ERASMUS DARWIN was born at Elton, near Newark, in Nottinghamshire, where his father was a private gentleman. He studied at St. John's College, Cambridge, and took the degree of bachelor in medicine; after which, he went to Edinburgh, to finish his medical studies. Having taken a physician's degree at that university, he settled in his profession at Litchfield, and, by a bold and successful display of his skill in one of the first cases to which he was called, established his practice and reputation. About a year after his arrival, he married a Miss Howard, the daughter of a respectable inhabitant of Litchfield, and by that connection strengthened his interest in the place. He was, in theory and practice, a rigid enemy to the use of wine, and of all intoxicating liquors; and, in the course of his practice, was regarded as a great promoter of temperate habits among the citizens: but he gave a singular instance of his departure from his own theory, within a few years after his arrival in the very place where he proved the apostle of sobriety. Having one day joined a few friends who were going on a water-party, he got so tipsy after a cold collation, that, on the boat approaching Nottingham, he jumped into the river and swam ashore. The party called the philosopher to return; but he walked on deliberately, in his wet clothes, till he reached the market-place of Nottingham, and was there found by his friend, an apothecary of the place, haranguing the town's-people on the benefit of fresh air, till he was persuaded by his friend to come to his house and shift his clothes. Dr. Darwin stammered habitually; but on this occasion wine untied his tongue. In the prime of life, he had the misfortune to break the patella of his knee, in consequence of attempting to drive a carriage of his own Utopian contrivance, which upset at the first experiment.
He lost his first wife, after thirteen years of domestic union. During his widowerhood, Mrs. Pole the wife of a Mr. Pole, of Redburn, in Derbyshire, brought her children to his house to be cured of a poison, which they had taken in the shape of medicine, and, by his invitation, she continued with him till the young patients were perfectly cured. He was soon after called to attend the lady, at her own house, in a dangerous fever, and prescribed with more than a physician's interest in her fate. Not being invited to sleep in the house in the night after his arrival, he spent the hours till morning beneath a tree, opposite to her apartment, watching the passing and repassing lights. While the life which he so passionately loved was in danger, he paraphrased Petrarch's celebrated sonnet on the dream which predicted to him the death of Laura. Though less favoured by the muse than Petrarch, he was more fortunate in love. Mrs. Pole, on the demise of an aged partner, accepted, Dr. Darwin's hand in 1781; and, in compliance with her inclinations, he removed from Litchfield to practice at Derby. He had a family by his second wife, and continued in high professional reputation till his death, in 1802, which was occasioned by angina pectoris, the result of a sudden cold.
Dr. Darwin was between forty and fifty before he began the principal poem by which he is known. Till then he had written only occasional verses, and of these he was not ostentatious, fearing that it might affect his medical reputation to be thought a poet. When his name as a physician had, however, been established, he ventured, in the year 1781, to publish the first part of his Botanic Garden. Mrs. Anna Seward, in her life of Darwin, declares herself the authoress of the opening lines of the poem; but as she had never courage to make this pretention during Dr. Darwin's life, her veracity on the subject is exposed to suspicion. In 1789 and 1792, the second and third part of his botanic poem appeared. In 1793 and 1796, he published the first and second parts of his Zoonomia, of the Laws of Organic Life. In 1801, he published Phytologia, or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening; and, about the same time, a small treatise on female education, which attracted little notice. After his death appeared his poem, The Temple of Nature, a mere echo of the Botanic Garden.
Darwin was a materialist in poetry no less than in philosophy. In the latter, he attempts to build systems of vital sensibility on mere mechanical principles; and, in the former, he paints every thing to the mind's eye, as if the soul had no pleasure beyond the vivid conception of form, colour, and motion. Nothing makes poetry more lifeless than description by abstract terms and general qualities; but Darwin runs to the opposite extreme of prominently glaring circumstantial description, without shade, relief, or perspective.
His celebrity rose and fell with unexampled rapidity. His poetry appeared at a time peculiarly favourable to innovation, and his attempt to wed poetry and science was a bold experiment, which had some apparent sanction from the triumphs of modern discovery. When Lucretius wrote, science was in her cradle; but modern philosophy had revealed truths in nature more sublime than the marvels of fiction. The Rosicrucian machinery of his poem had, at the first glance, an imposing appearance, and the variety of his allusion was surprising. On a closer view, it was observable that the Botanic goddess, and her Sylphs and Gnomes, were useless, from their having no employment; and tiresome, from being the mere pretexts for declamation. The variety of allusion is very whimsical. Dr. Franklin is compared to Cupid; while Hercules, Lady Melbourne, Emma Crewe, Brindley's canals, and sleeping cherubs, sweep on like images in a dream. Tribes and grasses are likened to angels, and the truffle is rehearsed as a subterranean empress. His laborious ingenuity in finding comparisons is frequently like that of Hervey in his Meditations, or of Flavel in his Gardening Spiritualized.
If Darwin, however, was not a good poet, it may be owned that he is frequently a bold personifier, and that some of his insulated passages are musical and picturesque. His Botanic Garden once pleased many better judges than his affected biographer, Anna Seward; it fascinated even the taste of Cowper, who says, in conjunction with Hayley,
We, therefore pleased, extol thy song,
Though various yet complete,
Rich in embellishment, as strong
And learned as 'tis sweet.
And deem the bard, whoe'er he be,
And howsoever known,
That will not weave a wreath for thee,
Unworthy of his own.