Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

James Montgomery's Pelican Island: Imagination, Religion, Evolution

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

James Montgomery's Pelican Island: Imagination, Religion, Evolution

Article excerpt

James Cook University

"The first branch of natural .science to become genuinely historical," Stephen Toulmin and June Goodlield wrote in The Discovery of Time (141), "was geology."

In the early 19111 cen illy, between the era of Cuvier and that of Darwin, biology arose to accompany geology, and, as Toulmin .and Good-field went on, "the intellectual claims of the modern, extended time-scale were finally established by the resultant interweaving of geological considerations with evolutionaiy ones" (143). Another historian of geology, Martin Rudwick, idriitilies two key features of that. discovery--or two misunderstandings of it, to be precise. First, "religious and scientific practices. and knowledge interacted" during the interweaving Toulmin and Goodfield describe. "Rather than being the enemy of progress in the sciences of the earth," Christianity in fact "lbstered the extension of historicity to the previously uncharted vastnesses of pre-human time," as a product and a result of its own fascination with Biblical history, Biblical origins, and Biblical accounts of the creation (Bursting the Limits of Time 6, 643; my italics). "When we talk about the 'clash' between religion and science in the Victorian era," as Lynn Barber more graphically puts it, "we are talking about the 'clash between an articulated lorry and a grain of sand" (25). Second, "it was . . . the human imagination that needed to be stretched, even among savants, before talk of vast amounts of time could begin to seem anything more than vacuous and scientifically irresponsible hand-waving."

(Bursting the Limits of Time 124-5; my i ta I ics.) As the pioneering European geologist, James Hutton, said "How describe an operation which man cannot have any opportunity of perceiving? Or how imagine that, for which, perhaps, there are not proper data to be found?" (1: 164). "Something more than outcrops of well-hammered rocks and trays of well-handled fossil specimens was needed," Rudwick argues elsewhere, 'before any pictorial sense of the world at the time of their formation became--in the literal sense--conceivable."

Rudwick has illustrators in mind here, but writers, too, were in the business of building what he calls "human constructions: not unconstrained by the natural evidence available at a given period, but certainly using that evidence in a representation that has many other inputs besides the fossil bones and shells themselves" (Scenes from Deep Time 227, 223). Religious people and imaginative people played their roles in the discovery of time and in that "mythic revival" Marilyn Gault describes, "in which artists, historians, and poets were then deeply engaged," (209). It is the work of one particular religious imaginist I want to discuss here: the sub-or proto-evolutionary epic, Pilican Hand, published by the English poet and WorcLsworth's contemporary, James Montgomery, in 1827. (A poem "worth ten Excursions," in Ralph. Waldo Emerson's view; 2: 235.)1 Above all, Pelican Island has its start and takes its origin in coral: a zoological interweaver whose biological activity has a posthumous geological result.

Without rehearsing the debate between the Vulcanists (for whom volcanic forces were the chief engine of geological change) and the Nepunists (for whom changes in sea level performed the same role), it is clear that the sea played a massive role in the confluence of geology and biology Toul-min and Goodfield describe, in both religious and imaginative terms. Evidence for changes in sea level, after all, was writ large in the Biblical account of the deluge: an event in discussing which a student of geology and a student of the Old Testament could be the same person. On the other hand, the sea in the late 18th century was an element that empirical observation could hardly penetrate at all. Objects could be dropped into it and hauled back up again; a person could dive a few fathoms with his eyes open; creatures of all sorts came up in fishermen's nets: but there was no way the ocean could systematically be explored beneath its surface. …

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