Introduction: This piece comprises the first of a series of interdisciplinary dialogues that will appear quarterly on the NGSC Blog. The initial iteration finds NGSC contributing writers Arden Hegele, Jacob Leveton, and artist in residence Nicole Geary engaging with geology as a factor in the production both of Romantic poetry and contemporary sculpture. Towards this end, they collectively looked at a range of geologically oriented literary texts (Felicia Hemans’s “The Rock of Cader Idris,” Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head,” and Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”), works by the visual artists Robert Smithson and Blane de St. Croix, and literary, art-historical, and ecological criticism. Arden, Jacob, and Nicole then posed a series of questions for, and responded to, one another in a discussion that pivots upon a set of shared aesthetic problems and conceptual issues linking current critical and contemporary creative practices.
Arden: On the subject of the nonhuman voice in Nature, in “Mont Blanc,” Shelley writes that the mountain’s “voice” is “not understood / By all, but which the wise, and great, and good / Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel” (80-83). How do you see Shelley’s mountain’s form in relation to poetic form, or, how might you relate the challenge of geological interpretation to the interpretation of Romantic literature?
Jacob: This is a great question with which to lead off, and I think provides an effective frame to derive some important points regarding the relation between Shelley’s poetry and politics. Of course, the lines to which you’ve directed my attention drive toward some of the liberatory aspects of Shelley’s poetic project at the time. The poet addresses Mont Blanc and posits that,“Thou hast a voice, great mountain, to repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood by all, but which the wise, and great, and good / interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel” (80-83). The lines advance the point that Mont Blanc as a nonhuman geological form retains a voice to speak. That voice is comprehended by the “wise, and great, and good” who experience the mountain’s affective force at a high level of intensity (to “deeply feel”). Such a knowing-subject, indeed the Shelleyan poet, interprets the mountain’s geological form and communicates it in a way that effectively manifests itself as a field of social-critical potentiality. What I mean by this is that the poetic engagement with Mont Blanc, that itself generates the poem’s form, is geared to be mobilized in challenging and overturning social inequities. The poetic form that Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” makes available is one that takes geological interpretation as a point of departure for the purpose of social critique, and so relates to broader issues regarding interpretations of Romantic literature informed by historical-materialist theoretical investments, and the field of poetry and politics, more generally.
Nicole: Jacob, “Mont Blanc” seems to be written with a lonely and inhuman aura, one that puts nature out of the grasp of humankind. Do you agree that, as Heringman writes, it helped “mobilize the analogy between geological and political revolution” (13-14)?
Jacob: Your question is a wonderful one, as well–and, actually, while I’d agree that “Mont Blanc” is written with a profoundly inhuman aura I’m convinced it’s one that encodes a form of revelry in the nonhuman other. Ever since my first time working with that particular text, I’ve found it to offer a particularly energetic intellectual jouissance in its impellation that the reader recognize a significant interconnectivity with the natural environment. In this regard, the natural environment can be seen as deeply other and simultaneously co-constitutive of a self that is connected with all other sentient and non-sentient beings. This is why I found Heringman’s remarks so persuasive, with respect to how the “Romantic recognition of the earth’s unpredictability and difference from human interests” ultimately “permits progressive analogies to human agency” (13). One valuable concept the movement to posthumanism gives us (though one which the field of late eighteenth-century cultural production makes possible, by way of writers like Rousseau, Joseph Ritson, Erasmus Darwin, and others) is that the world in which we find ourselves is comprised of a rich myriad of human and nonhuman life and that to understand what it is to be human it is at once necessary to understand what it is to be human in relation to nonhuman life, the natural environment, and non-sentient matter. Geologically, it is the non-sentience of the mountainscape that Shelley’s poem engages with the utmost force, and its that difference between the human poet and nonhuman natural/geological phenomena that drives the poem. This is what I believe that poet is getting at when crafting the image of “The everlasting universe of things” which “Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves” (1-2). The poetic metaphor is taken from the Arve as the river that cuts through the ravine where the poet is positioned, with geological processes here comprising the primary factor of Shelley’s poetic production. Nonhuman geological and human subjectivities are differentiated, yet come together within the poem’s form as a zone of human/nonhuman environmental contact. They’re connected as Shelley’s poem draws out a vector of signification that links the Arve as an example of a formative geological agent that continually carves the mountainscape, the poet’s consciousness in writing, and the reader’s subjectivity in reading. These notions advance Heringman’s argument quite well. If geological formations like Mont Blanc make visible the way in which the earth is in a continual state of transformation–and it’s a given that species do best when they are adaptable to change and humans constitute one species position within a broader web of nonhuman life–then it follows that a commitment to progressive thought and engagement proves integral to the absorption of geology in Shelley’s poem.
