Erasmus Darwin Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Erasmus Darwin 1731-1802

English medical practitioner, natural philosopher, physiologist, inventor, and poet.

The grandfather of famed English naturalist Charles Robert Darwin, Erasmus Darwin is generally regarded as the first English poet to highlight modern science and technology in verse. A highly successful physician for more than fifty years in the Midland counties of England, Darwin celebrated his love for medicine, science, and technology in his poetry and prose, attempting to make his scientific subject matter accessible to the reading public. He wrote long, didactic poetry—a form common during the eighteenth century—and included lengthy and copious footnotes intended to help impart to his readers an understanding of nature. In fact, his notes are virtually as long as the poetry itself. This emphasis on the conveying of both scientific fact and theory has led critics to consider poems such as The Loves of the Plants (1789), The Economy of Vegetation (1791), and The Temple of Nature (1803) as pieces of literature as well as informational texts. Although he is typically identified alongside other minor poets of the late eighteenth century, Darwin stands out for his significant impact on the major writers of the Romantic movement, who were indebted to him for his scientific authority, his verbal ability, and his successful integration of these disparate disciplines in his work.

Biographical Information

Darwin was born on December 12, 1731, near Newark in Nottinghamshire. He was the youngest of seven children of Elizabeth and Robert Darwin, a lawyer. In the early 1750s the young Darwin enrolled in St. John's College at Cambridge, where he earned a B.A. in 1754. He subsequently entered Edinburgh Medical School, then at the height of its renown as a medical school. Completing his M.B. in 1756, Darwin set up a medical practice at Lichfield, where he gained a reputation as the finest physician of his day. In 1757 he married seventeen-year-old Mary Howard, with whom he had five children. Of these, three sons survived past infancy; the third, Robert Waring, also became a doctor, and later fathered Charles Darwin.

During the 1760s the personable and successful Erasmus Darwin began establishing many friendships, most of which centered around his love of invention, physical science, and technological innovation. Included among these friendships was his association with Matthew Boulton, the prominent English manufacturer and engineer who later became a business partner of James Watt, the inventor of the modern condensing steam engine. Darwin also established a lifelong friendship with famed American inventor Benjamin Franklin, who shared his support for the American and French revolutions. William Small, a former teacher of Thomas Jefferson, also began meeting with Darwin, and by 1765 the informal gatherings between Boulton, Darwin, Small, and Watt, among others, became known as the Lunar Society of Birmingham. In existence until 1791, the Lunar Society was instrumental as the intellectual driving force behind England's Industrial Revolution.

After Mary's death in 1770 at the age of thirty, Darwin became increasingly involved in designing a variety of inventions, including a copying machine and a speaking machine. In 1777 he began an eight-acre botanical garden at Lichfield, triggering a keen and long-lasting interest in botany. He formed the Lichfield Botanical Society with the goal of translating the works of the great eighteenth-century Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus from their original Latin into English. This massive undertaking resulted in A System of Vegetables between 1783 and 1785 and The Families of Plants in 1787.

Darwin married widow Elizabeth Pole in 1781, and moved to Derby, where he practiced medicine. During the early years of his second marriage Darwin had become less socially active and had turned his attention to writing. After the seven long years spent translating the works of Linnaeus, which were welcomed by the botanist community, Darwin produced The Loves of the Plants, a long didactic poem that eventually formed part two of The Botanic Garden (1791). A humorous and light popularization of the Linnaean works, The Loves of the Plants changed the perception of Darwin from a serious physician and scientist into a literary icon. The first part of The Botanic Garden, The Economy of Vegetation, appeared in 1791, and the two parts together established Darwin as a popular poet. Darwin, who had written several short, occasional poems before The Botanic Garden, was hardly considered a professional poet and astonished his friends with the volume's almost immediate success. Darwin produced a quite different work with his next publication, the massive medical treatise Zoonomia (1794-96), written when Darwin's reputation as a physician had reached almost legendary proportions. The following year, in 1797, Darwin published the slightly tongue-in-cheek Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools. This instructional guide was written to aid Darwin's two illegitimate daughters (fathered with Mary Parker in between Darwin's two marriages) in their efforts to establish a girls' school in the mid-1790s. Among the radical ideas included in the book are the importance of science and language studies for females and the need for adequate bodily exercise. Darwin produced another treatise, Phytologia, a survey of plant physiology and nutrition, in 1800. In April of 1802 Darwin had a heart attack and died in his Derby home. His last long poem, The Temple of Nature, was published posthumously in 1803 and is considered his finest. Devoted to Darwin's nascent theory of evolution, the poem traces the progression of life from microorganisms to civilized society.

