collections

1970: A Vision of the Coming Age (1870)

1970: a vision of the coming age, by John Collins; 1870; Burlington, N.J.

This intriguing (though somewhat saccharine) utopian poem is penned by John Collins, a Quaker from New Jersey who made his living as a lithographer, poet, and teacher. It tells of a dream in which the world is revealed one hundred years hence, the unnamed dreamer — travelling by airship from New Jersey to London, Paris, and Rome — witnessing societies transformed into Quakerly perfection. As with most future visions, 1970 is most of all a commentary on the time in which it was written, in this case 1870. Gone are advertising, cigarettes, booze, dance-halls, trashy novels: “No theatre belched out at midnight a throng / Inflamed with drugged wine and lascivious song.’” Gone is crime and deceit of every kind. Hotels no longer exist because strangers will put you up for free. There are no currencies, except silver and gold of unchanging value, so no inflation to worry about. God has taken the aggression out of lions, and transformed the climate into perpetual spring. Schoolchildren willingly help strangers, until they decide “to school we must haste / No longer the precious, short study-hours to waste.” One rather hopes these children will reappear later in the poem having turned sinister like the Midwich Cuckoos, but it never happens. Loving kindness abounds: “Such a sense of true happiness filled all the air, / It seemed more than the spirit of mortal could bear” (or perhaps the spirit of more cynical modern readers too).

In many ways 1970 can be seen as millenarian prophecy, which sees improving technology as part of God’s plan to redeem humankind. The narrator imagines edifying music broadcast to the masses along telegraph wires, in a cross between a Skype conference call and a YouTube stream: “A dozen performers, each one at his home, / In London, Pekin, Paris, Athens and Rome, / To give in New York, at mass concerts free, / Oratorios by telegraph under the sea.” Another passage foreshadows drone deliveries. A New Jerseyite asks a friend in Cuba to send them special ingredients for a party dessert, and “In half an hour came, propelled through the air, / The Fruits and the sweets packed with exquisite care.” When the narrator flies from England to France he notices a bridge linking the two countries beneath him; such a construction has been seriously considered this year. And you could interpret the vision of book reading in 1970 as a metaphor for the wonderful Internet Archive: “Here a library stood with its wide open door / The clerks and librarian needed no more / As the readers took works from their place on the shelves / And duly returned them uninjured themselves.”

For more historical visions of the future see here.