"The Abysses of the Heavenly Wilderness":
Thomas De Quincey, John Herschel, and J.P. Nichol Confront the Great Nebula in Orion

A talk presented to the Midwest Modern Language Association
St. Louis, MO, November 1992

Jonathan Smith
Humanities Department
University of Michigan-Dearborn
Dearborn, MI 48128-1491

In 1846, Thomas De Quincey published a review article, "System of the Heavens as Revealed by Lord Rosse's Telescopes," that was based on his friend J.P. Nichol's most recent work of popular astronomy. Dominating the article is a discussion of the spatial implications of Rosse's discoveries, and dominating that discussion is De Quincey's reaction to an engraving of the Great Nebula in Orion found in Nichol's book.

De Quincey sees in the form of the nebula a hideous and malignant face that he compares both to an Assyrian sultan's and to those of Satan and Death in Paradise Lost. In this "phantom in Orion" De Quincey sees "a head thrown back, and raising its face . . . in the very anguish of hatred to some unknown heavens." "Brutalities unspeakable sit upon the upper lip"; "cruelty and revenge" on the lower. The head is broken by "a horrid chasm, a ravine, a shaft, that many centuries would not traverse." It is a vision "ready for the worship of those that are tormented in sleep."

The temptation to read De Quincey's response to the Great Nebula and Rosse's discoveries back into De Quincey's own life and writings, into the phantasmagoria of opium dreams, confrontations with death, and the demonization of the Orient, is irresistible. Hillis Miller, Robert Snyder, and, most recently, John Barrell have all done so to good effect. But such an approach ignores or minimizes the importance of the Great Nebula not only to early Victorian science but to early Victorian culture, and particularly its cultural conceptions of space. If De Quincey later admitted that he lacked the expertise to write a "grave and scientific" review of Nichol's work, he also expressed confidence that he was eminently qualified to treat "the many relations of astronomy to man, to his earthly habitation, to the motions of his daily life, to his sense of illimitable grandeur, and to his dim anticipations of changes far overhead concurrently with changes on earth." As Nichol claimed in his preface--with less exaggeration than we might assume--the "great truths in Astronomy" are "now generally unfolded in books touching on any question concerning the Nature of Things; and they are discoursed of in almost every popular periodical, as having passed within the domain of common knowledge."

A representation of the Great Nebula is at the heart of De Quincey's article because such representations were at the heart of a scientific debate over the nebular hypothesis, a theory that claimed to provide "great truths" about the constitution and evolution of the universe. For early Victorian astronomers, determining what the Great Nebula looked like and what it was made of was the way to determine the validity of the nebular hypothesis. Their numerous representations of it--both visual and verbal--therefore form a genealogy in which De Quincey's response can also be located. In situating De Quincey's response, however, I want to suggest not only that De Quincey's reaction is scientific and cultural as well as personal, but that the reaction of the astronomers is personal and cultural as well as scientific. Faced with the ambiguous and frightening implications that the demise of the nebular hypothesis and the discoveries of Rosse raised for man's place in a vast stellar space, De Quincey and the astonomers employ similar representational strategies aimed at controlling the phenomena.

Let me first briefly outline the content and history of the nebular hypothesis, and the importance of the representations of the Great Nebula in Orion to it. Then I will work my way back to De Quincey through the responses of John Herschel and Nichol.

The nebular hypothesis was constructed from William Herschel's theory of stellar formation and Laplace's celestial mechanics. Herschel argued that all nebulae are not potentially "resolvable" into clusters of stars, that a nebulous fluid really exists from which stars are formed by contraction and condensation. In Laplace's cosmogony, the solar system was formed through a similar process: as what became the sun contracted, its revolution accelerated, spinning off pieces of nebulous matter that through further contraction and cooling became the planets.

The nebular hypothesis, then, depended on the existence of this nebulous fluid, which was tested for in two ways. First, astronomers looked for evidence of change in the form of a nebula. Second, they used bigger and better telescopes to see if previously unresolved nebulae were in fact star clusters. In both cases, the perfect object of study was the Great Nebula in Orion, for this massive nebula was easily seen, had an irregular shape, and had shown no signs of resolvability even when viewed through William Herschel's famous telescopes. If it proved to be a cluster, then surely all nebulae would prove so.

