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  • "Dire Reverse":Poetic Structure and Historic Catastrophe
  • Julia M. Wright (bio)

Much has been written about the emergence of the term "catastrophe" to refer to natural disaster. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, for instance, helped to shape the very concept of nature as well as natural catastrophe.1 But, in the eighteenth century, "catastrophe" was primarily a literary term. In Johnson's Dictionary "catastrophe" is first defined as "The change, or revolution, which produces the conclusion or final event of a dramatic piece." Thus the title page for John Trumbull's Progress of Dulness (1773) promises to give us "Dick Hairbrain's" "gradual Progress from a Clown to a Coxcomb … His Peripætia and Catastrophe." As a dramatic term, it was metaphorically extended to historical events. In his famous "Speech from the Dock," delivered in 1803 and then written down by witnesses and circulated for decades, Robert Emmet declares, "there must be guilt somewhere: whether in the sentence of the Court or in the catastrophe, posterity must determine" (267). Here, I would like to trace some of the implications of this notion of catastrophe for Irish writing from about 1785 to 1850.

In formal terms, catastrophe, like its near relations strophe, antistrophe, and apostrophe, denotes a kind of turn. The first two are key to [End Page 3] the ode: as poet William Preston noted in a lecture to the Royal Irish Academy in December 1786, strophe, antistrophe, and epode meant "turn, return, and counter-turn" (62). These lyric turns, he explained, had physical elaborations in ancient Greece: "The first stanza, called strophe, they sung, dancing at the same time; the second, called the antistrophe, was sung while the dance was inverted; the epode they sung standing still" (63). The apostrophe, as Johnson notes, is a rhetorical term that refers to "a turning of the speech, from one person to another." Catastrophe, from the Greek for "overturning," however, was a narrative turn and it was possible in the eighteenth century to remark, "The Catastrophe is happy" or "of a mixed Nature" (Manwaring 188; Sewell 14).

The usage "catastrophe" for natural disasters seems to begin, at least in part, with work on the biblical flood, termed a "catastrophe" at least as far back as 1750,2 even though the proper Greek-derived word is "cataclysm," "used generally for the universal deluge," as Johnson remarks. The conversion of cataclysms into catastrophes moves us from description to an element of narrative—to understanding such physical phenomena as moments in the larger drama of history. In November 1796, Richard Kirwan gave an ria lecture "On the Primitive State of the Globe and its Subsequent Catastrophe," an attempt to develop an account of the original state of the globe and the effects of the "universal deluge" that reconciles biblical details with Enlightenment science:

After the flood the state of things was perfectly reversed, the surface of the earth was covered with dead and putrifying land animals and fish, which copiously absorbed the oxygenous parts of the atmosphere and supplied only mephitic and fixed air. … Hence the constitution of men must have been weakened and the lives of their enfeebled posterity gradually reduced to their present standard.


Thus, not only is the flood true, but it also explains away other extraordinary claims in the Bible: Methuselah and Noah lived nearly a thousand years because they had much better air. Kirwan's emphasis on reversal, on (dramatic) catastrophe rather than (physical) cataclysm, is symptomatic of his effort to turn fossils and other details into a cogent narrative. He concludes this section by speculating that Noah moved to China—"hence the early origin of the Chinese monarchy" (293). Catastrophe is the device [End Page 4] by which, to adapt Johnson, he awkwardly yokes together disparate scientific facts and biblical claims.3

In British Romantic writing, political revolution was often depicted on apocalyptic terms, and there are certainly elements of the apocalyptic in Irish writing, from the dream vision that concludes James Porter's Billy Bluff and the Squire (1796) to the proliferation of the Pastorini prophecies in the 1820s. But, like Kirwan, Irish writers in this era often framed historical transformation as reversal rather than revelation...


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