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  • Fossil Poetry: Thomas Lovell Beddoes and the Material Record
  • Jessica Roberson (bio)


Such verses as these and their brethren,” the physician-poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes wrote of his work in 1827, “will never be preserved to be pasted on the inside of the coffin of our planet.”1 Beddoes argues against the vitality of his own work in extraordinary terms, amplifying anxieties about the material fate of poetry represented, for example, by Byron’s jest in Don Juan that his lines might “only line portmanteaus.”2 Beddoes rehearses Byron’s pun on a grand geological scale, exchanging a trunk for the planet and magnifying the potential significance of his verses even as he self-deprecatingly dismisses that potential. Referring ambiguously to either the coffin that is our planet, or a coffin in which our planet itself is buried, Beddoes’s curious metaphor embeds his poetry—and, importantly, the paper on which it is written, evoked by the verb “paste”—like fossils along a vast planetary geological record. Early geologists similarly borrowed figures of burial and mortality to describe reaches of time beyond the human at the turn of the nineteenth century, reimagining the planet as a massive grave. Another physician-author, James Parkinson, describes the earth’s “enormous chains of mountains” as not only cartographical features but “vast monuments, in which these remains of former ages are entombed.”3 As Dana Luciano evocatively puts it, in the early nineteenth century buried geological objects like the fossil “came to embody the mind-numbing vastness of geological time, edged by the black border of death.”4 Beddoes’s stratigraphical image of fossilized verses which may or may not be found buried and preserved in the sedimentary layers of [End Page 209] our coffin-like planet suggests that the poet was thinking about the implication of the newly discovered material record not only for what Martin Rudwick terms the “historicization of the earth,” but for literary history as well.5 As poets and geologists alike confronted the developing understanding at the end of the eighteenth century that the history of the earth was far longer than the relatively brief history represented by human records, Beddoes’s attribution of fossil-like properties to poetic texts raises an interesting question about the influence of early nineteenth-century geological theories of the earth on contemporary theories of mediation. What exactly might a “literary remain” look like in deep time?

In this article, I examine Beddoes’s discussion of the material properties of literature, particularly the circulation of poetic texts, in his correspondence, illuminating a long intellectual engagement with literary inheritance as a matter of the material record. Excavating this engagement highlights on the one hand, a mode of reading that in some ways anticipates Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor’s formulation of Anthropocene reading as “the epoch in which our singular species reads its transformative presence in the Earth’s strata, reads itself in the rocks,” by giving expression to small moments of such embedded narratives.6 Secondly, the self-reflexive attention of these fossilized verses to their own mediation suggests that Beddoes also sees literary history in deep time as first and foremost a matter of the material record.

I use the controlling material metaphor of “fossil poetry” to signal Beddoes’s rearticulation of poetry’s relationship to its material circumstances. In other words, when Beddoes addresses the material substrates of his work, imagining various ways in which it may survive or disappear utterly, he is not only concerned with the posthumous viability of his own texts but the consequences of these changing paradigms of access and memory for media history writ large. Paying attention to Beddoes’s “fossil poetry” does two specific tasks for Romanticism and our understanding of Beddoes. One, it highlights one Romantic author’s approach to literary preservation in response to the early nineteenth-century discovery of deep time. Two, it provides an articulation of Beddoes’s intellectual engagement [End Page 210] , in his letters, with the mortality and materiality of poetry’s nineteenth-century technological mediums such as paper and print in a way that provides an additional thread to the critical consensus on Beddoes’s obsession...


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pp. 209-230
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