Dr. Erasmus Darwin

Samuel Egerton Brydges, "Dr. Darwin" Censura Literaria 6 (1808) 203-12

Miss SEWARD has written Memoirs of Dr. Darwin; but they contain few facts; and form rather a volume of criticism than of poetry. I will confess that the character of Darwin does not please me; and that I enter upon it unwillingly. The blaze of his fame was literally like that of a meteor, and has already passed away.

ERASMUS DARWIN was the fourth son of Robert Darwin, Esq. a Nottinghamshire gentleman, by Elizabeth Hill, and born at Elston near Newark, Dec. 12, 1731. He was educated at St. John's College, Cambridge, and afterwards at Edinburgh; whence in 1756 he settled at Lichfield as a physician. Here he almost immediately distinguished himself in his profession, by the skill he exercised in recovering Mr. Inge of Thorpe, a neighbouring young man of fortune and family, from a violent and dangerous illness, after he had been given over by his relations, and his medical attendant, Dr. Wilkes of Willenhall. Extensive practice was the result.

In 1757, he married Miss Howard of the Close at Lichfield, an amiable and affectionate wife, daughter of Charles Howard, Esq. by Penelope Foley, by whom he had several children; and who died at an early age in 1770. During this period, his business principally occupied his time; but his hours of retirement and leisure were secretly devoted to literature. He drew around him a select society of men of a similar turn; the Rev. Mr. Michel, well known for his scientific acquirements; Mr. Kier of West-Bromwich; the ingenious Matthew Boulton; Mr. Watt, the mechanic; Dr. Small of Birmingham, who died in 1775; the celebrated Mr. Day, and his friend Mr. Edgeworth; and occasionally Mr. William Seward of London, the compiler of the Anecdotes. With Sir Brooke Boothby he had a particular intimacy; and with him and a Mr. Jackson instituted, in 1772, what they called The Botanic Society of Lichfield. He was also intimate about this time with Mr. Mundy of Marketon, near Derby, the ingenious author of that beautiful descriptive poem, entitled NEEDWOOD FOREST.

In 1768 Dr. Darwin had a fall from a whimsical carriage of his own contrivance, by which he broke the patella of his right knee. This produced a lameness, which was never perfectly cured.

When Johnson visited Lichfield, Darwin, whose own fame was not yet established, avoided his overbearing and dictatorial society with sullen aversion. He spoke of that Colossus with bitter, and perhaps affected, scorn.

About 1771 he commenced the compilation of his Zoonomia, which was not published till 1794. It is said to contain much ingenuity; but as it is so limited and presumptuous in its views, as to ascribe every thing to second causes, it will ever be condemned and detested by the wise and good. All that he published at this period were communications to periodical works of observations on botany, with the signature of The Lichfield Botanical Society. He carefully concealed those poetical powers, which he was silently cultivating, lest the supposed incompatibility of such a pursuit with the graver studies of physic should injure him in his profession.

In 1781 he married a second time Mrs. Pole, widow of Col. Pole of Radbourne near Derby, who died in 1780; a lady for whom, it seems, from some verses printed by Miss Seward, he had long conceived a warm admiration. By this lady's desire he quitted Lichfield, and removed to Derby; a hazardous attempt to leave a neighbourhood, where he was established for one in which he was to make his way anew! But it succeeded. He was solicited by many to remove to London; but he was firm in withstanding every solicitation of that kind.

Miss Seward says, that Dr. Darwin commenced his poem, The Botanic Garden, in 1779. "It consists," to use her words, "of two parts; the first contains the Economy of Vegetation; the second, the Loves of the Plants. Each is enriched by a number of philosophical notes. They state a great variety of theories and experiments in botany, chemistry, electricity, mechanics, and in the various species of air, salubrious, noxious, and deadly. The discoveries of the modern professors in all those sciences, are frequently mentioned, with praise highly gratifying to them. In these notes, explanations are found of every personified plant, its generic history, its local situation, and the nature of the soil and climate, to which it is indigenous; its botanic and its common name. The verse corrected, polished, and modulated with the most sedulous attention; the notes involving such great diversity of matter relating to natural history; and the composition going forward in the short recesses of professional attendance, but chiefly in his chaise, as he travelled from one place to another, the Botanic Garden could not be the work of one, two, or three years; it was ten from its primal lines to its first publication."

The second part was published first. It was printed at Lichfield; and came out in 1789. It instantaneously seized the public attention. The novelty of the design, and manner the splendour of the imagery; and the point and harmony of the versification, dazzled almost every reader. Every line was wrought with such a polish, as the public since the days of Pope had been utterly unaccustomed to. Every sentence was so rounded, that the most careless, or ignorant reader could not mangle, or mismanage it. But, alas! every person of true taste soon perceived, that it "Play'd round the head but came not to the heart." It abounded in all the matter of poetry; but it wanted the soul. It was like an exquisitely beautiful picture, or statue: its form was perfect; but it never reflected the nicer or more hidden movements of the heart or the head. But it is apparent, from Dr. Darwin's prose Interludes, that his theory of poetical excellence accorded with his practice. Such a narrow view of this art would deprive it of its best and most essential qualities. It would degrade it to a level with painting and sculpture; or, perhaps, to a degree below them. Imagery and ornamented language are not necessary ingredients of poetry. Some of the most poetical passages of Shakspeare and Milton are totally without either of these. Sublimity and pathos more particularly result from grandeur or tenderness of thought, such as is best conveyed by the simplest expressions; and which it is neither requisite nor possible to illustrate by material allusions.

