Ode to a Trilobite by T. A. Conrad, recited by Brigid Christison
Thou large-eyed mummy of the ancient rocks,
The Niobe of ocean, couldst thou tell
Of thine own times, and of the earthquake shocks
Which tore the ocean-bed where thou didst dwell;
What dream of wild Romance would then compare
With the strange truths thy history might unfold?
How would Geologist confounded, stare
To find their glittering theories were not gold?
Methinks I see thee gazing from the stone
With those great eyes, and smiling as in scorn
Of notions and of systems which have grown
From relics of the times when thou wert born.
Thou ne ‘er saw glittering fishes in the deep,
Which now in multiform profusion play,
Nor giant shells, nor monsters such as sweep
Along the surge and dash the ocean spray.
Yes, small in size were most created things
And shells and corallines the chief of these;
No land but islets then, nor trees nor springs,
And no tornado thundered o ‘er the seas.
But the wild earthquake did the work of death,
And heaped the sand and tore the Naiad ‘s cave.
Race after race resigned their fleeting breath
The rocks alone their curious annals save.
And since the trilobites have passed away
The continent has been formed, the mountains grown,
In ocean ‘s deepened caves new beings play,
And man now sits on Neptune ‘s ancient throne.
The race of man shall perish, but the eyes
Of Trilobites eternal be in stone,
And seem to stare about with wild surprise
At changes greater than they yet have known
- Timothy Abbott Conrad, 1840
Early American palaeontologist Timothy Abbott Conrad had an impressive body of work dealing with the molluscs and invertebrates of the eastern United States. Ode to a Trilobite (1840) is the fusion of his personal interest in literature and his profession.
In his poem, Timothy Abbott Conrad discusses trilobites. Trilobites were a group of ocean dwelling arthropods (the group that includes insects, arachnids, crustaceans and other animals with jointed exoskeletons) that lived during the Palaeozoic Eon (541 to 251 Million years ago). Their fossils are quite recognizable, having three distinct body segments (from which the name trilobite comes from, meaning “three-lobed”) not seen in other arthropod groups.
Early in the poem, Timothy refers to large eyes, which the trilobite used to see all the changes of the world from its fossil grave. Indeed, trilobite fossils have shown that they, like many living arthropods, had relatively large eyes on their head which made of hundreds of small individual lenses (which are especially noticeable in many flies and bees). These types of eyes are referred to as compound eyes.
Timothy discusses how trilobites never saw fish swimming in their seas, how there were no land plants in existence in their time, and how instead of continents there were only small islands in their world. As palaeontology has grown as a science, we now know that none of these statements are true. Trilobites and fish coexisted as early as the middle Cambrian Period (518 million years ago); plants appeared on land starting in the Ordovician period (~470 million years ago); and continents have always existed on Earth, but not in the locations they are today as they have constantly been moving (this is explained by plate tectonics, which did not become an accepted theory until the 1960s!) Therefore, this poem’s message, that of a world that has greatly changed since the past, applies not just to the fossil organisms discussed but also to the ever-evolving knowledge possessed by past, present and future palaeontologists
Natural history was big in the Victorian Era- suddenly everyone could find and identify the natural world around them with nothing but a guidebook or some passed-on expertise. People were collecting natural specimens wherever they could find them. Timothy Abbott Conrad grew up right in the midst of this trend, and since his father gave lectures on botany and minerology at the University of Pennsylvania, he was encouraged early on to pursue a career in the natural sciences.
Timothy was largely self-taught and self-motivated, publishing 22 works between 1830 and 1837 on the freshwater molluscs and other invertebrate fossils of New York State and the eastern US. His father died in 1831, and with 9 siblings there wasn’t much money in the family to go around. Timothy was unemployed and relied on money he could borrow from his scientist friends, the sales of his publications (which were highly technical and probably not widely popular), and the sale of the fossils he collected. Probably because he sold most of what he collected, Timothy was known to accidentally describe new species more than once. In 1837 he was named the State Paleontologist of New York and he dedicated his career to correlating beds and trying to understand how fossils fit in with the story of the Earth.
Throughout his life, Timothy was prone to bouts of “melancholy,” what we would call depression, even after receiving recognition for his accomplishments. He made plenty of friends at the New York Geological Survey but would often choose seclusion as he became depressed and frustrated with his failing memory. Though he is now known for his contributions to science, it’s important to recognize that he struggled with his mental health, just as many people in academia do today. If you’d like to know more about mental health and academia, we recommend the PhDepression as an online resource