Pascale McCullough Manning
Literature Compass, vol. 13, no. 10, pp. 646-54
Publication year: 2016


In his Principles of Geology (1830–33), Charles Lyell seeks to explain the processes by which the great geological monuments of the world – from mountains to river valleys – came to be as they are. Through his theory of uniformitarianism, which states that geological phenomena must be explained according to known and observable causes, Lyell develops in his Principles a narrative explaining the laws governing such phenomena. But because the processes of geological flux he seeks to describe cannot be observed in their totality, Lyell frequently appeals to the imagination to ford the many gaps in physical evidence. This article explores how Lyell’s theory of uniformitarianism is built upon an original act of imaginative retrieval in which the geologist exercises mastery over the past through his imaginative reconstruction of prehistory, where “history” is understood to mean “belonging to human time.” I argue that in his careful delineation of the means by which the mind may come to know what is not necessarily verifiable, Lyell appeals to a principle of the imagination that closely resembles Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s concept of the vital and generative power of the secondary imagination. Furthermore, I highlight Coleridge’s own failure, in his reading of Lyell, to recognize this resemblance between the geologist’s imaginative act and his own – a failure that led him to privilege the catastrophist theories that Lyell set out to (and indeed did) supplant.