Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden

Lately I’ve been looking over a first-edition of Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden; A Poem, in Two Parts (1791), which was recently purchased by the special collections at Bucknell. Grandfather of Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin was a physician, inventor, and writer, some of whose greatest scientific writings are not in prose, but in verse. In efforts to “enlist the Imagination under the banner of science,” Darwin’s botanical treatise is composed of 2,200 couplets and supported by over 100,000 words in scientific footnotes. Given how little-known The Botanic Garden is today, I was surprised to find that this work made Darwin the most famous English poet of the 1790’s, comparable to Milton or Shakespeare, according to his biographer Desmond King-Hele. Through “the imagery of poetry,” Darwin sought to lead his readers to “ratiocination of philosophy.” The book is published in two poems. The Economy of Vegetation, the more encyclopedic in nature, is the first; the second is The Loves of the Plants, which explains the sex-lives of flowers put forth by Linnaeus’s Sexual System of plants. 

Advertisement, The Botanic Garden, Bucknell University Special Collections

Darwin also speculates about the history of the cosmos and the evolution of life in ways his grandson Charles would explore. In his other book-length scientific poem The Temple of Nature, Darwin conjectures that life began with small organisms in the oceans:

Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves

Was born and nurs’d in Ocean’s pearly caves;

First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,

Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;

These, as successive generations bloom,

New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;

Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,

And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing. (I. v. 295-302)

Erasmus Darwin’s poetry, however, was too gaudy for refined Romantic tastes. In the Interludes to The Loves of Plants, Darwin gives an account of his own view of poetry:

Bookseller. In what then consists the essential difference between Poetry and Prose?

Poet. Next to the measure of the language, the principal distinction appears to me to consist in this; that Poetry admits to very few words expressive of perfectly abstracted ideas, whereas Prose abounds with them. And as our ideas derived from visible objects and more distinct than those derived from the objects of out other senses, the words expressive of these ideas belonging to vision make up the principal part of the poetic language. That is, the Poet writes principally to the eye, the Prose-writer uses more abstracted terms. (The Botanic GardenThe Loves of Plants, 1st ed. 41-42).

Coleridge takes issue with Darwin’s use of poetry in his Biographia Literaria. However, it wasn’t Darwin’s poetry that interested Coleridge and other Romantics; it was his radical ideas about nature and his blending of poetry, imagination, and art with the emerging fields of natural history, physiology, and chemistry.

The artist and visionary poet William Blake played a role in the publication The Botanic Garden by designing some of the engravings. Although Blake probably never met Darwin, he was commissioned by their mutual friend Joseph Johnson. “Thus it was,” writes King-Hele, “that Blake at the height of his powers as a poet but unknown except to his friends, helped Darwin to become the most famous poet of the decade” (39).

William Blake’s The Fertilization of Egypt

 

 

William Blake’s depiction of The Portland Vase

Another fascinating aspect of Darwin’s The Botanic Garden, and one relevant to Romantic poetry, is the anthropomorphization of plants used to demonstrate the similarities between the animal and vegetable worlds. In The Loves of Plants, Darwin’s system is based not only on Linnaeus’s sexual system, but the idea that plants enjoy certain levels of consciousness and feeling. Darwin believed that plants could feel and experience certain emotions associated with their conditions in the natural world. He defends this view later in Zoonomia, his prose treatise on the animal kingdom.

This idea greatly influenced the Romantic poets, and is changing the way I approach their nature poetry. Coleridge, though he quickly came to reject Darwin’s materialistic philosophy and his evolutionary scheme, described Darwin as the “first literary character in Europe, and the most original-minded Man” (Coleridge, 215). Wordsworth, too, read Darwin’s poetry. He was 19, and a student at Cambridge when The Loves of Plants was published in 1789. According to Emile Legouis “Wordsworth had his period of infatuation for Darwin…he was among those who, for some years, extolled The Botanic Garden to the skies” (138).  This point is even more important when reading the poems of John Clare, who also was an avid reader Erasmus Darwin, among other contemporary natural historians. When Clare mourns the enclosure of Helpston in “The Mores,” the landscape literally mourns with him: 

“And birds and trees and flowers without a name/All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came”

Thus, when Clare describes the “Daisey” as a “happy flower” and Wordsworth describes a “jocund company” of daffodils, we shouldn’t consider it as merely an instance of pathetic fallacy.

