Charles Darwin

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Theodore Baird (essay date 1946)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Darwin and the Tangled Bank," in American Scholar, Vol. 15, No. 4, Autumn, 1946, pp. 477-86.

[In the following essay, Baird comments on Darwin's use of metaphorical language in describing his responses to nature.]

Details of the scene can be filled in. They were both very great men. Carlyle was eighty. On his latest birthday he had been much honored. From Prussia came a decoration—"The Star . . . is really very pretty . . . hung with a black ribbon, with silver edges. . . . Had they sent me a 1/4 lb. of good Tobacco the addition to my happiness had probably been . . . greater!" From America and Harvard came an honorary LL.D., and Disraeli, beginning his letter, "A Government should recognize intellect," offered him the Grand Cross of the Bath.

Darwin was sixty-six, and the Origin had been published for sixteen years. At home and abroad learned societies had delighted in recognizing him, and he too was entitled to wear the star with the black silver-edged ribbon, the Prussian Pour le Mérite. In the public mind he played a unique part, for his name had been appropriated to stand for what vast numbers of people professed to be against, Darwinism. He had been abused, denounced and reviled. Carlyle, in ordinary conversation, but not to the man's face, had had his say often enough: our descent from the apes is a humiliating discovery, which scientists had much better have kept to themselves, and, in short, he would like to lay his stick over Darwin's back. "I find no one," he told Allingham, "who has the deep abhorrence of [Darwinism]. . . . that I have in my heart of hearts!" Here then was a combination of persons more crucial than in the famous meeting of the libertine Wilkes and the moralist Johnson; here was personified the clash between science and literature, empiricism and intuition.

We owe our knowledge of what they talked about to Carlyle's brief report. "I asked him," he said, "if he thought there was a possibility of men turning into apes again. . . . [Darwin] laughed much at this, and came back to it over and over again." Completely won over by Darwin personally, Carlyle was pleased with the meeting, and he told Allingham, who thought the phrase curious, that Darwin was a "pleasant, jolly-minded man." What Darwin thought of this exchange may well be contained in the sentence where he says of Carlyle, "As far as I could judge, I never met a man with a mind so ill adapted for scientific research."

Plainly Carlyle belongs to literature. Darwin's position is obscure. A popular textbook places him at the opposite pole, remarking that his work "cannot be said to belong to literature, if in the definition of literary work is presupposed an effort towards artistic expression." Yet Darwin, who certainly never thought of himself as a writer like Carlyle, was deeply concerned with literary composition, as the extensive remarks to Bates of the Amazon reveal. There were people who were born writers, he admitted, but he found the work hard. He had found it a good plan whenever he was in difficulties to fancy that someone had entered the room and asked him what he is doing; then he would try to explain "what it is all about." He added, "I think too much pains cannot be taken in making the style transparently clear and throwing eloquence to the dogs." The effort toward expression was there, and it would be a harsh critic who did not find artistic the result in The Voyage of the Beagle.

Darwin's subject—the face of the earth, the processes of nature—had long been within the scope of literature, and in his attitude there was nothing consciously novel. In the presence of the mystery or the beauty or the violence of nature, with the accompanying possible responses of worship or pleasure or shock, a writer could say, "Here it is, look at it," while simultaneously he communicated to the reader the effect, "How divine"; "How lovely"; or "How horrible." This, indeed, is the literary experience—seeing the object, feeling an emotion. And it is...

(The entire section is 69,810 words.)