On 'Theory of the Earth'

by Guusje Groote

James Hutton and Robert Burns both lived in the Age of Reason, the eighteenth century. This era saw many philsophical and scientific developments. There is no historic data which shows that Hutton and Burns ever met, but both men were well-known figures in Edinburgh society towards the end of the century.
Hutton (1726-1797) was a Scottish chemist and geologist, who is often referred to as the founder of modern geology. He was fascinated by the earth's history and discovered that rocks and minerals derived from a series of floods. Hutton wrote a controversial and innovative book Theory of the Earth (1785) in which he tried to trace back the earth's history. "We find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end" (ll. 9, 10) is a quotation taken from Hutton's book. The passage runs as follows:

We have now got to the end of our reasoning; we have no data further to conclude immediately from that which actually is: But we have got enough; we have the satisfaction to find, that in nature there is wisdom, system, and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for any thing higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, - no prospect of an end.(1)

The first line of the sonnet refers to Hutton as "that true son of fire". The devil is often called "son of fire" as fire is associated with destruction, but also creation; the beginning of everything. However, in the Age of Reason, when reason was seen as the most precious virtue of men, a character that would live up to his reason and will was also called "son of fire". Besides these meanings of "son of fire", the words also appear in Blake's poem 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell'(2). William Blake (1757-1827) was a contemporary of Hutton and Burns. 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' shows Blake's great interest in mysticism, a popular topic in the Age of Reason. In the 1790s, Blake wrote a number of poems in which a spirit of energy appeared, called "Orc". "Orc" is also called "son of fire".
After the first few lines, in which the reader is introduced to Hutton and the Age of Reason, Morgan turns to Burns. Robert Burns (1759-1796) was a celebrated poet, perhaps the most famous Scottish poet of all. His popularity derived from the way in which he depicted the lives of his fellow Scots. He frequently wrote in Scots, and based his poetry on the oral tradition of Scottish folklore and folksong. This brought a new stimulation into English poetry. His poems contain humour; they are written about Scots, but they also tackle more universal problems. Morgan has interwoven lines of Burns' love poem 'A Red, Red Rose' into his sonnet:

And I will luve thee still, my dear
Till a' the seas gang dry.
Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun!
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.(3)

In 'A Red, Red Rose' Burns expresses his love by comparing it to the beauty of nature. In Morgan's sonnet, the lines lose their value of conveying eternal love. Morgan only used those lines that are connected with nature, and in the sonnet the lines come to carry a completely different meaning. Morgan changes Burns' romantic lines into Hutton's scientific thoughts: "'Aye, man, the rocks melt wi the sun'" (l. 2).
Morgan presents Hutton and Burns as typical examples of the Age of Reason. He stresses their mutual interests and questions in man's position and function in the universe. Morgan's focus is on their thoughts on what might come of the earth. The sonnet has a beautiful ending that combines Burns words with the unanswerable questions of life. The men are dead, but lie waiting for what will happen to the universe and the earth. "In wait for hilltop buoys to ring" (l. 11) hints at a possible flooding of the earth, but on the other hand "Scotland's coast / dissolve in crinkled sand and pungent mist." (l. 13, 14). Men will never be able to predict the end of times.
Although Hutton represents the scientific part of society and Burns stands more for the literary innovations, they have a lot in common. Morgan shows how both, Hutton and Burns, set an example for the Age of Reason, as did Blake, who always saw unity in contrasts.

 

(1) Passage from: Hutton, J., The Theory of the Earth, 1795.

(2) Blake, W., The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790.

(3) Passage from: Burns, R., My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose, 1796.

 

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