What sort of temporality does a prediction about the future suggest? What does it mean specifically to predict decline and to imagine the absence of a future? How does the meaning of the present change in the face of anxieties about decline and an uncertain or absent future that become more common in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? This essay addresses these questions through a reading of two poems that fantasize the imagined ruins of London: Thomas Littleton's “The State of England and the Once Flourishing City of London. In a Letter from an American Traveller, Dated from the Ruinous Portico of St. Paul's in the Year 2199, to a Friend Settled in Boston, the Metropolis of the Western Empire” (1780) and Anna Barbauld's Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812). Imagining the absence of a future in their place of composition, these poems attempt to make sense of their present moment. The displaced future and present emphases of these poems manifest anxiety about how to assess a range of concrete circumstances, affects, and intuitions to articulate a sense of what is happening and what might follow from that assessment of the present. The poetry of Littleton and Barbauld thus dovetails with the contemporary concerns of much recent work on the historiography of the present but in a way that suggests that this sort of history itself has a history, and the essay closes with an assessment of what that might mean.
Jonathan Sachs; Future! Decline. Poetics Today 1 September 2016; 37 (3): 355–368. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-3599303
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