Schnackenberg’s “Darwin in 1881” interweaves past and present not only in the personal life of Charles Darwin but also in the evolution of the natural world that Darwin documented so exhaustively. The mood of the poem is somber, conveying the sense of a long and busy life drawing to a close. The naturalist does not look back on his life of scientific discovery with any sense of accomplishment. In spite of his vast knowledge, all he is now aware of from his many years of study is that everything in nature “will grow small, fade, disappear.” The Darwin of the poem is aware only of absences, of vanishings, of things in nature that formerly were and are no more. This is of course an allusion to the extinction of species over the long course of evolution, in which the process of “natural selection” ensures that the life forms that survive are those that adapt best to their environment. Darwin also described this process as the “survival of the fittest.” In this poem, however, Darwin links natural selection to a more general notion of death, which not only lays waste to thousands of entire species but comes inevitably to all creatures, himself included. He is acutely aware of his own impending death, “Bound for a place where species don’t exist.”
The poet adds a level of complexity to the poem when she equates Darwin with Prospero, the magician of Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. The references to Prospero pervade the poem, making it more than just a meditation on death. It also touches on issues such as the nature of knowledge, reality, dream, and illusion.
Prospero and Darwin were both men of knowledge and learning, but they represented different sides of the same coin. Darwin was a scientist. He measured, observed, and analyzed the natural world in order to determine its fixed laws of change and development. His methods were objective. Prospero, on the other hand, developed the inner rather than the outer aspects of knowledge. He became a master of the subjective world of the mind, and this gave him power over the outer world. By the power of his imagination, he could summon up events and phenomena in nature, such as the storm that produces the shipwreck that sets The Tempest in motion. (As a fictional character, Prospero is also, of course, the product of the imagination of his creator, Shakespeare.) Taken together, Darwin and Prospero, as was once said of the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, divide the empire of the human mind.
But in the poem it seems that neither the subjective nor the objective approach to truth yields any substantial knowledge that might ward off the final reality of death and extinction. Prospero, for all his magical powers, is eventually just as bereft as Darwin. In a creative twist of her own, the poet imagines a life for Prospero beyond even the one with which Shakespeare endowed him. She pictures him, having returned from his island exile to reclaim his dukedom of Milan, as being as sleepless as Darwin. All his previous wisdom, including the magical powers that he renounced, now means nothing to him or anyone else. The seemingly miraculous acts he performed have been reduced to mere sailors’ yarns, fabulous events that may never have actually occurred in real life. Like Darwin, Prospero’s life’s work has ended at the borders of a death that is the final outcome of everything. Prospero’s famous speech in The Tempest, to which the poet alludes, is at one level of meaning a foreshadowing of this. In that speech Prospero announces that the world and everything in it is nothing more than an “insubstantial pageant” and will fade into nothingness. So too will all human life, the objective reality of which Prospero also calls into question: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”
This allusion leads Schnackenberg to her gnomic phrase,...
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