Chaos and the Microcosm: Literary Ecology in the Nineteenth-Century

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Scott, Heidi
Fraistat, Neil
This dissertation investigates literary responses to environmental change in nineteenth-century England. Two tropes, chaos in narrative and the microcosm in lyric poetry, suggest how literary works may have been precursors of ecological science. I argue that literary epistemology in the long nineteenth-century developed precocious theories of the way nature operates based on contingent narrative and microcosm systems. These ideas were adopted as empirical strategies once scientific ecology emerged in the twentieth-century, and both tropes are prominent in twenty-first century ecological science. Ecology appeared late among scientific disciplines partly because it relies on cooperation between reduction and holism: climate change theory, for example, uses microcosm models to develop narratives of environmental contingency. Five chapters consider these two tropes from historical, literary, and scientific perspectives. The first chapter is a historical introduction to nineteenth-century science that traces the development of environmental awareness from industrial pollution and early studies of nature in microcosm, especially in the work of Charles Darwin and Stephen Forbes. Chapter two investigates four narratives of environmental chaos spanning the long nineteenth-century: Gilbert White, Mary Shelley, Richard Jefferies and H.G. Wells emplot the radical new notion of a post-apocalypse environment in narratives that rely on chaotic discontinuity, rather than the coherent gradualism that marked evolutionary theories of the time. Chapter three examines microcosmic imagery in the work of several important poets, including William and Dorothy Wordsworth, John Clare, Percy Shelley, and Matthew Arnold. I argue that the imagination and close observation of nineteenth-century poets helped the nascent sciences conceive of ways to simplify nature without dismembering its complex structures. Chapter four, devoted to the ecological thinking of John Keats, traces his abandonment of teleological narrative in Hyperion in preference for the microcosmic Odes. Finally, chapter five reconciles the two tropes with an excursion into modern ecosystem science, paying particular attention to our contemporary strategies for investigating climate change. This chapter serves as a summation of the dissertation by complicating the dichotomy between chaotic narrative and model-microcosm, and it brings the study into concerns of the present day.