1802 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Erasmus Darwin

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 72 (May 1802) 473-74.



18. The celebrated Dr. Erasmus Darwin. He was born at Elston, near Newark, in Nottinghamshire, Dec. 12, 1731, the seventh child and fourth son of Robert D. esq. by his wife Elizabeth Hill. He was educated at Chesterfield school under the Rev. Mr. Burrows, of whom he always spoke with great respect. Hence he went, with two of his elder brothers, to St. John's college, Cambridge. He used to relate that, on their first journey to the University, they had a letter of introduction from their father to two old gentlemen near Peterborough, who treated them at first coldly, afterwards cordially; and that he overheard one of them, after seeming much pleased with the animated vivacity of the young travellers, say to his brother with a sigh in a low voice, "What a pity that one of us did not marry!" This little occurrence is supposed to have made such an impression on his mind, as to be the origin of the strong disapprobation he always expressed of a life of celibacy. At Cambridge his tutor was Mr. Powell, afterwards the celebrated master of St. John's, a sensible and prudent man. He was elected to one of Lord Exeter's scholarships, worth about 16 a year, which, from the smallness of his father's income at that time (the elder branches of the family being then in possession of the fortune to which he soon afterwards succeeded), was esteemed a desirable acquisition. In this appointment he occasionally distinguished himself by his poetical exercises, and early acquired uncommon facility in the composition of them. He resided in college for 12 terms, with the exception of one, successively. His absence for that term was occasioned by his accompanying his friend Mr. Kilvington to London, for the purpose of attending Dr. Hunter's lectures on anatomy. Afterwards he went to Edinburgh; and on his return resided one term more at Cambridge, and then took the degree of batchelor of physick. As a physician, he first settled at Nottingham, where he did not obtain any practice. He went afterwards to Lichfield, with letters of introduction to Lady Gresley and the Rev. Mr. Seward; and there soon rose into considerable practice. In 1757, he married Miss Mary Howard, daughter of Charles H. esq. by Penelope Foley, his wife. She died in 1770. By her he had five children, two of whom died infants; Charles died at Edinburgh in 1778; Erasmus, at Derby in 1799; Robert Waring Darwin, now a physician at Shrewsbury, alone survives. Soon after the death of Mrs. Darwin, he began to write the "Zoonomia," though he did not publish it till within these few years. In 1772, he obtained a lease of a picturesque spot, consisting of about eight acres, two miles from Lichfield, with a strong spring which supplies a cold-bath erected by Sir John Floyer, an eminent physician in the beginning of the last century. This place, called The Cold Bath, became his favourite retreat and amusement as it had been formerly that of Sir J. F. He formed a botanic garden in it and here he began his poem on the "Loves of the Plants." In the spring of 1781, Dr. D. married the widow of Col. Pole, of Radbourne, in Derbyshire. He lived two years at Radbourne, and then went to Derby, where he resided till last Lady-day, when he removed to an old house called The Priory, about five miles from Derby which he had purchased, and made most commodious and excellent house, particularly calculated as a pleasant retreat for old age. On the 10th of April Dr. D. was attacked with a severe shivering fit, followed by a proportionate hot fit, and symptoms of inflammation on the lungs, a disease from which he had often suffered, but most particularly last spring. He was bled twice during the day, and lost 25 ounces of blood. The fever was removed, and in two or three days he became to all appearance quite well. On Saturday, the 17th, when walking in the evening in his garden with Mrs. Darwin, and a lady about his own age, the latter remarked, that he would have sufficient employment for ten years to bring all his plans about the place to perfection. "You, madam," he replied, "have as good a prospect as any, body I know of your age of living ten years; I have not." Mrs. D. remarked his good looks, spirits, and strength. He said, "I always appear particularly well immediately before become ill." He sat with his family in the evening, conversing chearfully as usual; went to bed, and got up well at six the following morning; wrote some letters till after seven, when he went to a fire to warm himself, and desired a servant to make one in his library. His chilly fit increased, and was attended with thirst; he lay down upon a sopha by the fire, but becoming more cold and he was raised up and placed in an arm-chair, when, without pain or emotion, he expired a little before nine. His death is supposed to have been caused by the cold fit of an inflammatory fever. He had frequently expressed a strong desire that the termination of his existence might be without pain, having always looked upon death as a much less evil than pain. During the whole of his life he was remarkable for great benevolence of disposition, which was particularly conspicuous in the care he took even of the lowest animals. The keenness of his feelings on this subject has been attributed to the strong impression made upon his mind by a representation of the tortures of the Inquisition, which was shewn to him at an early age. He has left a widow and six children, three sons and three daughters, by his last marriage. There was also another child, who died an infant. Besides the literary works abovementioned, Dr. D. was the author of "Phytologia," a small treatise on education, and of a few papers in the Medical and Philosophical Transactions. He has also left another poem; intituled, "The Shrine of Nature," one volume of which is in the press, and will shortly be published. In the foregoing sketch, the intention has been merely to state a few plain facts; all panegyrick has, therefore, been pur posely avoided. They, who are acquainted with Dr. D.'s writings, must be sensible of his profound knowledge, genius, and erudition. They, who had the happiness of his acquaintance and friendship, will long deplore his loss, as they can scarcely hope to find such an assemblage of talents and virtues again united in the same individual.