Romantic Geologies and Post-Organic Forms

I’d like to begin by thanking the NGSC for welcoming me to this year’s blogging roster. It is a pleasure and privilege to write alongside these intriguing and diverse graduate scholars, and I’m looking forward to reading the material our collective will produce this year.

The blog posts we’ve seen already have been so compelling, both intellectually and personally, that I would like to continue the conversation by engaging with the fundamental questions previous posts have posed. “Fundamental” seems to be a key word for us, as we think about how the foundations of our scholarly temperaments act as cornerstones for our intellectual flights. As Nicole and Deven’s posts illustrate, we can describe this layered relation of the personal to the scholarly by drawing on material metaphors of sedimentation, accretion, and metamorphosis.

Deven and Nicole’s descriptions of their scholarly uses of archaeology and geology—as accretive fields that can inform their work with the material aspects of literary texts—come at a fortuitous time, for me at least. I have been thinking about how aspects of literary form can be captured through scientific metaphors, and their posts have sparked my interest in thinking about how geology and Romantic poetic form intersect.

Geology is a fascinating area within the Romantic sciences, partly due to the period’s uncertainty about whether “rocks and stones and trees” formed an organic continuum. This problem of unclear organicity dated back at least to Buffon’s 1749 proposal that mountains were formed when “all the shell-fish were raised from the bottom of the sea, and transported over the earth.” During the height of British Romanticism, the problem of distinguishing between organic and inorganic forms was compounded by the discoveries of giant fossils of extinct lizards between sedimented layers of rock. In 1809, the natural scientist Georges Cuvier, who had already examined the fossil of a giant sloth and coined the term mastodon, classified these reptilian fossils as the Mosasaurus and the Ptero-Dactyle, leading the charge for the study of dinosaurs, which was to reach a high point in the discovery of the iguanodon in the 1820s. As a geologist as well as an early paleontologist, Cuvier was faced with the challenge of defining sedimented organic forms as both crucial to, and distinguished from, non-living terrestrial matter.

This instability of Romantic geology shook the foundations of the period’s poetry. Though we might usually think of huge and ancient organic forms first emerging “to rise and on the surface die” in Tennyson’s 1830 poem “The Kraken” (l. 15), Romantic literature abounds with buried dinosaurs and geological eruptions. Keats’s Endymion witnesses skeletons “Of beast, behemoth, and leviathan [and] Of nameless monster” on the ocean floor (III, 134-36), while in Cain, Byron challenges the usual Biblical chronology by referring to the “Mighty Pre-Adamites who walk’d the earth / Of which ours is the wreck” (II.ii, 359-60). Likewise, in Prometheus Unbound, Shelley describes at length the “monstrous works and uncouth skeletons” and “anatomies of unknown winged things” that lie buried in the deep (IV. 299, 303). Moreover, geology could help describe the poetic process: we see this best in Byron’s celebrated metaphorical account of his own creative tendencies, with his passions building up internally and finally erupting volcanically into verse. (Meanwhile, in Don Juan, he jokingly writes, “I hate to hunt down a tired metaphor: / So let the often used volcano go. / Poor thing! How frequently, by me and others, / It hath been stirred up till its smoke quite smothers” [XIII.36]). At the same time, though he doesn’t acknowledge it, Romantic geology poses a problem for Coleridge’s definition of literary organic form, which considers the growth of the text from its inception to its adult shape—not its later stages of death, decay, and post-organic potential re-use.

