‘Darkness’, Lord Byron (1816)
Darwin’s argument for evolution by natural selection gets a lot of attention as the science bombshell of the 19th century that shocked the sensibilities of Victorian society, but there was an equally consequential, if less dramatic, scientific development that took place much earlier in the century, a development that left a deep impression on the generation before Darwin: William Herschel’s discovery that the universe is much bigger and much older than nearly anyone had imagined.
William Herschel’s scientific findings, made with his ever larger telescopes, were a frequent target of Romantic poets’ imaginations, and towards the end of his career, Herschel’s speculations about the past and future of the cosmos fed Romantic angst over the role of God and humanity in what now seemed to be a jaw-droppingly vast cosmic stage.
Among Herschel’s more disturbing ideas is the notion of a natural end to the Milky Way. As Richard Holmes notes in The Age of Wonder, Herschel jarred the poet Thomas Campbell by explaining that the night sky was filled with “many distant stars [that] had probably ‘ceased to exist’ millions of years ago, and that looking up into the night sky we were seeing a stellar landscape that was not really there at all. The sky was full of ghosts.”1
In a paper written in 1814, “Astronomical Observations Relating to the Sidereal Part of the Heavens, and Its Connection with the Nebulous Part; Arranged for the Purpose of a Critical Examination,” Herschel wrote about the death of the Milky Way, arguing that the galaxy itself was a chronometer counting down from the beginning to the end:
We may also draw a very important additional conclusion from the gradual dissolution of the milky way; for the state into which the incessant action of the clustering power has brought the present, is a kind of chronometer that may be used to measure the time of its past and future existence; and although we do not know the rate of going of this mysterious chronometer, it is nevertheless certain, that since the breaking up of the parts of the milky way affords a proof that it cannot last for ever, it equally bears witness that its past duration cannot be admitted to be infinite.
The snuffing out of our world, as just one extinction of millions in an indifferent universe, is the setting of Lord Byron’s post-apocalyptic poem, ‘Darkness’. Desperate scenes of violence and suffering are flanked by cold images of an empty cosmos that continues on, unperturbed. The Romantic concerns about the end of the world and “Man’s Place in Nature” are the forerunners of books like Earth Abides, The Road, and the enduringly popular genre of post-apocalyptic fiction.
Darkness I had a dream, which was not all a dream. The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars Did wander darkling in the eternal space, Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day, And men forgot their passions in the dread Of this their desolation; and all hearts Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light: And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones, The palaces of crowned kings—the huts, The habitations of all things which dwell, Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum'd, And men were gather'd round their blazing homes To look once more into each other's face; Happy were those who dwelt within the eye Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch: A fearful hope was all the world contain'd; Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks Extinguish'd with a crash—and all was black. The brows of men by the despairing light Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits The flashes fell upon them; some lay down And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smil'd; And others hurried to and fro, and fed Their funeral piles with fuel, and look'd up With mad disquietude on the dull sky, The pall of a past world; and then again With curses cast them down upon the dust, And gnash'd their teeth and howl'd: the wild birds shriek'd And, terrified, did flutter on the ground, And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl'd And twin'd themselves among the multitude, Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food. And War, which for a moment was no more, Did glut himself again: a meal was bought With blood, and each sate sullenly apart Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left; All earth was but one thought—and that was death Immediate and inglorious; and the pang Of famine fed upon all entrails—men Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh; The meagre by the meagre were devour'd, Even dogs assail'd their masters, all save one, And he was faithful to a corse, and kept The birds and beasts and famish'd men at bay, Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead Lur'd their lank jaws; himself sought out no food, But with a piteous and perpetual moan, And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand Which answer'd not with a caress—he died. The crowd was famish'd by degrees; but two Of an enormous city did survive, And they were enemies: they met beside The dying embers of an altar-place Where had been heap'd a mass of holy things For an unholy usage; they rak'd up, And shivering scrap'd with their cold skeleton hands The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath Blew for a little life, and made a flame Which was a mockery; then they lifted up Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld Each other's aspects—saw, and shriek'd, and died— Even of their mutual hideousness they died, Unknowing who he was upon whose brow Famine had written Fiend. The world was void, The populous and the powerful was a lump, Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless— A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay. The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still, And nothing stirr'd within their silent depths; Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea, And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp'd They slept on the abyss without a surge— The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave, The moon, their mistress, had expir'd before; The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air, And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need Of aid from them—She was the Universe.
1. Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (2008), p. 210.
Image: Hubert Robert, Imaginary View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in Ruins (1796)