Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology

Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology

Noah Heringman
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 326
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7zjw7
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  • Book Info
    Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology
    Book Description:

    Why are rocks and landforms so prominent in British Romantic poetry? Why, for example, does Shelley choose a mountain as the locus of a "voice . . . to repeal / large codes of fraud and woe"? Why does a cliff, in the boat-stealing episode of Wordsworth's Prelude, chastise the young thief? Why is petrifaction, or "stonifying," in Blake's coinage, the ultimate figure of dehumanization?

    Noah Heringman maintains that British literary culture was fundamentally shaped by many of the same forces that created geology as a science in the period 1770-1820. He shows that landscape aesthetics-the verbal and social idiom of landscape gardening, natural history, the scenic tour, and other forms of outdoor "improvement"-provided a shared vernacular for geology and Romanticism in their formative stages.

    Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology reexamines a wide range of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poetry to discover its relationship to a broad cultural consensus on the nature and value of rocks and landforms. Equally interested in the initial surge of curiosity about the earth and the ensuing process of specialization, Heringman contributes to a new understanding of literature as a key forum for the modern reorganization of knowledge.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5875-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. Abbreviations and Bibliographical Note
    (pp. xix-xxi)
  7. Illustrations
    (pp. xxii-xxii)
  8. Introduction: Aesthetic Materialism and the Culture of Landscape
    (pp. 1-29)

    Rocks are ubiquitous in Romantic poetry: Wordsworth’s mysterious boulder in “Resolution and Independence,” the pristine summit of Shelley’s Mont Blanc, and the “opake hardnesses” of Blake’s Cliffs of Albion are some prominent examples. Romantic descriptions of the earth’s material differ from much recent environmental discourse by presenting the earth in its otherness, its nonhuman aspect. These metonymic figures register a growing recognition that the earth evolves according to a previously unsuspected internal logic. Rocks stand for the environment as a whole because, paradoxically, the recognition of their alien physicality coincides with the early industrial drive for mineral resources. The aesthetic...

  9. 1 A Genealogy of the “Huge Stone” in Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence”
    (pp. 30-53)

    Aquintessential romantic landscape sets the scene for Wordsworth’s famous story of an old man gathering leeches in “Resolution and Independence.” Using a stanza form carefully crafted to evoke chivalric romance, Wordsworth produces a geological romance of origins for the old man’s condition. The poem draws on the ancient analogy between rock and the human body—one resurfacing in many Romantic discourses—to address the problem of embodiment.¹ It also employs a vocabulary cognate with those of geology, landscape gardening, and picturesque travel, discourses that Wordsworth eventually synthesized in A Guide to the Lakes. Midway through the poem, he elaborates the...

  10. 2 Geological Otherness; or, Rude Rocks and the Aesthetics of Formlessness
    (pp. 54-93)

    Rock provides an index of the substantial reality required of the world if it is to sustain human bodies and provide building materials for human culture. The various accounts of “huge stones” described in chapter 1 register this primitive reality in their aesthetic response to the otherness of rock. “Astonishment” underscores this connection, as does the etymology connecting “aesthetic” and sensation.¹ To express the fundamental character of rock—as literal and metaphorical ground—it will be useful to borrow Hartmut Boehme’s epithet “das Menschenfremdeste” (“that which is most foreign to the human”).² As the basic inorganic solid substance, rock embodies...

  11. 3 Blake, Geology, and Primordial Substance
    (pp. 94-137)

    The idea of rock as primitive matter presented in “Mont Blanc” and other poems plays a central role in the wider field of the period’s natural knowledge. The idea itself is as old as cosmology, and its continued currency also reflects the lingering influence of Thomas Burnet on both the literature and the emerging geology of Great Britain. The debate within late eighteenth-century earth science concerns both the agency responsible for forming rocks themselves and the chronology of the earth’s formation: which rocks are oldest, or “original”? Is the absence of organic residue a sufficient criterion for distinguishing “primitive” from...

  12. Interchapter: Literary Landscapes and Mineral Resources
    (pp. 138-160)

    William Blake and George Cumberland, in spite of their artistic and personal alliance, represent the two opposing faces of their period’s Januslike idea of the earth’s material. Though he is critical of them, Blake internalizes literary topoi that emphasize the otherness of rock, filling his poetry with sublime scenes of desolate mountains and imposing ruins. Cumberland, in his writings on geology, takes the contrary approach of emphasizing the domestication of nature. In a passage quoted near the end of the previous chapter, Cumberland justifies geology on the basis that it teaches us “where to find . . . valuable materials.”...

  13. 4 The Rock Record, Mineral Wealth, and the Substance of History
    (pp. 161-190)

    The bodies in question in Hutton’s Theory of the Earth are rocks, which resist reading but transact a great volume of business. The rocky landforms of Romantic poetry—Mont Blanc, the Simplon Pass, Ben Nevis—also famously resist reading, generating images that articulate the otherness of the physical through the literal and metaphorical opacity of rock. This aesthetic response to the materiality of rocks and landforms is, however, inseparable from the emerging economic category of natural resources. Hutton’s criterion of legibility is developed further by the more empirical geologists of the following generation, especially William Smith. Smith’s economic geology preserves...

  14. 5 Aesthetic Objects and Cultural Practices in Erasmus Darwin’s Geology
    (pp. 191-227)

    The earliest scholarly book on Erasmus Darwin concludes with an assessment that sets the tone for twentieth-century scholarship on the author of The Botanic Garden (1791): “As the first English poet to interpret modern science, Erasmus Darwin deserves distinction.”¹ In the nearly seven decades since James V. Logan published his study, scholars have explored Darwin’s poetry, science, and professional life as a physician from a variety of perspectives that begin to reflect the prodigious diversity of his talents and interests. Maureen McNeil’s 1987 study subjects Darwin’s science and poetry to rigorous ideological critique, but returns to Logan’s assessment in order...

  15. 6 Wonders of the Peak
    (pp. 228-266)

    Geology plays a major role in The Botanic Garden not only because, as Darwin suggests, a knowledge of botany is incomplete without an understanding of soil and minerals, but also because the poem was written in a region celebrated for its geology. Vibrant intellectual communities in the environs of Birmingham and Derby also contributed to the scientific richness of Darwin’s thought. The Birmingham Lunar Society, especially, brought him into contact with applied science and industry as well as local geology. He undertook extensive geological tours of the Peak District with geologist and fellow Lunar Society member John Whitehurst, whose influence...

  16. Conclusion: Aesthetic Geology and Critical Discourse
    (pp. 267-280)

    Humphry Davy’s paean to limestone covers, in a short space, much of the territory covered by this book. He introduces England’s most visible rock in terms of “character,” a concept first applied to the earth’s material by theorists of the landscape garden such as Thomas Whately. Davy explains this character in relation to the “primitive,” a category from early earth science that fascinated Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, and other poets. Since Britain is essentially a chunk of limestone, Davy is rating the national character at the same time. Here we catch a glimpse of Wordsworth’s concern to prove the Cumbrian mountains...

  17. Works Cited
    (pp. 281-296)
  18. Index
    (pp. 297-304)