1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Erasmus Darwin

Epes Sargent, in Harper's Cyclopaedia of British and American Poetry (1882) 205-06.



Darwin, the grandsire of the more renowned Charles Darwin, identified with what is known as the Darwinian theory of natural selection in biology, was born in Elton, England, in 1731, and died in 1802. He studied at Cambridge and Edinburgh, and established himself as a physician at Lichfield. He was an early advocate of the temperance cause. As the author of The Botanic Garden, a poem in two parts — Part I. The Economy of Vegetation; Part II. The Loves of the Plants — also of The Temple of Nature, a poem, he obtained distinction in literature. Of an original turn of mind, he seems to have had glimpses of the theories afterward expanded and illustrated by the labor and learning of his grandson. Byron speaks of Darwin's "pompous rhyme." His poems were very popular in their day, and he received 200 for his Botanic Garden. In it he predicts the triumphs of steam in these prescient lines:

Soon shall thy arm, unconquered Steam! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide waving wings expanded bear
The flying chariot through the field of air.

By his command of poetical diction and sonorous versification, he gave an imposing effect to much that he wrote, and his verses found enthusiastic admirers. The effect of the whole, however, is artificial, and his verses, though metrically correct and often beautiful in construction, fatigue by the monotony of the cadence.

"There is a fashion in poetry," says 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." The transitoriness of fashion seems to account for the fate of Darwin's poetry. The form was novel, the substance ephemeral. As a philosopher, he was charged with being too fond of tracing analogies between dissimilar objects, and of too readily adopting the ingenious views of others without sufficient inquiry. He was married twice, and had three sons by his first wife. A biography of Darwin, from the German of Ernst Krause, was published, 1880, in New York. Darwin was on the side of the American colonists in their war for independence.