Rare Book Highlights: plants, sex, and poetry with Erasmus Darwin

Painting of a man with shoulder-length light brown hair wearing an eighteenth dentury brown coat and cravat and holding a quill pen.

Portrait of Erasmus Darwin by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1792.

From out of 18th Century England, at the crossroads of the Enlightenment and the Romantic Era, comes a curious work that weds poetry and science in flowery rhyming couplets, heavy with metaphor, and laden with scholarly footnotes. The work is The Botanic Garden (1791), a poem in two parts by Erasmus Darwin, grandfather to the more famous Charles Darwin.

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was a physician by trade and a natural philosopher and poet by avocation. He was taken with the recent work of Carl Linneaus (1707-1778) on plant taxonomy, which divided plants into classes and orders based on the number of male and female sexual organs in the flowers, and determined to work this system into poetry in “The Loves of the Plants,” Part II of The Botanic Garden.

While many Englishmen of the time were scandalized by the sexual nature of Linneaus’ taxonomic system, Darwin embraced it, using suggestive images in his floral descriptions, writing of blushing virgins, handsome swains, and deceitful harlots. Take, for example, his description of the genus Gloriosa, which he describes in a footnote as having “Six males, one female. The petals of this beautiful flower with three of the stamens, which are first mature, stand up in apparent disorder; and the pistil bends at nearly a right angle to insert its stigma amongst them. In a few days, as these decline, the other three stamens bend over, and approach the pistil.”

Engraving of Gloriosa Superba with six stamens and one pistil.

When the young Hours amid her tangled hair

Wove the fresh rose-bud, and the lily fair,

Proud GLORIOSA led three chosen swains,

The blushing captives of her virgin chains.–

—When Time’s rude hand a bark of wrinkles spread

Round her weak limbs, and silver’d o’er her head,

Three other youths her riper years engage,

The flatter’d victims of her wily age.

 

“The Economy of Vegetation,” part I of The Botanic Garden, is vast in scope, describing both natural phenomenon and the progress of civilization. In the verses below, despite their references to God, the description of the creation of the universe is more reminiscent of the Big Bang theory than Genesis:

_LET THERE BE LIGHT!” proclaim’d the ALMIGHTY LORD,

Astonish’d Chaos heard the potent word;

Through all his realms the kindling Ether runs,

And the mass starts into a million suns;

Earths round each sun with quick explosions burst,

And second planets issue from the first;

Bend, as they journey with projectile force,

In bright ellipses their reluctant course;

Orbs wheel in orbs, round centres centres roll,

And form, self-balanced, one revolving Whole.

_Onward they move amid their bright abode,

Space without bound, THE BOSOM OF THEIR GOD!

Darwin describes new inventions, like the steam engine, in heroic terms and envisions its many future uses, in boats, cars, and even flying machines:

NYMPTHS! You erewhile on simmering cauldrons play’d,

And call’d delighted SAVERY to your aid;

Bade round the youth explosive STEAM aspire

In gathering clouds, and wing’d the wave with fire;

Bade with cold streams the quick expansion stop,

And sunk the immense of vapour to a drop. —

Press’d by the ponderous air the Piston falls

Resistless, sliding through it’s iron walls;

Quick moves the balanced beam, of giant-birth,

Wields his large limbs, and nodding shakes the earth.

Soon shall thy arm, UNCONQUER’D STEAM! afar

Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;

Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear

The flying-chariot through the fields of air.

 

I was surprised to discover that “The Economy of Vegetation” was illustrated in part with engravings by none other than William Blake, known for his own illuminated books of poetry. His engraving, “Tornado” accompanies this verse:

Black and white engraving of a nude man's body with a face like a man's but a mouth and main like a lion. Entwined around one leg is a dragon's tail, while the head rests on top of the man's head, and the wings spread out behind the man's arms. One arm holds onto a fork of lightning. The entire form floats above ocean waves.

“Tornado” by William Blake.

You seize TORNADO by his locks of mist,

Burst his dense clouds, his wheeling spires untwist;

Wide o’er the West when borne on headlong gales,

Dark as meridian night, the Monster sails,

Howls high in air, and shakes his curled brow,

Lashing with serpent-train the waves below,

Whirls his black arm, the forked lightning flings,

And showers a deluge from his demon-wings.

 

Although Darwin’s high style of poetry may be agonizing to many modern readers, The Botanic Garden was popular when it was first published. Its vision of scientific and cultural progress was vibrant and appealing. Associated as it was with the scientific progress and sexual freedom of the French Revolution, however, popular opinion turned against it as the Revolution turned more savage. Only seven years after its initial publication, it was satirized by George Canning in The Anti-Jacobin in the poem The Love of the Triangles. In later years the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is famously said to have despised Darwin’s poetry.

Erasmus Darwin. The Botanic Garden. Pt. 1, 3rd edition; Pt. 2, 4th edition. London: J. Johnson, 1794-1795. Call number: QH41 D25b3

2 thoughts on “Rare Book Highlights: plants, sex, and poetry with Erasmus Darwin

  1. Diana

    “Darwinism is a theory of biological evolution developed by the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and others, stating that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce.” Are these two Darwins related??

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