Saturday, November 18, 2006

Strange and foreign forms, 1807

A busy week for me, but teaching prompted me to look at texts I’d never read before – Nahum Tate’s absurd version of Richard II briefly entertained me (what a silly project for a proponent of James II that was!). I also spent some time reading the poems of Charlotte Smith. The Elegiac Sonnets are, in Hugh Kenner’s term, counterfeit. But I liked ‘Beachy Head’, and as it is some time since I did a posting about geology in literature, I shall mount that hobbyhorse.

Smith begins her poem imagining the formation of the Channel, and later speculates about the fossil bivalves and ammonites she sees in the chalk. Her first line is to entertain the old notion that they are just freaks of nature. But that explanation doesn’t satisfy her, and she speculates (as in the opening of her poem) about real geological processes, of the chalk being formed under water, and uplifted to form her local landscape, the South Downs:

And still, observing objects more minute, 372
Wondering remark the strange and foreign forms
Of sea-shells; with the pale calcareous soil
Mingled, and seeming of resembling substance.
Tho' surely the blue Ocean (from the heights
Where the downs westward trend, but dimly seen)
Here never roll'd its surge. Does Nature then
Mimic, in wanton mood, fantastic shapes
Of bivalves, and inwreathed volutes, that cling 380
To the dark sea-rock of the wat'ry world?
Or did this range of chalky mountains, once
Form a vast bason, where the Ocean waves
Swell'd fathomless? What time these fossil shells,
Buoy'd on their native element, were thrown
Among the imbedding calx: when the huge hill
Its giant bulk heaved, and in strange ferment
Grew up a guardian barrier, 'twixt the sea
And the green level of the sylvan weald.

More interestingly, in a subsequent passage Smith is apparently reacting to large fossil bones being found, and she wonders if these might be the remains of elephants brought into England by the Romans: 'Some lone antiquary' she says

perhaps may trace,

Or fancy he can trace, the oblong square
Where the mail'd legions, under Claudius, rear'd
The rampire, or excavated fossé delved;
What time the huge unwieldy Elephant
Auxiliary reluctant, hither led,
From Afric's forest glooms and tawny sands,
First felt the Northern blast, and his vast frame
Sunk useless; whence in after ages found,
The wondering hinds, on those enormous bones
Gaz'd; and in giants dwelling on the hills
Believed and marvell'd---

There had been, and would be, worse guesses. The intriguing aspect of this is that her poem is published in 1807, while Gideon Mantell did not start finding local dinosaur bones until 1820, in the quarry at Cuckfield, North of Lewes. Perhaps Charlotte Smith was no longer thinking of local fossil finds, but has heard about Baron Georges Cuvier, who was already publishing on extinct mammalian fauna – though his study was not in English till quite a bit later. Cuvier himself would assert that Mantell’s iguanodon teeth belonged to an extinct rhinoceros. But bones from dinosaurs are not unheard of in the chalk, and Smith does seem to be writing with local reference. Mantell’s early collection was of marine fossils from that formation, so maybe his efforts to collect fossil bones owed something to what was being talked about locally.

This anticipation in poetry of the historically recorded moment of discovery reminds me of Shelley scooping Dean Buckland in Prometheus Unbound IV, 309 ff – writing in 1819, while Buckland would not name the first dinosaur till 1824 (Megalosaurus):

the might
Of earth-convulsing behemoth, which once
Were monarch beasts, and on the slimy shores,
And weed-overgrown continents of earth,
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 abolished; or some God
Whose throne was in a comet, passed, and cried,
'Be not!' And like my words they were no more.

Shelley’s prescience outdoes Charlotte Smith’s, for he brilliantly surmises the extinction of the monarch beasts as a consequence of a passing comet, an idea that would wait for Luis and Walter Alvarez in 1980.

My photograph is of Tim not enjoying being at Beachy Head a year or so ago.

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