Tom Stoppard, Lord Byron and (Heat) Death in Arcadia   2 comments

Et in Arcadia ego

File:Et-in-Arcadia-ego.jpg                                                                  Guercino’s Arcadia  (from Wikipedia)

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is about Love and Death and The Second Law of Thermal Dynamics ).  Lord Byron  and his ill fated daughter Ada are invisible actors in this intense play.  They are shadows to two visible actors:  Septimus and Thomasina.  Septimus fate is to become a love-lost hermit and Thomasina will perish in a fire.   In the second act of the play a few lines of from Byron’s Darkness are given by the character Hanna.  Much of the second act of the play concerns the heat death of the universe implied by the (as yet to be  discovered) second law of thermal dynamics; whose implications are seen intuitively by Thomasina (who will die by fire soon after the end of the play).

Byron wrote Darkness after the “The Year Without Summer”, 1816.  Historian John Post has called this “the last great subsistence crisis in the Western World.”  The world experienced extreme climate abnormalities in 1816 with a global temperature decrease resulting in major food shortages across the northern hemisphere.

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.” Byron In Darkness

In the Wikipedia we find:

In the spring and summer of 1816, a persistent “dry fog” was observed in the northeastern US. The fog reddened and dimmed the sunlight, such that sunspots were visible to the naked eye. In May 1816, frost killed off most of the crops that had been planted.  On 6 June 1816, snow fell in Albany, New York, and Dennysville, Maine. Nearly a foot (30 cm) of snow was observed in Quebec City in early June, with consequent additional loss of crops. The result was regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality. In July and August, lake and river ice were observed as far south as Pennsylvania. Rapid, dramatic temperature swings were common, with temperatures sometimes reverting from normal or above-normal summer temperatures  to near-freezing within hours. Cool temperatures and heavy rains resulted in failed harvests in the British Isles as well. Families in Wales traveled long distances as refugees, begging for food. Famine was prevalent in north and southwest Ireland. The crisis was severe in Germany, where food prices rose sharply. Due to the unknown cause of the problems, demonstrations in front of grain markets and bakeries, followed by riots, arson, and looting, took place in many European cities. It was the worst famine of the 19th century. In China, the cold weather killed trees, rice crops, and even water buffalo, especially in northern China. Floods destroyed many remaining crops. In India the delayed summer monsoon caused late torrential rains that aggravated the spread of cholera from a region near the River Ganges in Bengal to as far as Moscow.In New York City, the temperature dropped to -32 °C (-26°F) during the ensuing bitter winter of 1817. This resulted in a freezing of New York’s Upper Bay deep enough for horse-drawn sleighs to be driven from Brooklyn to Governors Island.

Within this context Lord Byron wrote the poem Darkness.

Darkness

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires–and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings–the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain’d;
Forests were set on fire–but hour by hour
They fell and faded–and the crackling trunks
Extinguish’d with a crash–and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d: the wild birds shriek’d,
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d
And twined themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless–they were slain for food.
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again;–a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought–and that was death,
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails–men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress–he died.
The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they raked up,
And shivering scraped with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other’s aspects–saw, and shriek’d, and died–
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful–was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless–
A lump of death–a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d
They slept on the abyss without a surge–
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon their mistress had expir’d before;
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them–She was the Universe.

2 responses to “Tom Stoppard, Lord Byron and (Heat) Death in Arcadia

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  1. Pingback: Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia « Cloud2013 Or Bust

  2. Pingback: 1-22-2010 Dream Fragments Kings Fragment Thomasina, And An Odd Semi-Lucid Dream With A Virus « John Jr's WordPress Blog

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