Gjertrud Schnackenberg published “Darwin in 1881” in her first collection of poems, Portraits and Elegies, in 1982. This book—sometimes referred to as a “chapbook” because of its short length—is divided into three sections, and “Darwin in 1881” makes up the entire second section. All three parts relate in one way or another to history, the first consisting of a series of elegies to her father, the third tracing the history of a Massachusetts farmhouse nearly two hundred years old, and the middle depicting the life of Charles Darwin one year before his death. This latter poem is layered with two primary allusions. A subtle reference compares Darwin’s life to the poet’s father’s life, but the more obvious allusion is to Shakespeare’s character Prospero from The Tempest, whom Schnackenberg also compares to Darwin.
To the poet, all three men—her father, Darwin, and Prospero—accomplished great things in their lives and had settled into times of quiet reflection before their deaths. In the poem, there is no description of the father’s final days, but Schnackenberg relies heavily on an examination of Darwin’s famous voyage to the Galápagos Islands, his controversial theory of evolution and natural selection, and his years, after the journey, at home in England. By blending in references to Prospero, who lives on an island for many years before returning to his native Milan, Italy, Schnackenberg presents a cohesive, poetic study, full of rich imagery, that points out the importance of history, science, and family in making sense of human life. The characters here have all done remarkable things with their intellectual powers, and each has reached a point of saying farewell to his ambitious life in favor of a more solemn meditation on what the accomplishments have meant.
The opening lines of “Darwin in 1881” introduce the comparison between Darwin and Prospero, using the word “as” to indicate a likeness. In The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play, Prospero, the Duke of Milan, is overthrown by his brother, Antonio, and then put to sea with his young daughter to perish. As it turns out, however, Prospero and the child are shipwrecked on an island where magic and sorcery are commonplace thanks to lively spirits such as the friendly Ariel and the mischievous Caliban. Prospero acquires magical powers by donning a magician’s robe and carrying a wand, and he performs many tricks over the twelve years that he and his daughter live on the island. Among Prospero’s feats is his conjuring, through Ariel, a terrific storm, or tempest, bringing a ship carrying Antonio and a party of others from Milan crashing into the island. Through various magic tricks, Prospero and his spirits frighten the stranded newcomers, but the magicians eventually reveal who it is behind the sorcery. When Antonio realizes his brother and niece are still alive, he repents his act of usurping Prospero’s throne and begs his brother to forgive him. Believing Antonio is sincere, Prospero makes peace with him, and all the human inhabitants of the island agree to return home where Prospero will take his rightful place as Duke of Milan. With Ariel’s magical provision of friendly sea breezes, the party sails safely home on a rebuilt ship.
The references to “his bedroom” and “his miracles” in lines 1 and 2 refer to Prospero, who has given up his magical powers to live a sedate life in Italy. His miraculous adventures and accomplishments are now only a legend of “sailors’ tales.”
The “He” in line 4 refers to Darwin. The islands that “loom” in his mind are those he visited on his five-year expedition, beginning in 1831, as a naturalist (now more commonly called a botanist or zoologist) aboard the H. M. S. Beagle. Most likely, the islands are the Galápagos group where he made his greatest discoveries of the many varieties of plant and animal species. This voyage was a miserable one for Darwin, physically. He spent many seasick days in turbulent waters and reportedly contracted a tropical disease after being bitten by an insect. Whether or not that was the cause of his ailment, it is true that Darwin spent the rest of his life battling chronic stomach pains and nausea. Lines 6 and 7 contain the first direct allusion to lines from The Tempest. In act 1, scene 2, it is music, not “memory,” that creeps by as Ferdinand describes Ariel’s song: “This music crept by me upon the waters.” The “broken eggs” and “vacant tortoiseshells” refer to fossils that Darwin found on his trip.
The actual cape that Darwin voyaged around was Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. The poem, however, speaks of a time when Darwin has already rounded “the cape of middle age” and is well into his declining years. As the journey of his life comes to a close, he experiences a “feat of insight,” meaning he has accomplished a true understanding of something. That something is revealed in line 16, which states that he now realizes that “Knowledge increases unreality.” This statement implies that sometimes people can learn so much and be so highly intelligent that they lose touch with the real world. Before that revelation, however, Schnackenberg makes another comparison to Prospero whose own voyage “Ended before he left the stage,” referring to his relinquishment of the magical powers that his robe and wand afforded him. The Duke’s speech concerning “the clouds and globe” comes from act 4, scene 1, in which he states, “the great globe itself, / Yea, all which inherit it, shall dissolve / And . . . leave not a rack [wispy cloud] behind.” Also, compare line 15 to Prospero’s statement in Act 5, Scene 1, in which he says, “I’ll break my staff, / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth.”
Darwin’s continuing illness often left him with insomnia as well as nausea. This second stanza depicts a sleepless night when he must go outside for some fresh air to “cure his dizziness.” All his children have left home, and he likens their vacant rooms to “shipsunk emptiness.” Lines 18 (“Form wavers like his shadow”) and 24 (“All haunted by each other’s likenesses”) are references to Darwin’s work with evolutionary theory and his study of why species are alike in some ways and different in others.
These lines rely on simile—a comparison of two dissimilar objects—and further allusion to Darwin’s journey to various islands. On this sleepless night, he is so alone that the orchard, the moon, and even he himself seem like separate islands. The seeds that stick to his pant legs are “archipelagoes,” or groups of islands, and the trees he observes are “ramifying,” meaning their branches divide into new branches the way species divide and form new species in evolution. The nests he sees within the branches hold eggs “with unique expressions,” just as plants and animals have developed unique looks and abilities over thousands of years. Lines 34 and 35 refer directly to Darwin’s amazing discovery in the Galápagos that giant tortoises who roamed the islands were so distinct in their development that the human inhabitants could tell at a glance...
(The entire section is 2247 words.)