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Environmental Apocalypse

Coalbrookdale by Night
John Martin's The Great Day of His Wrath, c1853. Although this painting imagines a deity-derived apocalypse, its imagery depicts the sudden and violent action of natural forces, as in Romantic imaginings of an environmental apocalypse.
British Romanticism gave rise both to an image of Nature as a harmonious whole (as in nature's economy) and more violent conceptions of environmental apocalypse. What distinguishes this latter imagery from previous conceptions of the apocalypse is its lack of apparent connection to biblical framing and its genesis at the outset of the industrial revolution. Blake depicts what looks very much like the threat of an environmental apocalypse in his vast prophetic work, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the giant Albion (1804-20). In plates 18-19 of this work, Blake envisions a world in which Albion (an idealized personification of England, in part) experiences a tragic loss:
His birds are fallen silent on the hills, flocks die beneath his branches
His tents are fall'n! His trumpets, and the sweet sound of his harp
Are silent on his clouded hills, that belch forth storms & fire.
His milk of Cows, & honey of Bees, & fruit of golden harvest
Is gather'd in the scorching heat, & in the driving rain ...
The corn is turned to thistles, & the apples to poison ...
His Eon weeping in the cold and desolated Earth.

As James McKusik notes, this desolation is the result of unchecked collective human action, not divine wrath.
Another image of environmental apocalypse appears in Byron's 1816 poem "Darkness," which imagines an earth in which the sun has gone out. In the course of the poem, the humans die alongside all other vital inhabitants of the earth, which is rendered again void. In attempting to resist this natural inevitability, humans lay waste to their civilization and natural environment alike:
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum'd, ...
Forests were set on fire--but hour by hour
They fell and faded--and the crackling trunks
Extinguish'd with a crash--and all was black.

In presenting her own vision of a sort of environmental apocalypse, the famous environmentalist Rachel Carson drew on Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," the line "The sedge is wither'd from the lake, And no birds sing" inspiring the image for Carson's groundbreaking work, Silent Spring. In encouraging us to imagine a world that might no longer support life, human or otherwise, poets like Byron and Blake encourage us to factor in a sense of fragility in determining how we inhabit and interact with our natural environments.

Andrew Lallier






Select Bibliography

McKusik, James. "The End of Nature: Environmental Apocalypse in William Blake and Mary Shelley." Green      Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. 95-112. Print.

"Ecology" in Romanticism: An Oxford Guide. ed. Nicholas Roe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 199-218.       Print.

Bate, Jonathan. "Living with the weather." Studies in Romanticism 35.3 (Fall 1996): 431-447. Print.

Vial, Jeffrey. "'The Bright Sun was Extinguis'd': The Bologna Prophecy and Byron's 'Darkness'" Wordsworth Circle      28: 183-92. Print.