A lapidary lyricist

Wordsworth and the Geologists
August 30, 1996

At the turn of the 19th century, William Wordsworth, the doyen of English romantic poets, was writing unrelentingly stirring, uplifting verse and prose extolling the profundities of natural landscape and its relationship to the nature of man. During these same years, a small group of "natural philosophers" of similar cultural and educational background to Wordsworth, was attempting, with growing success, to read the record of the rocks from their mineral and fossil contents, thus beginning to decipher for the first time a realistic story of the earth. This story diverged increasingly from the confines of biblical fundamentalism, with its traditionally imposed time span of some 6,000 years. In addition, these early geologists sought to explain the endless variety of landscape forms in terms of lengthy, alternating geological periods of growth and decay.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that these new ways of looking at earth history engaged Wordsworth's creative imagination, especially from around 1820 onwards, when he forged close personal links with pioneering geologist Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873), with the great academic William Whewell (1794-1866), and with other geological members of their circle.

John Wyatt's book charts the long, intricate relationship between Wordsworth and the geologists with a depth of insight and an ability to put himself into the minds and achievements of his characters that is not often equalled. This is an essential and compulsively readable reference work for everyone interested in the development of and interaction between literature and science in Britain in the early 19th century. At this time, the concept of the two cultures, science and the humanities, was still far in the future. Observing and describing nature was widely regarded as a spiritual education, while the mind engaged in interaction with nature became a legitimate topic for both scientists and poets.

Increasingly, Wordsworth's writings became peppered with a rudimentary geological terminology and names of theories ("Catastrophism", "Diluvialism", "Neptunism", "Plutonism") that to modern minds border on the bizarre. It is pretty clear from Wyatt's book that Wordsworth (unlike Goethe) was not much interested in the plain collection of geological facts, frequently chiding the supposed narrow-mindedness and provinciality of those whom we now call data-gatherers. He naturally felt more fulfilled by grandiose poetic licence in which theory tended to precede or exclude fact, which in no way belittles the majesty of his aesthetic imagination in our eyes.

It appears that Wordsworth occasionally accompanied Sedgwick on his travels through the Lake District where, I imagine, Sedgwick wielded the geological hammer while Wordsworth jotted down inspiring scenic metaphors. It is not obvious that Wordsworth actually liked science all that much, although he can be extraordinarily generous to the enquiring scientific mind: "Happy is he who lives to understand/Not human nature only, but explores/All natures, - to the end that he may find/The law that governs each."

At the same time, the geologists simply doted on Wordsworth. Wyatt emphasises that, despite their different scientific, political and religious orientations, the geologists of Wordsworth's time shared a reverence for poetry. Theirs was, after all, the most romantic and overtly visible of all scientific disciplines during this period. The influence of Wordsworth on the geologists may have been far greater than the reverse.

Before the 1850s, most geologists believed in God and did not appear to feel a contradiction between geological and theological world views. By that time the next generation of agnostic or atheistic thinkers, directly influenced by the geological writings of Charles Lyell and by the first ominous rumblings of Darwinian evolution, was maturing. It would be interesting to know whether Wordsworth (who died in 1850) lived just long enough to be influenced by these later scientific developments, which sowed the first seeds of dissent between science and less quantifiable world views.

Nowadays poetry is still poetry, while geology is a hard-nosed, competitive, down-to-earth professional science. Because of the divisiveness of modern educational systems, as well as the sheer technical proliferation of modern science, there are indeed two (or more) cultures. Fortunately, many scientists still appreciate the work of artists. The reverse is not so clear. For an inspiringly educational read about a golden age when art, philosophy, science, morality - indeed intellectual enquiry of any kind - could be creatively harmonised beneath a single head, you need look no further than this charming, erudite and deeply civilised book.

Stephen Moorbath is professor of isotope geology, University of Oxford.

Wordsworth and the Geologists

Author - John Wyatt
ISBN - 0 521 47259 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 268

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