Nicole: What I really fell for in “Beachy Head” was the long stretch of meandering we did through what felt like a mix of memory and storytelling. It’s as though we are briefly on the ground at this place, then suddenly no longer conforming to space and time. I find that it’s deceptive at first. Can you talk about how you find the form of this poem lends itself to the underlying story?
Arden: “Beachy Head” is such a rich poem, generically as well as geologically. Although it’s clearly working in the Romantic tradition in its description of sublime natural landscapes, it also looks back to an older genre — the loco-descriptive poem — which characterized eighteenth-century works like James Thomson’s The Seasons (1726-1730). In the loco-descriptive poem, the speaker’s point of view moves fluidly between spaces through the act of looking, and the poem describes the different landscapes in view; importantly (and in contrast with most Romantic poetry), the energy carrying the poem isn’t so much the developing emotional charge, but rather the speaker’s changing observational position within a landscape. This active eye prompting topographical transitions is much of what we get in Smith’s 1807 poem, especially in lines like these: “let us turn / To where a more attractive study courts / The wanderer of the hills” (447-49). Here, Smith signals how her speaker’s eye carries “us” between geographical sites and their relation to her memories.
But, as you suggest, Nicole, Smith’s work is compelling because the landscapes in question prompt temporary flights away from the locations that she describes — including Beachy Head itself — as the speaker contemplates their relation to her emotional state. These jumps away from the landscape into recollected emotion is what feels most Romantic about the poem. For example, Smith’s denunciation of happiness is one of the work’s most poignant moments: “Ah! who is happy? Happiness! a word / That like false fire, from marsh effluvia born” (258-59). To me, this is an intriguing moment for the poem’s physical environment, since the simile associates happiness with a paranormal feature (a will-o’-the-wisp), in contrast to the many concrete landscapes of the poem — Beachy Head itself, the stone quarry, the cottages, the cave in the rock, and so on. But the ignis fatuus also helps to reveal the poem’s ongoing mechanism for the speaker’s nostalgic leaps: here and elsewhere, the ground gives direct rise to the emotions that the speaker experiences. (As a side note, “false fire, from marsh effluvia born” also invokes the miasmatic theory of disease popular during the period, which maintained that toxic gases would arise from the ground and spread contagion – a rather chilling way of describing “happiness”).
The historical and biographical contexts of “Beachy Head” are also quite interesting with respect to the poem’s treatment of time and space, especially in a scientific context. While writing was a source of necessary income for Smith (she was the only earner for her ten children), she took pleasure and relief in scientific practices like botany, and it seems to me that her somewhat loco-descriptive survey of the landscape of Beachy Head alludes to her personal practices of dispassionate scientific observation. An early reviewer of the posthumous poem remarked that
“It appears also as if the wounded feelings of Charlotte Smith had found relief and consolation […] in the accurate observation not only of the beautiful effect produced by the endless diversity of natural objects[,] but also in a careful study of their scientific arrangement, and their more minute variations.” (Monthly Review, 1807)
In keeping with what this reviewer notices, one of the poem’s main projects seems to be to classify different types of rock — the “chalk […] sepulchre” of the cliffs (723), the “stupendous summit” of Beachy Head itself (1), the “castellated mansion” (514), the “stone quarries” (471), and even the sedimented sea-shells, fossils, and “enormous bones” beneath the sea (422). But the poem also moves beyond classification by relating natural forms to poetic lyricism: for example, Smith describes “one ancient tree, whose wreathed roots / Form’d a rude couch,” where “love-songs and scatter’d rhymes” were “sometimes found” (581-84). At the poem’s conclusion, the rock of Beachy Head itself inspires verse, as “these mournful lines, memorials of his sufferings” are “Chisel’d within” (738-39); indeed, Smith’s own lines appear to have emerged from the physical rock. Moreover, supporting its thematic transitions between spaces and even outside of time, “Beachy Head” isn’t confined to a single verse form — the two sets of inset songs (in variable quintains and sestets) break up the sedimented quality we get with the long passages of blank verse. So the meandering quality that you notice between the poem’s specific geographies and abstract memories also applies to the fluctuating relationship between the verse forms, between the various locations and historical moments the poem describes, and, perhaps most importantly, between the relationship of scientific and poetic practices, which Smith ultimately tries to reconcile.
