Erasmus Darwin Introduction

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(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...

(The entire section is 1,902 words.)