Dr. Erasmus Darwin

Richard Lovell Edgeworth, "On Dr. Darwin" The Monthly Magazine 14 (September 1802) 115-16.


I am sufficiently acquainted with the world to know that one foolish friend is more dangerous than twenty enemies; I therefore abstained from the precipitate expression of that indignation which every honest mind must feel when the character of a great and good man is disfigured by misrepresentation or ridicule.

Many of the assertions in the Memoirs of Dr. Darwin, which appeared in the Monthly Magazine for June, are, to my certain knowledge, unfounded. He was seized with the disorder that terminated his existence whilst he was writing a letter to me — the fragment is now before me. Nothing can be more playful or pleasing than the style and sentiments of this last token of his friendship; it breathes serenity and happiness, and is one amongst a thousand instances of "that sweet peace, which goodness bosoms ever." Upon the same paper on which my friend had begun his letter, a lady who was on a visit to the Priory sent me an account of his death. He was seized with a sudden shivering fit whilst he was writing — rang the bell — spoke to Mrs. Darwin — recovered — but soon after fainted and expired. The public are convinced, by the manly advertisement signed by Dr. Fox and Mr. Hadley, that the Doctor did not die in a fit of anger; but the public may still suppose that he was not master of that passion. I have known him, intimately, during thirty-six years, and in that period have witnessed innumerable instances of his benevolence and good humour, and but very few of that hastiness of temper which so often accompanies good-nature. Five or six times in my life I have seen him angry, and have heard him express that anger with much real, and more apparent vehemence — more than men of lees sensibility would feel or shew: but then the motive never was personal. When Dr. Darwin beheld any example of inhumanity or injustice, he never could restrain his indignation; he had not learnt, from the school of Lord Chesterfield, to smother every generous feeling, left some uncouth gesture, or some ill modulated period, should wound the delicacy of some unfeeling son of the Graces.

In the intercourse of familiar conversation, the Doctor indulged his playful fancy in a thousand harmless sallies; but if a friend was ever hurt by a heedless shaft, he poured balm into the wound by the kindest expressions of sympathy and regret. It is asserted by the writer of his Memoirs, that he stooped to accept of gross flattery. Perhaps in the inmost recesses of his heart vanity might reign without controul, but no man exacted less tribute of applause in conversation. When the admirable travestie of his poetic style was published in the Antijacobin Newspaper, I spoke of it, in his presence, in terms of strong approbation, and he appeared to think as I did of the wit, ingenuity, and poetic merit of the parody. He did not indeed say as I do, that no compliment could be more unequivocal than such an imitation of his manner. The verses charm us because they resemble the Botanic-Garden.

It is not my present object to speak of Dr. Darwin's works; but I may observe, that as a describer of the arts he stands unrivalled by any poet of any nation. — He verifies the elegant eulogy of Delisle—

Meme aux eaux, meme aux fleurs, meme aux arbres muets,
La Poesie encore avec art mensongere
Ne peut elle preter une ame imaginaire?

I cannot conclude without noticing certain assertions relative to Dr. Darwin's personal habits, which, were they true, are indecorous. A representation of the infirmities of age is not a portrait of any man; it is a picture of the species. His gait was clumsy — such will be the gait of every man who is lamed by accident.

I am most anxious to contradict that assertion of the anonymous biographer, which I consider as the most unfounded and injurious — that Dr. Darwin wrote chiefly for money. This surely was incompatible with the weak vanity which, it is said, laid him open to the attacks of flattery. It is not improbable, that, to avoid offensive adulation, he might say, ironically, that his object in writing was money not fame. I have heard him say so twenty times, but I never, for one moment, supposed him to be in earnest. Indeed it was absolutely impossible that I should. I once, when in England, had a sudden occasion for a thousand pounds; knowing that the Doctor had money in his banker's hands, I wrote to him to request that he would, within a fortnight, accommodate me with that sum for a few weeks. By return of the post I received the following answer:—

"I send you one bank-note for 1000. send me a bond secundum artem."

The Doctor at that time knew nothing of my affairs, but he thought me worthy to be his friend.

I am, Sir,
Your obedient Servant,
Edgeworths Town, Ireland,
July 13, 1802.