Jacob: Arden, I was particularly struck by the wonderful resonance between your suggestion that we read Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head” and Nicole’s decision that we look at Blane de St. Croix’s Broken Landscape III (Fig. 1), since both works utilize geology as a means to think through the concept of national boundaries. In what ways might the ideas you find in Broken Landscape III intersect Smith’s poem? Just as well, how might de St. Croix’s strategies as a visual artist diverge from those of Smith as a poet?
Arden: I’m so glad that you drew my attention to the political similarities between Charlotte Smith and Blane de St. Croix’s works. Both artworks are connected in their different ways to the question of politically-charged national borders. Smith’s perspective can certainly cast new light on de St. Croix’s contemporary art, and I see at least two ways in which the pieces can work together in productive dialogue. First, their portrayals of their respective borders share certain formal similarities, in spite of the very different natures of the artworks. Second, the works diverge in the mechanisms by which they represent the borders as liminal spaces: while de St. Croix is invested in showing how the deep strata of the Mexico-US border’s geological formation acts as a barrier between the nations, Smith finds that the France-England border’s geology reveals similarity underlying the nations’ apparently radical differences.
Both artists engage with the idea of sedimentation as a formal tool for political commentary. In “Beachy Head,” Smith regularly draws the reader’s attention to Beachy Head’s distinctive white cliffs, the tallest in Britain, whose layers of chalk point to a long-standing geological history of increasing division from the opposite coast by means of marine erosion over millennia. For Smith, the continual geological breakdown between the two nations, through this process of erosion, is a provocative metaphor for their political relationship. In its allusions to the Norman Conquest, the battle of Beachy Head of 1690 (which the English lost), and the tensions between the nations during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the “scroll voluminous” of “Beachy Head” offers a versified representation of this erosion (122). Presented in chronological order, each incident of conflict with France gives way to the next until the reader reaches sea-level and England’s triumph: “But let not modern Gallia form from hence / Presumptuous hopes” against England, the “Imperial mistress of the obedient sea” (146-47, 154). In the political ramifications of its eroding structure, “Beachy Head” has much in common with Broken Landscape III, which is also interested in the sedimentation of a politically-charged international border. For de St. Croix, however, the formalism of sediment is not figured through erosion, but rather through accretion. Discourses about the border have, over time, accumulated in layers, just as layers of rock have accreted in the border’s geological history. De St. Croix’s representation of the border as a human-scale sedimented wall explores how its underlying discourses have built up to create an insurmountable barrier in the present (unlike the real border, de St. Croix’s installation actually prevents the viewer’s ability to walk across it).
