1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Erasmus Darwin

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:270-71.



DR. ERASMUS DARWIN, an ingenious philosophical, though fanciful poet, was born at Elston, near Newark, in 1731. Having passed with credit through a course of education at St John's college, Cambridge he applied himself to the study of physic, and took his degree of bachelor in medicine at Edinburgh in 1755. He then commenced practice in Nottingham, but meeting with little encouragement, he removed to Lichfield, where he long continued a successful and distinguished physician. In 1757 Dr. Darwin married an accomplished lady of Lichfield, Miss Mary Howard, by whom he had five children, two of whom died in infancy. The lady herself died in 1770; and after her decease, Darwin seems to have commenced his botanical and literary pursuits. He was at first afraid that the reputation of a poet would injure him in his profession, but being firmly established in the latter capacity, he at length ventured on publication. At this time he lived in a picturesque villa in the neighbourhood of Lichfield, furnished with a grotto and fountain, and here he began the formation of a botanic garden. The spot he has described as "adapted to love-scenes, and as being thence a proper residence for the modern goddess of botany." In 1781 appeared the first part of Darwin's Botanic Garden, a poem in glittering and polished heroic verse, designed to describe, adorn, and allegorise the Linnaean system of botany. The Rosicrucian doctrine of gnomes, sylphs, nymphs, and salamanders, was adopted by the poet, as "affording a proper machinery for a botanic poem, as it is probable they were originally the names of hieroglyphic figures representing the elements." The novelty and ingenuity of Darwin's attempt attracted much attention, and rendered him highly popular. In the same year the poet was called to attend an aged gentleman, Colonel Sachevell Pole of Radbourne-hall, near Derby. An intimacy was thus formed with Mrs. Pole, and the colonel dying, the poetical physician in a few mouths afterwards, in 1781, married the fair widow, who possessed a jointure of £600 per annum. Darwin was now released from all prudential fears and restraints as to the cultivation of his poetical talents, and lie went on adding to his floral gallery. In 1789 appeared the second part of his poem, containing the Loves of the Plants. Ovid having, he said, transmuted men, women and even gods and goddesses into trees and flowers he had undertaken, by similar art, to restore some of them to their original animality, after having remained prisoners so long in their respective vegetable mansions:—

From giant oaks, that wave their branches dark
To the dwarf moss that clings upon their bark,
What beaux and beauties crowd the gaudy groves,
And woo and win their vegetable loves.
How snowdrops cold, and blue-eyed harebells blend
Their tender tears, as o'er the streams they bend;
The love-sick violet, and the primrose pale,
Bow their sweet heads, and whisper to the gale;
With secret sighs the virgin lily droops,
And jealous cowslips hang their tawny cups.
How the young rose, in beauty's damask pride,
Drinks the warm blushes of his bashful bride;
With honied lips enamoured woodbines meet,
Clasp with fond arms, and mix their kisses sweet!
Stay thy soft murmuring waters, gentle rill;
Hush, whispering winds; ye rustling leaves be still;
Rest, silver butterflies, your quivering wings;
Alight, ye beetles, from your airy rings;
Ye painted moths, your gout-eyed plumage furl,
Bow your wide horns, your spiral trunks uncurl;
Glitter, ye glow-worms, on your mossy beds
Descend, ye spiders, on your lengthened threads;
Slide here, ye horned snails, with varnished shells;
Ye bee-nymphs, listen in your waxen cells!

This is exquisitely melodious verse, and ingenious subtle fancy. A few passages have moral sentiment and human interest united to the same powers of vivid painting and expression:—

Roll on, ye stars! exult in youthful prime,
Mark with bright curves the printless steps of Time;
Near and more near your beamy cars approach,
And lessening orbs on lessening orbs encroach;
Flowers of the sky! ye, too, to age must yield,
Frail as your silken sisters of the field!
Star after star from heaven's high arch shall rush,
Suns sink on suns, and systems systems crush,
Headlong, extinct, to one dark centre fall,
And death, and night, and chaos mingle all!
Till o'er the wreck, emerging from the storm,
Immortal nature lifts her changeful form,
Mounts from her funeral pyre on wings of flame,
And soars and shines, another and the same!

