- Wordsworth and the Deluge
In essays upon epitaphs william wordsworth analyzes the marquis of Montrose’s elegy for Charles I, in which Montrose claims that “I’d weep the world to such a strain, / As it should deluge once again.” “His soul labours,” Wordsworth observes of the poet,
—the most tremendous event in the history of the planet—namely, the deluge, is brought before his imagination by the physical image of tears,—a connection awful from its very remoteness and from the slender band that unites the ideas:—it passes into the region of fable likewise; for all modes of existence that forward his purpose are to be pressed into the service.1
The Deluge is located in distant history, but its “tremendous[ness]” has lingered to the present, translated into and captured in the “awful” remoteness of the simile comparing it to tears. For this reason, it becomes something useful which can be “pressed into service” by a poet. This passage tells us that key to its “service,” for Wordsworth as well as Montrose, is the Deluge’s ontological and temporal status. Here Wordsworth distinguishes between the “history” of the Deluge and the “fable” of the classical myths alluded to in the elegy’s next lines. These belong to two different “modes of existence,” or ontological categories, but these “modes” are contiguous “regions” that can be traversed with ease within the space of a sentence of prose or a few lines of verse. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Deluge occupied a privileged position on the border between these “modes of existence,” history and myth.
The seventeenth-century European proto-geologists who developed the discipline of Earth history did so whilst maintaining their implicit belief that the Deluge as recorded in the Book of Genesis had really occurred. The Deluge offered a fitting explanation for some of the most perplexing features of the Earth: notably the marine fossils found in inland, upland areas, even on mountaintops; and erratic boulders, huge rocks in peculiar locations which were frequently accounted for as diluvial relics that had been [End Page 183] carried and left by the floodwater. However, later in the eighteenth century the centrality of the biblical Deluge to Earth history was challenged by theories such as Abraham Gottlob Werner’s Neptunism, premised on a global ocean that predated humanity, and Plutonism, the theory that rock formation was driven not by water but by volcanic heat. By the early nineteenth century James Hutton and other geologists had argued that the land was shaped by continuous, gradual processes (a principle later labeled Uniformitarianism), rather than by dramatic upheavals like global floods (Catastrophism).2
Nevertheless, many Earth historians continued to cite the enormous Deluge that had been recorded in Genesis as a defining epoch in Earth’s history, even if Noah’s flood was only the most recent of a series of violent flood events.3 Georges Cuvier, Jean-André de Luc, and William Buckland, for example, all argued in the first decades of the nineteenth century for the historical reality and geological import of the biblical Deluge. Along with fossils and erratic boulders, an important piece of evidence for the Deluge for these later geologists was that most known cultures around the world seemed to have their own versions of the flood myth, suggesting a shared global memory of a real worldwide catastrophe. “We have seen in general,” wrote de Luc in 1809, “that the ancient mythologies were entirely founded on certain traditions of the deluge.”4 Thus the Deluge, according to many Romantic-period Earth historians, passed from divinely ordained but real geological event into mythology.
As well as for natural philosophers, the Deluge remained an important resource for Romantic poets, and a particularly flexible one given contemporary uncertainty about its validity, origin, and effects. Robert Southey cherished an ambition to write an epic poem about the Deluge, in which he would use the story to reflect obliquely upon contemporary political upheavals (as George Gordon Byron would later use it in his mystery plays, Cain and Heaven and Earth). “The subject [of the Deluge] has been long my favourite,” Southey wrote in 1805, “because...