At the same time, though, the two works differ considerably in the function of their sedimentation. As Lily Gurton-Wachter argues, Smith resists the idea that France and England were “natural enemies” (a term used pejoratively to describe their strained relationship at the turn of the nineteenth century), and instead finds a common ground for them in their shared geological past. The poet contemplates whether the bottom of the sea, cast up in cliff form at Beachy Head, serves as the area of continuity between the nations: “Does Nature then / Mimic, in wanton mood, fantastic shapes / Of bivalves, and inwreathed volutes, that cling / To the dark sea-rock of the wat’ry world?” (383-86). While at one point Smith calls Romantic geology “but conjecture” (398), the general implication of the poem is that geology can help to locate a literal, deep-seated common ground between the opposed nations. De St. Croix, on the other hand, finds only political difference in the geology underlying the border. The human imposition of international boundaries on the surface of the earth is so metaphysically weighty that it actually carries downwards physically into its subterranean strata, in spite of the fact that each nation’s side is effectively the same in material and appearance.
Arden: Nicole, I’m interested in your thoughts on the materiality of landscape as a source for art. In Robert Smithson’s film about “Spiral Jetty,” the artist says that “the earth’s history seems at times like a story recorded in a book, each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing.” How do you see geologically-inspired works of art — especially an “entropic” project like Smithson’s, or Blane de St Croix’s meticulous topography — engaging with the materiality of literary texts? And, how does your study of Romanticism help you to understand this material relationship?
Nicole: It’s especially remarkable when you come upon stacked strata in the field and see rocks lined up like books on a shelf. This metaphor instantaneously becomes ingrained within you as you run your finger down the stack, looking for the book (rock) you want to pull out. In the history of the earth, pages, sometimes whole volumes go missing. We suffer those convulsions and catastrophes, and the earth rebuilds itself from the pieces. Spiral Jetty is made from rocks, water, mud, evaporites, and time (Fig. 2).
But not just that, it is a place. Spiral Jetty is difficult to reach, sometimes not able to be seen due to changes in the level of the Great Salt Lake. In reading romantic-period texts, I’m reminded of the overwhelming sense of the sublime that artists felt for certain places. Certain topographies, either remote or only able to be accessed by memory (as so wonderfully illustrated in “Beachy Head”) hold a history that engages and sometimes mystifies. So, too, does the Broken Landscape series by de St. Croix as it not only shows the surface, or present tense, but it digs into the depths of what came before our tense border anxieties. Broken Landscape III looks directly at ontological constructs upon the landscape that never existed before human-made activity, but doesn’t negate the rock record.
What I find fascinating is that this rock record is always around us, ever complex yet at our disposal to read. There is some comfort in the idea that we can make sense of the word, quite literally, by translating it like an ancient tome. I think that through Romanticism, I’m actually able to understand more about the emotional weight I give to rocks themselves. By reading through the Scottish Enlightenment and the geological revolution, I understood that what I was going through artistically was my own new science: a way of naming and identifying my emotions without feeling them – calling them the Other.
Jacob: This year, I’ve become increasingly influenced by Rebecca Beddell’s The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1865 in terms of the way in which, as Beddell explains, the division of labor between artists and scientists is essentially a discursive construction. Namely, here, I’m interested in how reading Bedell’s art-historical analysis might relate to, or gave you a space to imagine, your own work, perhaps in a different way than you had prior. In this regard, I’m drawn especially to the preface to her book, where Bedell suggests that in the nineteenth-century: “American landscape painters and geologists then stood on common ground. We now tend to consign art and science to different epistemologies, regarding them as distinctive pursuits, with completely different methodologies, directed towards completely different ends” while in the nineteenth-century art and science proved an interconnected spectrum of pursuits “in both popular perception and practice” (xi). What I’m wondering is how you consider about your own work within this trajectory. I’m thinking mainly of your 2011 Secondary Sediment series of prints that I think so powerfully evokes the relation between personal memory and geological space, and especially the play of text and image in “IX” (Fig. 3).
Nicole: Jacob, this is such a great question, because I specifically thought about this, too, when I was reading Beddell’s introduction. It seems a social construct based on educational or vocational pursuits has rendered art and science separate pursuits in our recent history, but the idea of a more common acquisition of knowledge and shared respect for these fields was in vogue during the age of Manifest Destiny. A different resurgence in this kind of thinking is afoot, with places like Science Gallery (https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/), the resurrection of LACMA Art + Technology Lab (http://lacma.org/Lab), and the CERN Artist’s Residency (http://arts.web.cern.ch/collide), to name only a few art and science collaborations.