In another part of the poem, after describing the cassia plant, "cinctured with gold," and borne on by the current to the coasts of Norway, with all its "infant loves," or seeds, the poet, in his usual strain of forced similitude, digresses in the following happy and vigorous lines, to Moses concealed on the Nile, and the slavery of the Africans:—

So the sad mother at the noon of night,
From bloody Memphis stole her silent flight;
Wrapped her dear babe beneath her folded vest,
And clasped the treasure to her throbbing breast;
With soothing whispers hushed its feeble cry,
Pressed the soft kiss, and breathed the secret sigh.
With dauntless step she seeks the winding shore,
Hears unappalled the glimmering torrents roar;
With paper-flags a floating cradle weaves,
And hides the smiling boy in lotus leaves;
Gives her white bosom to his eager lips,
The salt tears mingling with the milk he sips;
Waits on the reed-crowned brink with pious guile,
And trusts the scaly monsters of the Nile.
Erewhile majestic from his lone abode,
Ambassador of heaven, the prophet trod;
Wrenched the red scourge from proud oppression's hands,
And broke, cursed slavery! thy iron bands.
Hark! heard ye not that piercing cry,
Which shook the waves and rent the sky!
E'en now, e'en now, on yonder western shores
Weeps pale despair, and writhing anguish roars;
E'en now in Afric's groves with hideous yell,
Fierce slavery stalks, and slips the dogs of hell;
From vale to vale the gathering cries rebound,
And sable nations tremble at the sound!
Ye bands of senators! whose suffrage sways
Britannia's realms, whom either Ind obeys;
Who right the injured and reward the brave,
Stretch your strong arm, for ye have power to save!
Throned in the vaulted heart, his dread resort,
Inexorable conscience holds his court;
With still small voice the plots of guilt alarms,
Bares his masked brow, his lifted hand disarms;
But wrapped in night with terrors all his own,
He speaks in thunder when the deed is done.
Hear him, ye senates! hear this truth sublime,
"He who allows oppression shares the crime!"

The material images of Darwin are often less happy than the above, being both extravagant and gross, and grouped together without any visible connexion or dependence one on the other. He has such a throng of startling metaphors and descriptions, the latter drawn out to an excessive lengths and tiresome minuteness, that nothing is loft to the reader's imagination, and the whole passes like a glittering pageant before the eye, exciting wonder, but without touching the heart or feelings. As the poet was then past fifty, this exuberance of his fancy, and his peculiar choice of subjects, are the more remarkable. A third part of the Botanic Garden was added in 1792. Darwin next published his Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life, part of which he had written many years previously. This is a curious and original physiological treatise, evincing an inquiring and attentive study of natural phenomena. Dr. Thomas Brown, Professor Dugald Stewart, Paley, and others, have, however, successfully combated the positions of Darwin, particularly his theory which refers instinct to sensation. In 1801 our author came forward with another philosophical disquisition, entitled Phytologia, or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening. He also wrote a short treatise on Female Education, intended for the instruction and assistance of part of his own family. This was Darwin's last publication. He had always been a remarkably temperate man. Indeed he totally abstained from all fermented and spirituous liquors, and in his Botanic Garden he compares their effects to that of the Promethean fire. He was, however, subject to inflammation as well as gout, and a sudden attack carried him off in his seventy-first year, on the 18th of April 1802. Shortly after his death was published a poem, The Temple of Nature, which he had ready for the press, the preface to the work being dated only three months before his death. The Temple of Nature aimed, like the Botanic Garden, to amuse by bringing distinctly to the imagination the beautiful and sublime images of the operations of nature. It is more metaphysical than its predecessor, and more inverted in style and diction.

The poetical reputation of Darwin was as bright and transient as the plants and flowers which formed the subject of his verse. Cowper praised his song for its rich embellishments, and said it was as "strong" as it was "learned and sweet." "There is a fashion in poetry," observes Sir Walter Scott, "which, without increasing or diminishing the real value of the materials moulded upon it, does wonders in facilitating its currency while it has novelty, and is often found to impede its reception when the mode has passed away." This has been the fate of Darwin. Besides his coterie at Lichfield, this poet of Flora had considerable influence on the poetical taste of his own day. He may be traced in the Pleasures of Hope of Campbell, and in other young poets of that time. The attempt to unite science with the inspirations of the Muse, was in itself an attractive novelty, and he supported it with various and high powers. His command of fancy, of poetical language, dazzling metaphors, and sonorous versification, was well seconded by his curious and multifarious knowledge.

The effect of the whole, however, was artificial, and destitute of any strong or continuous interest. The Rosicrucian machinery of Pope was united to the delineation of human passions and pursuits, and became this auxiliary of wit and satire; but who can sympathise with the loves and metamorphoses of the plants? Darwin had no sentiment or pathos, except in very brief episodical passages, and even his eloquent and splendid versification, for want of variety of cadence, becomes monotonous and fatiguing. There is no repose, no cessation from this glare of his bold images, his compound epithets, and high-toned melody. He had attained to rare perfection in this mechanism of poetry, but wanted those impulses of soul and sense, and that guiding taste which were required to give it vitality, and direct it to its true objects.