Abstract

This essay responds to Jonathan Bate's call for a "Global Warming Criticism" by reconsidering strains of Romantic utopianism in relation to current perspectives on a changing climate. The relation between melancholy and utopian literature—exemplified in the "poeticall commonwealth" of social engineering offered by "Democritus to the Reader" in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy—assumes a new form in the Romantic era by incorporating both a historiography of human perfectibility and a Hippocratic climatology of collective temperaments. A renewed emphasis on the relation between physical environment and moral character (inherited most directly from Montesquieu) conjoins with a scientifically endorsed historical optimism (articulated most completely by Condorcet) to give new life to the perennial utopian dream of the banishment of melancholy. In the medical writings of Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis and in the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, climate change is coordinate with social harmony and moral perfection, a tragically misguided vision stemming from an emphasis on humanity's liberation from contingency. But dissenting views from Thomas Malthus and John Keats use the language of melancholy itself to critique dreams of absolute felicity and climatic engineering. They thus provide a more useful model of Romantic climatology for current environmental concerns.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-3786
Print ISSN
1531-0485
Pages
pp. 74-101
Launched on MUSE
2008-10-26
Open Access
No
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