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: www.catherineredford.co.uk