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Durham e-Theses
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The idea of evolution in eighteenth and nineteenth century poetry

Harrison, James (1968) The idea of evolution in eighteenth and nineteenth century poetry. Masters thesis, Durham University.

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Abstract

Some form of evolutionary theory has been current since the mid-eighteenth century, grafting a progressive element, probably taken, from the- emerging concept of human progress, onto an existing belief that forms of life exhibit a fixed, hierarchical order. But not until the mid-nineteenth century was a satisfactory mechanism, namely natural selection, suggested to account for the progressive nature of biological change. This enabled some to think of all forms of life as having developed by chance from the simplest beginnings. Others, such as Bergson, while rejecting a divinely ordained plan or purpose, attributed a kind of blind purposefulness to the process of development itself. Eighteenth century poetry can display, almost side by side, ideas which are favourable or inimical to that of evolution. It was a subject for speculation, not conviction, which is perhaps why the Romantics tended' to ignore it. But with the Victorians it became emotionally charged. Prior to 1859, Browning's innate optimism led him to welcome biological, and all other forms of progress; just as Meredith and Swinburne were able, after 1859, to accept the harsher aspects of natural, selection, as incidental to its predominantly progressive implications. Tennyson on the other hand, even before 1859, was by temperament inclined to dwell on the harshness revealed by the new geology and biology; just as Hardy found confirmation of his pessimism in the severities of' Darwinism. After 1859, however, both Tennyson and Browning were repelled by the materialistic implications of Darwinism. Similarly, though Swinburne, Meredith and Hardy accepted these implications, they found it impossible to function as poets within a strictly non-anthropomorphic, non-teleological, materialistically determinist framework of cosmic thought. All three persistently personified the forces of nature in one or more ways, thus vitiating their overt adherence elsewhere to a materialism at which Bergson had likewise baulked.

Item Type:Thesis (Masters)
Award:Master of Letters
Thesis Date:1968
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:14 Mar 2014 16:26

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