Recent calls to understand eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poetry as a response to deteriorating environmental conditions insist on a problematic continuity between our own time and the time of Romanticism. This essay explores the aesthetic and ethical possibilities of nescience, or unknowing, as a way to confront uncertain futures. Drawing on the work of William Cowper and Derek Jarman, it considers the discursive relationship between AIDS activism in the 1980s and the nature poetry of the Romantic period and finds in that relationship a philosophical bond between past and present states of being in the dark. This nescient or ignorant epistemology has resonances with Roland Barthes’s writings on Zen as well as with Derek Parfit’s rejection of personal identity and, by extension, of self-interest as a catalyst for moral action.

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