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.