The Nautilus and the Ammonite


George F. Richardson

Recited by Alanna Grace Self (@Smolichthys on Twitter).

The Nautilus and the Ammonite,
Were launch’d in friendly strife ;
Each sent to float, in its tiny boat,
On the wide wild sea of life!
For each could swim on the ocean’s brim,
And when wearied its sails could furl ;
And sink to sleep in the great sea deep,
In its palace all of pearl !
And their’s was a bliss, more fair than this,
That we feel in our colder time ;
For they were rife, in a tropic life,
In a brighter, and better clime !
They swam ‘mid isles whose summer smiles
No wintry winds annoy ;
Whose groves are palm—whose air is balm—
Where life is only joy !
They sailed all day through creek and bay,
And traversed the ocean deep ;
And at night they sank on a coral bank,
In its fairy bowers to sleep !
And the monsters vast of ages past,
They beheld in their ocean caves ;
They saw them ride in their power and pride,
And sink in their deep sea graves !
And hand in hand, from strand to strand,
They sailed in mirth and glee ;
These fairy shells, with their crystal cells,
Twin creatures of the sea !
And they came at last, to a sea long past,
But as they reached its shore,
The Almighty’s breath spoke out in death,
And the Ammonite lived no more !
And the Nautilus now, in its shelly prow,
As over the deep it strays ;
Still seems to seek, in bay and creek,
Its companion of other days !
And thus do we, in life’s stormy sea,
As from shore to shore we roam,
While tempest-tost, seek the loved, the lost,
But find them on earth no more !
Yet hope how sweet, again to meet,
As we look to a distant strand ;
Where heart finds heart, and no more they part,
who meet in that better land !

George F. Richardson - 1838

Beadwork on moosehide. This is a large, medallion-style beadwork of a nautilus in the water. It has a pearly white shell with matte rusty brown stripes, a brown hood over the tentacles and eye. Its centre is a sparkly white eye. Its background is blue "bead soup," beads in no particular order in all shades of blue circling the ammonite concentrically. It is finished in a gold and black tectured border. It is all backed by dark brown textured moosehide.c
Guest art by Dr. Jade Atkins (@JadeInJoggins on Instagram and Twitter)

This poem originally appeared in the 1838 edition of Sketches in Prose and Verse by George F. Richardson. George was the curator of the Mantellian Museum, which was in the process of being purchased and absorbed by the British Museum. This volume included a description of the museum’s collections in their “present separate state,” alongside poetry and other musings. George proudly mentions that The Nautilus and the Ammonite was recited by Gideon Mantell himself at the beginning of a scientific lecture.

The natural history of this poem

When we talk about “nautiluses” and “ammonites,” we’re talking broadly about the animal groups Nautiloidea and Ammonoidea, which are relatives within the group Cephalopoda. Cephalopods (which also includes squids and octopuses) are soft-bodied invertebrates (animals without backbones) with tentacles that live in the ocean. Both nautiluses and ammonites share many traits in common, including the trademark tentacles that all cephalopods have, and a hard outer shell (usually spiral-shaped) which had air-filled chambers inside separated by walls called septa. Nautiluses and ammonites could change the air pressure inside their shells by pumping water into the chambers through a small a tube called a siphuncle that passed through the septa of each chamber, which allowed them to sink or rise in the water when they needed to. Though they look very similar and had similar lifestyles, nautiluses and ammonites had two main differences: the position of the siphuncle (down the middle of the shell in nautiluses versus near the outer edge in ammonites), the shape of the septa walls (smooth in nautiluses, bumpy and wavy in ammonites).

Nautiluses first appeared in the Cambrian period (~500 million years ago), while ammonites appeared in the Devonian period (~410 million years ago), meaning these groups coexisted for hundreds of millions of years. Their long evolutionary history meant they were around while many other animals evolved and went extinct, such as the large marine reptiles that lived during the Mesozoic, referenced as “…monsters vast, of ages past.” This history is was also the inspiration for the premise of the poem; that nautiluses and ammonites were companions for quite a long time.

“…Ammonite lived no more!” is a reference to the extinction of ammonites, alongside dinosaurs (except birds), marine reptiles, pterosaurs, and many other organisms, at the end of the Cretaceous period (65.5 million years ago). Nautiluses survived that extinction and still live today in relatively deep, tropical waters in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but they are rare. They are threatened by the impact of commercial fishing and modern human driven climate change, and so may soon be reunited with their ammonite companions as the end of the poem predicts.

George F. Richardson

Content warning: suicide

George Flemming Richardson was the son of a cloth retailer, and though he may have worked with his father and inherited the family business, his interests lay elsewhere. George was an avid learner of languages and science, and published several poems and articles in the local newspaper on both subjects. He was involved in the re-establishment of the Brighton Mechanic’s Institution, a group dedicated to improving the education of working-class people. Through his personal research and passion for local geology, George became the curator of the short-lived Mantellian Museum.

The Mantellian Museum featured the personal collections of palaeontologist Gideon Mantell, including the first mounted skeleton of a dinosaur (Iguanodon). When the collection was purchased by the British Museum in 1838, George F. Richardson was included in the deal and hired on as an assistant in the geology collections. His salary was insufficient to cover his living expenses, and so he supported himself by also giving lectures and publishing books on many topics. One of George’s books, Geology for Beginners, was perhaps the first book on geology written for a public audience. Public reception of the book was overwhelmingly positive, however George did not mention Gideon Mantell’s research nor did he credit the sources of the many images used in the book. Gideon Mantell, previously a supporter and possibly friend of George F. Richardson, wrote scathing comments in letters and personal journals about the “scandalous piracy” he felt George had committed, and in fact the two never repaired their relationship. It seems likely that, having never received a formal education, George was unaware of citation protocols and didn't realize the slight he had committed until it was too late.

George’s story is one that may be unfortunately familiar to those in the natural sciences today. He was overworked, underpaid, and undervalued for his personal expertise. Though he worked almost nonstop throughout his life, he still struggled to pay his expenses, including a subscription to the Geological Society of London. Academia during the Victorian era was financially exclusive; people were not meant to make a living off the sciences. If you were not independently wealthy, White, and a man, it was excruciatingly difficult to dedicate your life to research and writing. Though the exclusion is not as extreme as it was 200 years ago (women aren’t explicitly banned from organizations in most of the world, for example), financial barriers and lack of access to knowledge and resources that allow people to navigate academic politics still pushes people from historically marginalized groups out of the sciences. Tragically, George was unable to keep up with his expenses despite his tireless efforts, and died by suicide in 1848 at the age of 52.