Today, Romantic geology, with its imagery of defunct and sedimented layers of organicity, has profound implications for how we think about poetic form—particularly the forms of Romantic poetry. Geology is a key metaphor for many Romantic critics: David Simpson, for instance, writes that “a great deal of Wordsworth’s poetry is best approached as if it were a core sample of an especially contorted geological substrate. One works with a rough prediction of how the layers ought to relate one to another, but there are continual local deviations and surprises.” Moreover, in recent New Formalist arguments, the sedimentation of dead organic matter can be a crucial motif for thinking abstractly about the life-cycle of a literary form or genre. Recently, I read a very compelling essay, Group Phi’s “Doing Genre” (in New Formalisms and Literary Theory, eds. Theile and Tredennick, 2013), which takes geology, plasticity, and recycling as its governing metaphors. In this text, Group Phi proposes that “genre” is a “sedimented and metamorphic historical category that is received by readers,” and that “form” is the “the reader’s activity of adopting/adapting that category for further use”—more simply, that a genre is like a sedimentary rock, with accretions of its use built up over time, while form is like the wind, shaping the rock and depositing new layers of use upon it. Further developing this intriguing metaphor of geological sedimentation, Group Phi then discusses at length how genres can be “recycled” and “repurposed”—to my mind, invoking a layer of crude oil, the result of decayed organic matter, that is buried within the sedimented structure, drawn out, made plastic, “refocused, repurposed” and reshaped, and then recycled for future use. This is no doubt a metaphor of literary form characteristic of our own time, reflecting our concerns about the ethics of geotechnical excavation, and particularly the problem of violently appropriating formerly organic structures, now metamorphosed into inorganic matter (oil). Group Phi’s invocation of recycling, mid-way through the essay, is perhaps one way of “greening” their potentially problematic metaphor of the generic sedimentation of post-organic (literary) forms.

But the Romantics themselves may have something to say about these contemporary geological forms, and here I’m thinking of Shelley in particular. In Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude, Shelley writes about the hero’s journey as he pursues “Nature’s most secret steps” to where the “bitumen lakes / On black bare pointed islets ever beat / With sluggish surge” (85-86). What Shelley means by “bitumen lakes” has long posed a problem for critics, who have variously identified them with the Dead Sea, with the lake of fire in Paradise Lost, or with molten lava-flows in general; the most obvious precedent for Shelley’s 1815 use of the term is Southey’s reference to the “bitumen-lake” in Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). To me, the image of bitumen lakes in Alastor points within Romanticism to the era’s own problem of uncertain organicity (compounding the animal imagery of decayed dinosaurs, “bitumen” introduces a layer of vegetable matter in its etymological relationship to “pitch”). Yet for today’s readers, Alastor‘s bitumen lakes gain much in the translation: “bitumen” is the correct scientific term to describe the heavy crude oil now being excavated—in part, through hydrofracking—from the vast tar/oil sands of Alberta. Anticipating one of the great environmental controversies of our time, Shelley’s prescient use of the geological term can perhaps cast light on the deep Romantic substrates of current forms of representation of the tar/oil sands project.

In short, building on Group Phi’s model, we might look more closely at how the geological realities that underlie our contemporary metaphors of form and representation are built upon a deeper layer of Romantic uses. The mixed organicism of geological sediment has rich potential for talking about poetic language. Recalling Shelley’s account of continually dying metaphors in A Defence of Poetry, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that “language is fossil poetry”; we too might look to the strata of literature’s organic forms in our own search for deeper meanings within Romanticism.


2 thoughts on “Romantic Geologies and Post-Organic Forms”

  1. The phrase “bitumen lakes” does hold so much weight – I had never known this reference but it does make me think immediately of the Canadian tar sands. Thank you for sharing these insights!

  2. Your post is informative and beautifully written, Arden–so happy to have you as one the GSCH’s regular bloggers. I second Nicole’s comments regarding your reference to the “bitumen lakes,” and I think you are right to take romanticism more seriously in terms of how it shaped, continues to shape, and may shape in the future our thoughts, practices, and actions. Dalia Nassar has recently sounded a similar call in her review of Halmi’s “The Genealogy of the Romantic Symbol”: “I propose what needs to be undertaken is not a resurrection of the skeletons of the past, in which we reduce Romanticism to a moment of historical curiosity, but a living, meaningful engagement with Romanticism.” Her proposal lies with issues of ontology and metaphysics, but the sentiment is the same, I believe. In other words, you’re in good company. Thanks for sharing!

Comments are closed.