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Since I’m posting artwork today, I might as well post one of my favorite paintings. This is William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay, A Recollection of October 5th 1858

This painting, for me, is the poster child for Victorian anxiety: the looming cliffs invoke Charles Lyell’s theories about geology; the title of the poem attempts to “fix” a single moment in time; the comet (unfortunately barely visible in this image) overhead suggests (like the cliffs) a universe that is unfathomably ancient and that continues along in its patterns regardless of whether or not humanity exists; the people collecting shells are, in fact, collecting the remnants of death.

And of course, all of the human figures in the painting are scattered and disconnected from one another, even though this is ostensibly some kind of family outing. Even the family, it seems, registers this anxiety, since how significant can human relations be in the face of such timelessness? How are we different from the humble Trilobyte? How, in a world where we are merely another creature, can our existence be worth more than a footnote?

As I’ve been looking at this painting, a moment in Hardy’s neat little novel A Pair of Blue Eyes kept creeping into my mind. At the beginning of chapter 22, Henry Knight finds himself, quite literally, hanging from a cliff (Hardy has offered us a literal cliffhanger). While he waits for his love-interest to fetch help he has a remarkably philosophical moment:

He reclined hand in hand with the world in its infancy. Not a blade, not an insect, which spoke of the present, was between him and the past. The inveterate antagonism of these black precipices to all strugglers for life is in no way more forcibly suggested than by the paucity of tufts.

And then we find three remarkable paragraphs.

From the fact that the cliff formed the inner face of the segment of a huge cylinder, having the sky for a top and the sea for a bottom, which enclosed the cove to the extent of more than a semicircle, he could see the vertical face curving round on each side of him. He looked far down the facade, and realized more thoroughly how it threatened him. Grimness was in every feature, and to its very bowels the inimical shape was desolation.

By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense, opposite Knight’s eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their death. It was the single instance within reach of his vision of anything that had ever been alive and had had a body to save, as he himself had now.

The creature represented but a low type of animal existence, for never in their vernal years had the plains indicated by those numberless slaty layers been traversed by an intelligence worthy of the name. Zoophytes, mollusca, shell-fish, were the highest developments of those ancient dates. The immense lapses of time each formation represented had known nothing of the dignity of man. They were grand times, but they were mean times too, and mean were their relics. He was to be with the small in his death.

As Hardy later puts it, “Time closed up like a fan before him.” That’s what Dyce is after, I think.


Written by srogers

July 2, 2011 at 2:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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