When Herschel died, his son John continued his father's work, completing the survey of the northern skies begun by William and then, in 1833, transporting himself, his family, and his father's telescope to South Africa to survey the southern skies. In both of these surveys, John Herschel observed and drew the Great Nebula, subsequently publishing spectacular engravings of it in 1826 and 1847. Comparing the second engraving with the first, he was forced to conclude that too many factors--from observational conditions to differences in telescopic power to the individual astronomer's eyesight and draftsmanship--made change in the nebula's form impossible to verify. But in neither case did the nebula show signs of resolvability.

Popular interest in nebular astronomy and the Great Nebula burgeoned in the late 1830s, when Nichol began to publish his books on popular astronomy, all of which championed the nebular hypothesis. Meanwhile, in Ireland, the Earl of Rosse was constructing enormous new telescopes for the purpose of examining the nebulae. Rosse's six-foot reflector, nicknamed "the Leviathan of Parsonstown," was expected to answer the question of resolvability definitively. Nichol visited Parsonstown in late 1845 for the initial inconclusive observation of the Great Nebula and was among the first to be informed when, three months later, the nebula was resolved. Despite his previous support of the nebular hypothesis, Nichol communicated Rosse's results to his popular audience later that year in the book that De Quincey reviewed.

The nebular hypothesis had always been a source of ambivalence; when Rosse resolved the Orion nebula, that ambivalence heightened. On the one hand, the hypothesis had, through William Herschel, an eminently British pedigree, and it provided an orderly narrative of the history of the universe based on the principles of Newtonian mechanics. On the other hand, its association with Laplace--the man who once told Napoleon that God was an unnecessary hypothesis in his system of the heavens--as well as its appearance in Robert Chambers's Vestiges of Creation, raised suspicions of materialism and atheism that were anathema to British natural theology, particularly in the decade of the Bridgewater Treatises.

Rosse's work raised similarly ambivalent implications. Everything about his project was on an enormous scale: by far the world's largest telescope, the "Leviathan of Parsonstown" was celebrated not only as a scientific marvel, but also as the culmination of an extraordinary series of engineering achievements, from the casting and polishing of the speculum to its final mounting in a special building so immense that the coachmen of visitors to Birr Castle often mistakenly pulled up at the observatory rather than the castle itself. (And I should add that Rosse had the good sense to test his mirror before he launched it.) But this masterpiece of human ingenuity and human control, in "resolving" the riddle of the Great Nebula, effectively put an end to astronomy's best available cosmogony, leaving human beings without the means for ordering a universe that Rosse's telescope was revealing as larger and more chaotic, a universe in which the earth and its inhabitants seemed increasingly insignificant. As De Quincey, borrowing from Nichol, put it, Rosse "found God's universe represented for human convenience, even after all the sublime discoveries of Herschel, upon a globe or spherical chart having a radius of one hundred and fifty feet" and "left it sketched upon a similar chart, keeping exactly the same scale of proportions but now elongating its radius into one thousand feet."

These visual and verbal representations of the Great Nebula by Herschel, Nichol, and De Quincey are, I suggest, expressions of this ambivalence, expressions which endeavor unsuccessfully to control the accompanying anxieties. The critical tendency to see De Quincey's response to the Nebula as "literary" implicitly renders the representations of the astronomers as "scientific" and thus non-literary, i.e. different in kind. I propose to focus, instead, on the engravings and the descriptions that accompany them as literary and artistic strategies for constructing the scientific "fact" that is the Great Nebula.

The visual representations of the Great Nebula were acknowledged at the time as works of science and of art. Contemporary accounts of Rosse's presentations at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as the reviews of the books of Herschel and Nichol, constantly refer to their importance. The Quarterly Review, for example, called the engraving of Herschel's second drawing both "an exquisite representation" and "the most careful delineation of a celestial object ever transferred to copper." The relationship, however, is not merely one of juxtaposition, but of interpenetration: the "celestial object" is known through "careful delineation" and "exquisite representation." Accurate "transferral" renders an engraving both aesthetically pleasing and scientifically valuable.

