Daniel Williams, “Transatlantic Climate and Gulf Stream Aesthetics” (pp. 57–91)
The Gulf Stream gained scientific prominence in the nineteenth century as a test case for theories about the dynamics of ocean currents and the equilibrium of transatlantic climate. Discourse about the current supplied descriptions, analogies, and myths that persist into the present. Triangulating oceanic, ecological, and transatlantic approaches to literary study, this essay argues that the nineteenth-century discourse of the Gulf Stream included a significant aesthetic dimension organized by a dialectic between stability and variability. First, the essay traces the Gulf Stream’s presence in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific writing and print culture, showing how memorable figures and vivid illustrations accentuated the risk of climate variability even as they charted an apparently stable oceanic system. Next, it considers the work of two poets separated by the ocean, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Sidney Lanier. While ostensibly using the Gulf Stream motif to reflect on geographic identity and cultural belonging, Hopkins and Lanier use formal and figurative techniques that register the threat of climate instability, offering a deeper sense of climate disquiet than the scientific materials on which they drew. Finally, the essay looks at the poetry of Derek Walcott, sketching the afterlife of the Gulf Stream discourse, extending its formal and figurative lineage, and renewing the present ecological urgency of thinking with an Earth-system process as a motif of climatic connection and obligation.