1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Erasmus Darwin

William Clarke and Robert Shelton Mackenzie, in The Georgian Era: Memoirs of the most eminent Persons who have flourished in Great Britain (1832-34) 3:360-62.



ERASMUS DARWIN was the son of a barrister, and was born at Elveston, or Elston, in Nottinghamshire, on the 12th of December, 1731. He received the rudiments of education at the grammar-school of Chesterfield, whence, in 1753-4, he removed to St. John's College, Cambridge; and, being intended for the medical profession, graduated M.B. in 1755. Before leaving the university, he had composed a poem on the death of Frederick, Prince of Wales, which was printed among the Cambridge collection of verses on that occasion; but the merits of this production did not rise above mediocrity. Having taken his degree of M.D. at Edinburgh, he commenced the practice of his profession at Nottingham, but shortly afterwards removed to Lichfield, where his fortunate cure of a patient, who had been given over by a celebrated physician, established his reputation, and was the foundation of his prosperity. In 1757, he married a Miss Howard, whom he lost, thirteen years afterwards, after having had by her five children; and, in 1781, he united himself to the widow of Colonel Pole, to whom he had been long previously attached. He shortly afterwards removed to Derby, where he completed his celebrated poem of The Botanic Garden, which was published in 1791, consisting of two parts, The Economy of Vegetation, and The Loves of the Plants, with philosophical notes. A poem of such singular construction, and so ably executed, created a great sensation in the literary world, and placed the name of Darwin, says Dr. Aikin, high among the poets of the time. In 1794, he published the first, and in 1796, the second volume of his Zoonomia, or The Laws of Organic Life; the purpose of which was to reduce the facts relating to animal life into classes, orders, genera, and species; and, by comparing them with each other, to unravel the theory of diseases. His fundamental notion in this comprehensive work, was, that man, animals, and vegetables, all took their origin from living filaments, susceptible of irritation, which is the agent that sets them in motion. In 1800, appeared his Phytologia, or The Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening, in which, says his biographer, in the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, "his conviction that vegetables are remote links in the chain of sentient existence, often hinted at in the notes to The Botanic Garden, is here avowed in a regular system." In 1801, he removed to an old mansion, near Derby, and died there on the 10th of April, 1802; after having prepared for the press a poem, called The Temple of Nature, or the Origin of Society, published in 1803; and which, with two papers in the Philosophical Transactions, and his share of the English translation of the Systema Vegetabilium of Linnaeus, constitute, in addition to those previously mentioned, the whole of Darwin's acknowledged works.

In person, the subject of our memoir was above the middle size; of an athletic but somewhat corpulent body; with a countenance, bearing traces of the small-pox; a stoop in the shoulders, and a lameness, which rendered him unwieldy in his appearance. He stammered to such a degree, that he was almost unintelligible, yet nothing so much annoyed him as to be anticipated in his words. He possessed an ardent mind, a cheerful but hasty temper, and great humanity and benevolence of disposition; which was particularly conspicuous in his care of brute animals, and even insects. He was supposed, says Dr. Aikin, "to sit loose to religious sentiments, and was vulgarly charged with Atheism; though a poem of his is extant, in which, with great force and beauty, he refutes the atheistic system." As a poet, the reputation of Darwin has greatly declined, in consequence, probably, of his addressing the reason and the imagination, without touching, or but rarely, the heart. Few poets have better succeeded in delighting the eye, the taste, and the fancy; and in perspicuity of style, he has few equals. The merit of originality has been, by some critics, denied to Darwin, in his composition of The Botanic Garden, which he is accused of having closely copied from Henry Brooke's poem of Universal Beauty, and a Latin poem by De La Croix, entitled Connubia Florum. There is certainly a similarity to those works, both in design and expression, in The Botanic Garden; but the probability that he borrowed his plan from them, though it may detract from its originality, does not render less meritorious his own happy combination of philosophy and poetry. Dr. Darwin had not more singular ideas in his capacity of poet and philosopher, than in that of physician; and if correct theory may be inferred from successful practice, his professional knowledge must have been equally novel and profound. If he had any dogma, it was shown in his prohibition of all vinous fluids, but he was an advocate for free eating, a plan which he both recommended and followed. By his second wife, our author left six children; and he had also two natural daughters, for whom, it is said, he drew up a Treatise on Female Education, which was published, but never became popular.