Sociologist of science Bruno Latour argues that "scientists start seeing something once they stop looking at nature and instead look exclusively and obsessively at prints and flat inscriptions." In cases of controversy, scientists seek better instruments of visualization that will enable them to construct two-dimensional images of the object that will enhance visual characteristics already present in the object--the stars of the Great Nebula seen through a telescope, for instance, become points in a two-dimensional representation of the nebula. The result is a series of representations in which the object is absent; representations are interpreted not in relation to the object but in relation to each other.

The engravings of the Orion nebula are a case in point. The nebula itself is necessarily absent. Representation is essential, and yet that representation cannot be duplicated or independently confirmed: different telescopes, different observers, different sky conditions, different geographical locations all conspire to make any representation in some way unique. But even this uniqueness is misleading and unstable. Herschel's first representation of the Great Nebula is entitled "The Nebula in the Sword Handle of Orion as seen on the 1st of Feb. 1824 in the 20-feet Reflector." He calls it "a careful and correct representation of the nebula's actual state," a "true depiction" of the object. Yet the published engraving is in fact a copy of a drawing made not from one night's observation, but from a series of observations made on many different nights--the last in March of 1826, two years later than the date in the caption--and with the assistance of another observer. Although the engraving is presented as a sort of photograph--the nebula as it appeared at a particular moment in time--it is in fact a montage or compilation of images. Put in De Quinceyan terms, Herschel's depiction of the nebula is a palimpsest, but the caption obscures that fact. The two dimensional representation, which attempts to control and stabilize the object, is undermined by Herschel's text, which in interpreting the image exposes the fact that the image is not only a construction but a problematic one. His description, Herschel admits, is designed "to supply in some measure the unavoidable imperfections of every drawing."

Yet Herschel's description of the engraving of the nebula, like De Quincey's later response, raises anxieties that cannot be successfully controlled. Herschel, too, sees in the nebula "a rude resemblance . . . to the head, snout and jaws of some monstrous animal." Unable to determine whether the irregular lighting in the nebula provides evidence confirming or refuting his father's theory, Herschel struggles to describe the strange illumination of this monstrous head: "I know not how to describe it better," he writes, in a manner reminiscent of Hamlet and Polonius on the shape of Hamlet's cloud, "than by comparing it to a curdling liquid, or a surface strewed over with flocks of wool, or to the breaking up of a mackarel sky . . . . It is not very unlike the mottling of the sun's disc, only . . . the grain is much coarser, and the intervals darker, and the flocculi, instead of being generally round, are drawn out into little wisps." "No simile," Herschel is finally forced to admit, "exactly represents the object." This failure of language reflects a failure of the evidence to support decisively his father's views; although the nebula, as represented in the engraving, appears to be condensing, this is, says Herschel, "probably only a deception." Caught between his own professional identity and the desire to place his father's theory on a firmer basis, Herschel turns, some twenty years before De Quincey, to Milton. The odd distribution of light in the nebula, he says, recalls the paradox expressed in the "celebrated line" of the angels' praise of the glory of God the Father in Book III of Paradise Lost: "Dark with excessive light his skirts appear." Yet as a scientist, Herschel can not, of course, rest content with paradox, certainly not with the inevitability of paradox. The angels' praise of the Father's omnipotence and ability to rise above paradox merely underscores Herschel's inability to proclaim the omnipotence of his own earthly father.

For Nichol, the chief supporter and popularizer of the nebular hypothesis, Rosse's resolution of the Orion nebula raised different anxieties. As Simon Schaffer has shown, Nichol embraced the nebular hypothesis in part to further a Radical social and political agenda: the nebular hypothesis provided a heavenly analogue for political economy's earthly explanation of society as governed by natural laws of progress. But Nichol couched his presentation in the language common to his conservative counterparts, arguing that if nebular astronomy leaves us "lost in mute astonishment" and "bewildered" at the magnitude and diversity of the universe, it also displays, thanks to the nebular hypothesis, the "stupendous ORDER" of a "universe united . . . [and] tending to one end--a type of its August CREATOR." With the demise of the nebular hypothesis, however, this stance is more difficult to maintain. "We can recognize no limit either to the stupendous extent or inconceivable variety" of the universe, says Nichol; neither imagination nor reason can grasp the extent of the huge abysses and the time required for light to travel across them. Faced with such unfathomable facts, standing "on the threshold of the very Infinite," we can only "bend our heads and silently ADORE!" Like so many other writers on the implications of Rosse's discoveries, Nichol urges acceptance and submission in the face of these anxieties by quoting God's words to Job: "Hast thou an arm like God, or canst thou thunder with a voice like him? Canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades, or loosen the bands of Orion?" As in the earlier case of Herschel's appropriation of Milton, however, Nichol's use of Job forces what is at best a tenuous resolution to these spatial dilemmas, for God chastises Job for doing the very thing that Herschel, Rosse, and Nichol were all doing: questioning the ways of God and the structure of the universe.

