Wednesday 4 May 2011

Dinosaurs and Tennyson

I was shocked to learn recently that brontosauruses never existed. Not only does that mean that the toy of my childhood was mischristened, it also means that there is no creature called a thunder lizard, and I think that's a shame.

You see, sauros was just the Greek word for lizard so all those sauruses that we know and love are just something-lizards. Brontes was a cyclops whose name meant The Thunderer so a brontosaurus was a thunder-lizard. A stegosaurus, whose back was covered with armour plating, was a roof-lizard; and a tyrannosaurus was a king-lizard, from the same root as tyrant.

Tyrannosaurus rex is funny name. Sophocles' Greek play Oedipus Tyrannos was known in Latin as Oedipus Rex because tyrannos and rex are the same thing: a king. So a tyrannosaurus rex is a king-lizard king.

Dinosaur itself comes from the Greek deinos and means frightening-lizard.

The reason that brontosauruses never existed is that the species had already been discovered and named. The chap who thought that he'd found a new kind of dinosaur had, in fact, merely found a slight variant on the old apatosaurus. And what does apatosaurus mean? Deceptive-lizard.

Oh, the lies of my youth!

Anyway, when I think about dinosaurs I always go back to what I believe is the first dinosaur poem. It's a section of In Memoriam by Tennyson probably written in the 1840s. Tennyson has been comforting himself with the thought that though individual humans die, humanity remains. Nature doesn't care about individuals, but looks after species and types.

He then remembers that the (reasonably) newly-discovered dinosaurs prove that that is not the case. This results in renewed misery for Tennyson and one of the greatest passages of poetry in English.

"So careful of the type?" but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, "A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

"Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more." And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law --
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed --

Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match'd with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

Tennyson contemplating the brontosaurus


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  2. Thank you so much for sharing In Memoriam - of course I'm familiar with it, for coining "Nature, red in tooth and claw", but I'd completely forgotten about the dinosaur bit at the end! I love Tennyson, so thanks for reminding me of his connection to one of my other passions. I'll have to dig out my collection and read through it again.

    If you haven't read it already, I recommend Stephen Jay Gould's essay "Bully For Brontosaurus", published in the collection of the same name. He talks about the separate lives that Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus now lead: Brontosaurus is still the ponderous, stupid swamp dweller eaten by Fred and Wilma, whereas Apatosaurus has reaped the benefits of modern palaeontology. Brontosaurus is an artefact of our initial, now outdated understanding of dinosaurs.

    Inspired by you, I'm writing on my blog about some of my favourite dinosaur names. There are some crackers!