Dpt. of English, Nadelberg 6, room 13
Anthropocene Temporalities and British Romantic Poetry
As Dipesh Chakrabarty has observed, the reality of anthropogenic global warming not only renders meaningless the traditional separation of human and natural histories, but also throws into doubt the basic assumption on which our conception of history has traditionally rested: “that our past, present, and future are connected by a certain continuity of human experience.”
In the Romantic era, this sense of human temporal continuity as both predicated on and guaranteed by the natural world’s durability is perhaps best expressed by William Wordsworth’s well-known lines: “My heart leaps up when I behold/ A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began;/ So is it now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old,/ Or let me die!” Yet even as this Wordsworthian attitude became the norm, Britain’s industrial revolution was beginning to create the modern conditions of the Anthropocene. Combined with new knowledge produced by emerging disciplines like geology and biology, as well as the geopolitical disturbances of the Napoleonic Wars, the Romantic era thus eventually gave birth to a series of more skeptical perspectives concerning humanity and history: “deep time” (e.g., in Shelley’s “Ozymandias”); “slow time” (e.g., in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”); “revolutionary time” (e.g., in Shelley’s “England in 1819”); and, perhaps most provocatively, “hyper-chaos” (e.g., in Byron’s “Darkness”). These alternatives, I will argue, retroactively appear as harbingers of the “deep contradiction and confusion” (Chakrabarty) that the Anthropocene has introduced into our contemporary historical situation.
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