Thursday Lecture Series

Bituminous Forms: The Poetics of Tar from Milton to the Romantics

Thursday, The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

In our ecological moment, the extraction of bitumen (a semi-solid form of crude oil) from the Athabasca tar sands has provoked an impassioned outcry. The Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline and more recent demonstrations against the Keystone XL and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipelines have drawn attention to the environmentally destructive means of excavating and transporting bitumen, as well as to the colonialist imperatives of its extraction. And yet, these resonances are by no means new. The interdisciplinary turn of our moment asks us to reconsider the figurative and ethical charges of bitumen through its extensive treatment in literature, from biblical epics to Romantic lyrics. This talk turns to bitumen in English poetry—most notably, John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), Percy Shelley’s Alastor (1816) and Lord Byron’s Cain (1821)—to reveal not only a deep literary substrate behind modern criticisms of the tar sands, but also a new reading of bituminous excavation as a surprisingly productive model for formalist analysis.