The poem has many minor faults. To an ear of moderate sensibility, the unvaried monotony of the verse soon becomes intolerable: the incessant repetition of personified plants and flowers nauseates; and many of the groups of figures, though sketched and finished with the highest skill, are almost childish; and at least unworthy of a manly imagination.

Still it must be owned, that some of the descriptions, taken separately, are exquisitely beautiful: witness the following;

Weak with nice sense, the chaste Mimosa stands,
From each rude touch withdraws her timid hands;
Oft as light clouds o'erpass the summer glade,
Alarm'd she trembles at the moving shade;
And feels, alive, through all her tender form,
The whisper'd murmurs of the gathering storm;
Shuts her sweet eye-lids to approaching night;
And hails with freshen'd charms the rising light.
Veil'd with gay decency and modest pride,
Slow to the mosque she moves, an eastern bride;
There her soft vows unceasing love record,
Queen of the bright seraglio of her lord.—
So sinks, or rises with the changeful hour
The liquid silver in its glassy tower.
So turns the needle to the pole it loves,
With fine vibrations quivering, as it moves.

The description of Mongulfier's flight in the balloon, in the second canto of Part II. excites unqualified admiration.

The calm philosopher in ether sails,
Views broader stars, and breathes in purer gales!
Sees, like a map, in many a waving line
Round earth's blue plains her lucid waters shine;
Sees at his feet the forky lightning., glow,
And hears innocuous thunders roar below.
Rise, great Mongulfier! urge thy venturous flight
High o'er the moon's pale ice-reflected light! &c. &c.

But perhaps his happiest painting is that of the Night-Mare.

So on his NIGHTMARE through the evening fog
Flits the squab fiend o'er fen, and lake, and bog;
Seeks some love-wilder'd maid with sleep opprest,
Alights, and grinning sits upon her breast.
—Such as, of late, amid the murky sky
Was mark'd by Fuseli's poetic eye;
Whose daring tints, with Shakspeare's happiest grace,
Gave to the airy phantom form and place.
Back o'er her pillow sinks her blushing head,
Her snow-white limbs hung helpless from the bed;
While with quick sighs, and suffocative breath,
Her interrupted heart-pulse swims in death.
—Then shrieks of captur'd towns, and widow's tears,
Pale lovers stretch'd upon their blood-stain'd biers,
The headlong precipice that thwarts her flight,
The trackless desert, the cold starless night,
And stern-eyed murderer with his knife behind,
In dread succession agonize her mind.
O'er her fair limbs convulsive tremors fleet,
Start in her hands, and struggle in her feet;
In vain to scream with quivering lips she tries.
And strains in palsy'd lids her tremulous eyes;
In vain she wills to walk, swim, run, fly, leap;
The WILL presides not in the bower of SLEEP.
O'er her fair bosom sits the Demon-Ape
Erect, and balances his bloated shape;
Rolls in their marble orbs his gorgon-eyes,
And drinks with leathern ears her tender cries.

In 1791 Dr. Darwin brought forth the First Part of the Botanic Garden, containing the Economy of Vegetation. Miss Seward thinks he did not consider it of so popular a nature as the Second Part; and on that account, and not for the reason he assigned, reserved it till the other had established his fame.

In 1799 Dr. Darwin was visited by a most afflicting domestic loss. His eldest surviving son, an attorney of Derby, an amiable young man, in good circumstances, being seized with a fit of melancholy, left his house of a cold and stormy December evening, and drowned himself in the river Derwent, which ran at the bottom of his garden. The doctor is reported not to have exhibited those feelings on the occasion, which would have become a father and a poet. His own dissolution was not far remote.

On Sunday, April 18, 1802, having risen in his usual health, he sat down to write a letter; but was suddenly seized with the pangs of death; and expired before his apothecary could arrive, in his seventy-first year.

Doctor Darwin is said to have exhibited in his life the same excellencies and the same deficiencies as characterized his poetry. His head was brilliant, but to the quiverings of sensibility he was a stranger. He was conversant with matter, rather than intellect: to "the shadowy tribes of mind" he was inattentive. I cannot think therefore that with all his merits he is to be placed either in the first or second class of poets.

I believe that rules of criticism, for one person that they have taught to compose or to judge rightly, have misled twenty. They have taught people to mistake the mechanical incidents of poetry for its essence. Some they have taught to require her to be dressed and ornamented till "pars minima est ipsa puella sui." Others they have taught to demand at least a considerable portion of ornament; whereas an ornamented dress is, as I have already said, so far from being a necessary ingredient, that the highest poetry is absolutely without it. When therefore Dr. Warton proposes to apply to Pope's Essay on Man the test of dropping the measures and numbers, and transposing the order of the words into prose, and then examining if it be still poetry; he cannot mean that the question should be determined merely by the richness or the plainness of the language, but by the presence or absence of "the poetical spirit," which principally depends on the thought. If many large portions of that celebrated writer, when thus tried, are found not to be of the true stamp, it is not merely because the diction is plain and deficient in figures, but because the sentiments want grandeur or pathos. How different is the pathetic solemnity of his Dedication of Parnell's Poems to Lord Oxford; a most noble composition, and one of his finest poems.

If these remarks be just, we have discovered the secret, why Darwin in the exuberation of all the ingredients which ordinary critics have inculcated on the world as the infallible tests of the highest poetical talents, has failed to retain the public favour; or ever to have impressed those of the best taste with superior delight.

Oct. 12, 1807.