When I learned that, in South Carolina, two Republican young earth creationists recently blocked the adoption of the woolly mammoth as the state’s official fossil (all but seven states have one) because they don’t want people reminded of evolution, I thought of a stanza from Alfred Lord Tennyson, from his In Memoriam (CXXIII):
There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O earth, what changes hast thou seen!
There where the long street roars hath been
The stillness of the central sea.
In other words, when Tennyson looked out across the sea, he imagined a time in Earth’s history when that sea had been land, and when he looked down the long thoroughfare of a great city, he imagined a time when that street scene upon the land had cupped a tranquil sea. In the next stanza, he then contemplates the transience of even the very hills:
The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.
All things seemingly solid melt into thin air. Nothing lasts. Tennyson’s lines are an ode to smoke. As Robert Hill puts it in his introduction to In Memoriam in Tennyson’s Poetry: A Norton Critical Edition (second edition 1999): “In 1850 [the year of the poem’s publication] the ‘night of fear’ [a phrase in CXXVI of In Memoriam] had descended. Theories of evolution were very much in the air. Sir Charles Lyell’s famous Principles of Geology (1830-1833) had made it extremely difficult for any self-respecting intelligence to take the biblical version of the Creation literally” (205).
And this is what young earth creationists seek to sublimate: the “night of fear” that geology brings us to; the chill vastness of time; the relentlessness of change. Like Oedipus, they would have people pluck out their eyes rather than face these truths and work with them; they would have us, like Peter Pan, never grow up. And they won.
Drawing by Paul Jamin (1885). Image source: Wikipedia Commons.