1798 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Erasmus Darwin

Edward Gardner, in "Miss Seward, Dr. Darwin, Gray, and Collins" Miscellanies, in Prose and Verse (1798) 1:162-64.



A late performance, entitled "The pursuits of Literature," has censured Dr. Darwin on account of the gaudiness of his poetical decorations. The author of this satire, we readily confess, possesses great powers for didactic verse. He appears to have formed the model of his poem on that of the Dunciad, and he has conveyed his critical opinions, not only in the text, but in very copious notes. This performance is popular, and without doubt is distinguished by very considerable critical acumen; but its celebrity may proceed as much from its satirical cast of sentiment, as from the justness of its observations.

Yet the genius of Darwin will always be considered as of the first order, that happy art which he has attained of embellishing a dry subject in natural history with all the graces of the most exquisite poetry, must entitle him to rank as one of the first of English Poets. In point of that enthusiasm of soul, that "ignis ardens animae," which has been said to constitute the real poet, the author of the Botanic Garden is far superior to Pope.

Darwin's style, like that of Miss Seward, is a happy mixture of the Italian, with the Grecian school, but he is by no means a servile copier of either; he has paid (what every writer ought to do) a close attention to nature; he has depicted her lovely features in the most glowing and beautiful colors, and he has captivated the heart of the reader by a thousand new combinations of imagery, equally novel and just.

But Darwin is a naturalist and a philosopher of no mean stature, and he has evinced, contrary to the general, but erroneous opinion, that the two studies of natural history, and of the elegant arts, are not incompatible with each other; on the contrary, the effect is increased by the mutual polish which they communicate. Darwin has displayed such an exquisite art in the management of his materials, that his beauties rise upon us by a regular gradation, and we feel their excellency without perceiving the efforts of genius and judgment which created them.

Addison, in his periodical essays, has justly boasted that he brought philosophy from schools and closets, and introduced her to the company of fine gentlemen and fashionable ladies, into coffee-houses and taverns; and the author of the "Loves of the Plants," may claim the rare merit of uniting the utmost precision of natural history, with the most finished graces of poetical imagery and diction.