De Quincey's anxieties are perhaps even more complex than those of Nichol and Herschel, and they are certainly expressed more directly. Several months before his review of Nichol's book appeared, De Quincey wrote to one of his daughters that Nichol had "now become a far more interesting man to me: he has destroyed--utterly without mercy cut the lovely throat of--the nebular hypothesis." De Quincey's interest in Nichol as a murderer is in keeping both with his celebration of throat-cutting in the satirical essay "Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts," and with his argument in "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth" that our interest is more properly in the murderer than in the victim. Thus, in the review itself, Rosse is pictured as a greater discoverer of worlds than Columbus, a greater conqueror of them than Augustus, a god-like man who, "enthroned upon the shores of infinity," wields a sceptre with which he commands the "rebellious nebulae" to "submit, and burst into blazing worlds." Yet at the same time, he has "smashed" the theories of Laplace and the Herschels, "destroyed the supposed matter of stars." Thanks to Rosse, "the shrieks and yells of expiring systems" can be heard "reverberating all the way from the belt of Orion."

De Quincey's treatment of the genealogy of the Orion engravings underscores the tensions these engravings produced rather than resolved. Although De Quincey proffers a "Description of the Nebula in Orion, as forced to show out by Lord Rosse," the engraving he describes is not Rosse's but Herschel's first drawing. In other words, De Quincey sees the figures of Satan and Death in a drawing of the unresolved nebula, a drawing that left the nebular hypothesis intact. De Quincey is clearly aware of this fact, for after his description he speaks of the changes in the Great Nebula's image wrought first by Herschel's work in South Africa and then by Rosse. This "solemn uncovering" of the nebula, "first by Sir William Herschel, secondly, by his son, and finally by Lord Rosse, is," says De Quincey, "like the reversing of some heavenly doom, like the raising of the seals that had been sealed by the angel, in the Revelations." In one sense, Rosse, in "murderering" the nebular hypothesis, has also murdered the "frightful" images of Satan and Death that De Quincey sees in Herschel's early drawing. The apocalyptic "heavenly doom" is averted. But, the "raising"--in the sense of "lifting"--of the seven seals also inaugurates the apocalypse, an act essential, in Biblical terms, for the final defeat of Satan and Death. And it is "the horror" of this "regal phantasma," not the destruction of it, that dominates De Quincey's prose and that will make the Orion nebula, in De Quincey's words, "famous for all time coming."

Such contradictions in a confrontation with the Great Nebula should not surprise us. De Quincey's response is heightened by his own psychological idiosyncracies, but it is animated by the same concerns that faced the astronomers: how are we to make sense of the universe and man's place in it in the wake of Rosse's destruction of the nebular hypothesis and consequent expansion of the heavens? Situating De Quincey's representation of the nebula in this series of responses, however, enables us to see more clearly the struggle to control the powerful anxieties raised by astronomy in the early Victorian period. De Quincey's prose exposes the fact that the engravings of the Great Nebula, instead of controlling the object, open up new and unsettling implications that cannot themselves be controlled by descriptive language. For to rely on language is to rely on cultural texts--especially Paradise Lost and the Bible--informed by attitudes that are challenged by the very nature of nineteenth-century nebular astronomy. And Paraside Lost itself, of course, is a text similarly challenged, a work that insistently brings the Ptolemaic and Copernican systmes together but refuses to decide between them. It is the dilemma of Herschel, Nichol, Rosse, and De Quincey, in other words, that the Great Nebula, "famous," as De Quincey put it, "for its frightful magnitude, and the frightful depth to which it is sunk in the abysses of the heavenly wilderness," is an object of worship only for those who are "tormented in sleep."