The Poetry of Fossils

Sketch of Oldhamia antiqua trace fossil
Sketch of Oldhamia antiqua trace fossil (gutenberg.org)

That something which was alive and kicking millions, even billions, of years ago, is now preserved as a delicate impression on a rock, is an awe-inspiring thought. So it is no surprise that they have inspired poetic musing. Not only does the beauty of certain fossils transport us to distant and wonderful worlds, but fossils have the strange power to put our own little lives into perspective.

I believe that this sense of perspective is one of the themes conveyed by Irish geologist and geophysicist John Joly in his sonnet on Oldhamia antiqua, a Cambrian trace fossil found on Bray Head, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. Joly, professor of Geology and Mineralogy in Trinity College Dublin, made major advances in a variety of topics, including radioactivity, geochronology and tectonics. The trace fossil Oldhamia inspired him to write this sonnet:

“Is nothing left? Have all things passed thee by? The stars are not thy stars! The aged hills Are changed and bowed beneath repeated ills Of ice and snow, of river and of sky. The sea that raiseth now in agony Is not thy sea. The stormy voice that fills This gloom with man’s remotest sorrow shrills The memory of the futurity! We – promise of the ages!- Lift thine eyes, And gazing on these tendrils intertwined For Aeons in the shadows, recognize In Hope and Joy, in heaven-seeking Mind, In Faith, in Love, in Reason’s potent spell The visitants that bid the world farewell!”

The sonnet was written in 1886, during one of many camping trips spent in the Wicklow and Dublin hills. The poet refers to the tendrils (i.e. Oldhamia), which have been intertwined in the rock for Aeons. Throughout the sonnet, not only does Joly convey the vastness of geological time, but he is aware of the effect of geological processes on the landscape (ice, snow, rivers, rain, changing sea levels). The religious element is also alluded to (“Faith”, “heaven-seeking Mind”) towards the end (Wyse Jackson 2011).

Whether the sense of comfort alluded to is stronger than the sense of despair at the futility of humankind, also present, is a matter for debate. And that a mysterious fossil can make us question fundamental truths and our very own existence is wonderful.

Joly also published scientific papers on Oldhamia. For a comprehensive account, the reader is referred to Dr Patrick Wyse Jackson’s paper on Joly’s scientific and poetic observations of Oldhamia:

Wyse Jackson P.N. 2011. History of Ichnology: John Joly (1857-1933) on Oldhamia: Poetic and Scientific Observations. Ichnos, 18, 209-212.

The specimen of Oldhamia antiqua illustrated by Joly in his 1886 scientific paper is held in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin.

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