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

By Tess Somervell

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 Charles 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 …read more