To answer your question, my work does straddle both realms. It’s a mix of personal memoir related to the land it was experienced in. I find that the economic aspects of landscape cannot be separated from their role as passive backdrop to this “American dream” sedative. To deal with one part of the land or the space I live in requires me to seriously investigate all parts – it’s an element of knowing the land that I think a poem like “Beachy Head” deals with in a wonderful way.
The idea that we should mine the earth for its riches, or fight wars for those resources, the same principles that as a youth I could feel patriotic about, are now the ideas that I question in my work. What is worth exploiting (property, resources, and lives) and at what cost for the betterment of humankind? Who can really own land? In “A Place on the Glacial Till,” Thomas Fairchild Sherman writes a personal, historical, and geological history. A story of the animals and plants of his native Oberlin, Ohio, he writes of a place that is clearly familiar and dear to him when he says that: “Our homes are but tents on the landscape of time, and we but visitors to a world whose age exceeds our own 100 million times. We own only what the spirit creates.”
At what cost does the land stop becoming land? I think Solnit shares a fine example of this in her essay (see “Elements of a New Landscape,” 57). The work “El Cerrito Solo” by Lewis deSoto was initiated by a friend’s remark that it was “too bad the mountain wasn’t there anymore.” Essentially, a small hill had been sourced for it’s material until it was no longer there – a story that’s full of what I think of as the ripping out of a page from one of the volumes in the rock record of the earth. Almost painfully, the artist says, “you could be in the landscape while driving on the freeway.” This reminds me of living in South Dakota and driving on pink-hued roads, colored this way because of the quarrying of local Sioux quartzite, the words of this story echoing in my thoughts. How many “little mountains” disappeared from the landscape to make these roads? At the intersection of art and geology, I read of a similar story that took place in Belize of the unfortunate destruction of a 2,000+ year-old Mayan temple, locally named Noh Mul, or Big Hill. A local contractor was quarrying the site for its limestone to create roadfill, but now embedded archaeological artifacts are totally lost and broken cultural relics have become part of the landscape. Ultimately, the “otherness” of Nature is no longer a separate entity conceptually at bay but is a real, interactive part of our lives. I believe art can help us transform the way we think about landscape and its effect on us.
I think the time is right to invest in people. One of the biggest problems that I see with contemporary Western culture (as this is what I can speak to), is a lack of focus on local histories and real science, and an art world that seems fixated on the cult of celebrity, or too quickly moves on from one fad to another. I think the reason I became a printmaker was that somewhere at the core of my being, I enjoy the slow work and old-fashioned ethos of making something from an antiquated technology. It’s possible that I set myself up to be interested in history specifically because of that, but a lot of the work I drift toward or care about is art about the sciences and questioning the role of the author, or the authoritative voice. By this I mean searching for authentic stories of people so that they not be forgotten by history due to their gender, race, or sexuality. I look for things to have meaning and depth beyond their surface. Rocks and big outcrops, with their stony gazes, seem to have a lifetime of stories to tell, even if their faces are unyielding. I have to agree with Shelley on this point, where he ascribes a voice to Mont Blanc–in the lines to which Arden first drew our attention. What I read in this passage is the work of the artist and the geologist. To make the voice of the mountain known, through study and familiarity, through knowledge and wisdom, and to transmit that feeling through the power of metaphor, and of unity with the landscape. Who can say which job belongs to whom?
Felicia Hemans, “The Rock of Cader Idris” (1822)
Percy Shelley, “Mont Blanc” (1817)
Charlotte Smith, “Beachy Head” (1807)
Blane de St Croix, “Broken Landscape III” (2013)
Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty” (1970)
Bedell, Rebecca. The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Gurton-Wachter, Lily. “’An Enemy, I suppose, that Nature has made’: Charlotte Smith and the natural enemy.” European Romantic Review 20, 2 (2009): 197-205.
Heringman, Noah. Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Solnit, Rebecca. “Elements of a New Landscape.” As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.