left with specialists and sub-specialists of “modern” European imperialism and its aftermath of subaltern rising. The work in this field is often brilliant and revelatory, but it belongs, nevertheless, to a larger, suffocating hegemony of ideas: what Daniel Smail has called “the sterile presentism that grips the historical community.” I know the phenomenon all too well. As a career Romanticist I am no less a product of the dominant shallow time methodology than any humanist working in the Academy today. Even now, as an advocate of Deep Time scholarship, I don’t feel truly comfortable making a pronouncement on anything that has ever occurred outside the 1810s.

So, the intellectually restless Victorians excavated Deep Time, but we have managed, in the 150 years since, to reinter it, quietly but determinedly. The crimes of “modernity” teach us that we are not merely mortal, but that human experience, and cultural imagination, is radically temporally constrained. Short memories and brutish, short-term goals. A shallow life. All reflected in our historiography. The Victorians felt the shock of an Earth’s history stretching billions of years, but we have, through a consensus of silence on the subject, become immured to that shock. Like the first generation of professional historians in the late nineteenth century, we compartmentalize and consign. Modernity, glittering, savage, and sublime, is our sole preoccupation; what predates it is forever, irredeemably, pre-modern. The Ancients and Elizabethans retain vestiges of their charm, but as for Deep Time—that Victorian intellectual revolution might as well not have happened.

What’s the remedy? How can nineteenth-centuryists, and other period scholars, escape the fetish-logic that drives the triumph of modernity and history-as-text?

In one sense, the emergence of the Anthropocenic model might appear just another ingenious academic iteration of modernity’s sacred timeline: history truly begins only with the first fossil-fuel dependent technologies of the late eighteenth century. For professional humanists, the status quo is preserved, with a fashionable environmentalist inflection to supplement the prevailing techno-industrial and postcolonial models that sacralize the post-1750 period. Not only that, but the word itself betrays the bias that gave rise to the very crisis the Anthropocene names, that is, a dedication to the human story at the expense of everything non-human. Certainly, for the Romanticist, the rise of the Anthropocene can seem like Christmas come early. We are no longer curators of a few brief, tumultuous decades at the turn of the nineteenth century, but are reinvigorated as scholars indispensable to a newly created episteme: the “Birth of the Anthropocene.” Dissertations will be written, symposiums convened, and careers made.

This said, I contend there are more reasons for optimism than cynicism in the rise of Anthropocene studies. Because the transdisciplinary debate over the Anthropocene began among, and is hosted by, eminent geologists, in order to engage the discourse of the Anthropocene humanists cannot avoid the subject of Deep Time. To define the Anthropocene, one must first be conversant with the scientific basis for demarcating the greater geological epoch of the Holocene—that period since the last Ice Age from which the Anthropocene, it is proposed, should be carved off. The cultural historian of modernity is quickly dizzy and disoriented. The mere mention of the Holocene transports us back 10,000 years, and even that is only the most recent of the standard geological periodizations, a mere babe-in-arms compared to the Cambrian of 500 million years antiquity, and beyond, to the billion year timescales of Earth’s formation and the origin of life. Like Byron’s narrator of the scandalous tale of Don Juan, the Anthropocenic humanist might soon feel “sorry that I e’er begun.”

But having written four books centered on the sinisterly narrow timeframe of the 1810s, I can bear witness that conventional period scholarship and Anthropocene studies are compatible, given the right topic. My recent book—Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World (Princeton, 2014)—described the global environmental and social impacts of the major eruption of an East Indies volcano in 1815. The book wedded accounts of the eruption’s aftermath—on the microscales of days and months—with the deep time histories of the volcano itself, and climate change in the Holocene. I accumulated all the written sources I could find related to the event—notes, journals, newspapers, poems—and paired these with a voluminous scientific literature on Tambora that was almost wholly non-textual in its methodologies and data content (geological sediments, ice cores, climate models, etc.). The 1815 Tambora eruption functioned as a kind of time portal, if you will, to travel across millennia. It likewise enabled me to traverse global spaces entirely outside the well-worn routes of postcolonial and nation-state historiography. Volcanic climate change is no respecter of human borders. Tambora dropped me into Deep Time. It also whisked me to India, China, and the Arctic. The argument implicit in Tambora is that the twenty-first-century humanist—the environmental humanist, in particular—can embrace geological timeframes while remaining a period scholar of modernity. He or she can integrate traditional archival, text-based research, with the material scope, data-mining powers, and interpretive reach of multiple scientific disciplines.

To live in the Anthropocene is to breathe in wonder and power, while breathing out failure and helplessness. As citizen-subjects of the Anthropocene, we hurry to commit to our all-powerful geological agency in the world—as better stewards, as ethical environmental managers—even as Deep Time sucks us into Tennyson’s opposite conclusion: that we are nothing . . . it is all hopeless. To give narrative shape to this dilemma, to write the geological human, is the work of Deep Time scholarship—which belongs to the greater project of Anthropocene studies.

It’s never too late for Deep Time.

Gillen D’Arcy Wood is the Andrew and Susan Langan Professor of Environmental Humanities at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His book Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World is available from Princeton University Press. Professor Wood will be speaking at the Mediating Climate Change conference at Leeds in July 2017.

This entry was posted in Romantic Climates.

News: Mediating Climate Change Call For Papers

The Call for Papers for the conference Mediating Climate Change is now available!

Mediating Climate Change is an international, multidisciplinary conference organised as part of the British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe project.

Visit the Conference section of our site to see the Call for Papers and for further details about the conference.

This entry was posted in News.

News: The Today Programme

Project Principal Investigator David Higgins speaks to BBC Radio 4’s Today about the eruption of Mt Tambora in 1815, its effects on British writers including Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley in the summer of 1816, and climate literature today.

Click here to listen to the episode. The segment on Tambora, featuring Dr Higgins and volcanologist Professor Hazel Rymer, begins at 02:52:55.

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Welcome to the Romantic Climates blog

Attributed to Francis Danby, 1793–1861, British, Sunset at Sea after a Storm, ca. 1824, Oil on pressed card, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Attributed to Francis Danby, 1793–1861, British, Sunset at Sea after a Storm, ca. 1824, Oil on pressed card, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Romantic Climates is a blog published by the AHRC-funded project British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe, based at the University of Leeds.

Scholars from around the world will be contributing blog posts about their work on Romantic ecology. We hope that the blog will showcase cutting-edge research into how Romantic-period writers, artists, and thinkers understood the environment.

To find out more about the British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe project, read our About page.

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