Major Works

Publishing during the height of the Industrial Revolution in England, Darwin wrote from the perspective of a middle-class entrepreneur who believed ardently in scientific and social advances. Preoccupied with the progressive force of industrialization and with those who benefited from it, Darwin consistently praised the achievement of industrial intellectual innovation—the superiority of the human mind over nature. He extolled the work of inventors, scientists, and entrepreneurs while at the same time omitting mention of the living laborer or the labor process itself. He made no reference in his verse to poverty, to the struggles of large families, or to rampant unemployment, even though the relief system for the underprivileged underwent a major crisis in the late eighteenth century. This emphasis of Darwin's on the educated middle class placed him in direct opposition with English artist and poet William Blake, whose social sympathies lay with the impoverished lower classes.

In his verse, Darwin made extensive use of the typical eighteenth-century device of personification—endowing a thing or abstraction with human qualities. He employed classical allusions and heroic couplets and was fond of replacing abstractions with detailed visual images. In attempting to create vivid pictures with words, however, Darwin was frequently criticized for his heavy-handedness, which obfuscated his verse and made his language appear ornate and artificial. In celebrating scientific advances, he juxtaposed mythological gods with his heroes, bestowing magical powers upon such individuals as Watt, Franklin, and Boulton. Darwin was unique, too, in his use of the industrial metaphor—he described nature as a machine and life as the end result of the manufacturing process.

His first major work of poetry, The Loves of the Plants, grew out of his enthusiasm for botany that began when he created his eight-acre botanical garden. Composed in rhyming couplets, the poem is a lighthearted retranslation of the works of Linnaeus, detailing the massive, methodical, classificatory system of plant life developed by the prestigious scientist. The Economy of Vegetation, with 2,440 lines of verse and about one hundred thousand words of “notes,” revolves primarily around Earth science, containing four cantos divided into earth, water, air, and fire. Incorporating recent ideas regarding natural history, The Economy of Vegetation has been called an encyclopedia of science. Although the poem encompasses a great variety of topics, the tome is held together by Darwin's passion for technological and scientific advances, references to which appear throughout the work. His last poem, The Temple of Nature, is devoted to Darwin's theory of evolution. Published in 1803, the work, by virtue of its emphasis on biological advancement rather than divine creation, was considered subversive of the established order and censured by critics. Darwin set forth his views on evolution in his three-volume treatise Zoonomia as well. In the work, Darwin proposed that changes in the environment cause changes in animal and plant structures. Although the evolution account in Zoonomia is incomplete, Darwin's ideas marked a major achievement in biology, becoming an essential part of the scientific background for his grandson Charles Darwin's full defining of the theory.

Critical Reception

With the publication of The Botanic Garden, Darwin achieved best-seller status and garnered enormous acclaim from reviewers. Modern critics, however, have suggested that the praise was perhaps overdone, pointing to eighteenth-century comparisons of Darwin with poetic giants Dante and John Milton. This immense admiration inevitably led to parody and ridicule, which became quite fashionable after the publication of the parody “The Loves of the Triangles.” Published in installments in The Anti-Jacobin beginning in the spring of 1798, “The Loves of the Triangles” proved devastating to Darwin's literary reputation. Apparently written by Hookham Frere, George Ellis, and George Canning, the work attacked, among other ideas, Darwin's theory that humans were descended from lower forms of animal life; this contradicted the prevailing assumption that humans were formed in the image of God. Consequently, The Botanic Garden became the subject of ridicule and contempt. In 1803, when The Temple of Nature was published, social order was seen as being threatened by science and technology, and medical practitioners and natural philosophers were regarded with suspicion. The Temple of Nature was found shocking in its premise that humans developed naturally and scandalous in its disregard for the involvement of God in the creation of mankind.

Among the attacks on Darwin was one by William Wordsworth in his Preface to the 1798 edition of the Lyrical Ballads, which many critics have viewed as a rejection of Darwin's works. The Romantic movement was just emerging as Darwin's popularity was fading (although he continued to publish through the turn of the century), and many modern scholars have credited him with having left a significant mark on the major figures of the Romantic era. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron all read a great portion of Darwin and were indebted to his poetry. The Romantics, however, also criticized Darwin for his inability to infuse nature with emotion, believing poetry should be a free expression of the artist's powerful feelings and limitless imagination. Coleridge claimed: “This is not poetry,” of Darwin's Botanic Garden, while Wordsworth noted the “gaudiness” of the verse.

Darwin was basically disregarded during the nineteenth century, when he was considered a Jacobin and an atheist whose poetry was void of spirituality and contained nothing touching the heart. By the turn of the twentieth century, the discoveries of Charles Darwin turned attention again to his grandfather. Scholars began investigating the heritage of the renowned nineteenth-century evolutionist and found evidence that the elder Darwin had anticipated most of what his grandson had later proposed, except for that of natural selection. As the twentieth century progressed, Darwin began attracting attention as a minor English poet of the eighteenth century, one deserving of some merit and distinction based on his ability to popularize science through poetry and his skill in versification. Although his writings continue to be seen as obsolete, modern critics continue to stress the need to study him as a literary figure and not simply as an author of scientific texts. One area of concentrated critical study continues to be Darwin's influence on the Romantics, who reacted strongly to his scientific, religious, and political ideas.