The Romantic engagement with works like Darwin’s The Botanic Garden demonstrates how the subjects of philosophy, science, and poetry were not so disparate as they are today. Science, as David Knight observes, “was not opposed to ‘arts’ […] Indeed the then current classification of subjects would have put engineering among the arts, a useful rather than fine art, while almost all other subjects now taught in universities, such as chemistry, history and theology, would have been sciences. The real division was between the realm of science, governed by reason, and that of practice, or rule of thumb” (14). The German philosopher J.G. Hamman, citing Francis Bacon, argued that there was a strong connection between botany and poetry: “In Nature we have nothing but the confusion of poems…the scholar’s task is to collect them; that of the philosopher, to expound them; the poet’s humble task is to collect them; that or even more audaciously to bring them into order.” This interdisciplinary approach to science was also echoed by Rene Descartes when he wrote “If, therefore, anyone wishes to search out the truth of things in serious earnest, he ought not to select one special science; for all the sciences are conjoined with each other and interdependent…” (Rule 1, Rules for the Direction of the Mind).

Works Cited

Clare, John. “The Mores – John Clare.” PoemHunter.com, www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/john-clare/the-mores/.
 
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge Volume I. Houghton Mifflin, 1895.
 
Darwin, Erasmus. The Botanic Garden; A Poem, in Two Parts. London: J.Johnson, 1791-94.
 
Descartes, Rene. Rule 1, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, 1628.
 
 Hamman, J.G. “Aesthetica in Nucer,” (1762) Sämtliche Werke, ed. J. Nadler, 6 vols. Vienna, 1949-57.
 
Knight, David. “Romanticism and the Sciences,” Romanticism and the Sciences. Edited by Andrew Cunningham & Nicholas Jardine. Cambridge UP, 1990
 
Legouis, Emile. The Early Life of William WordsworthJ. M. Dent & sons, 1921.
 
King-Hele, Desmond. Erasmus Darwin and the Romantic Poets. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986
Share on:

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Talk at the Wordsworth Summer Conference

For my third and final conference this summer, I gave a talk entitled “Nature as Theophany: Considering Eriugena’s Influence on Coleridge’s Imagination.” 

My paper emphasized an important connection between Coleridge’s imagination and Johannes Scotus Eriugena. In March 1810, Coleridge records in his notebook an early sketch of what would later be published in the Biographia Literaria. He writes, “I wish very much to investigate the connections of the Imagination with the Bildungstrieb—Imagiatio = imitation vel repititio Imaginis—Per motum? Ergo, et motuum—The Variolae—generation—Is not there a link between physical Imitation & Imagination?”” (CN III Entry 3744). The formula is a condensed reflection on imagination and imaginative repetition, and in context, we can read Coleridge’s “primary Imagination,” the “repetition in the infinite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM,” as a more developed  elaboration of Eriugena’s concept of theophany, and the human mind as something that is created and creates. By the year this entry had been written, seven years before the publication of the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge was already exploring Eriugena’s understanding of nature in relation to imagination. In addition, this paper focused on the implications of Coleridge’s understanding of the natural world in relation to Eriugena’s pantheistic theophany, and how Coleridge reconciled this to Christian orthodoxy with  his theory of imagination in the Biographia. I also examined how his relation to Eriugena developed over the three stages of Coleridge’s life ,as described by Thomas McFarland: his early and poetic intuitions that the phenomenal world and the spirit are interconnected, his middle years of searching for a philosophical system that united and expressed the unity of these two worlds, and his final years in which he relies more on systems religious orthodoxy.

 

The conference took place at Rydal Hall in the Lake District. The hall, once owned by Wordsworth’s landlady, Lady Le Fleming, stands near the house where Wordsworth had lived since 1813 to his death in 1850. We were tucked away in the Cumbrian mountains for two weeks, spending the days immersed in “Wordsworthshire,” attending talks, hiking the mountains, and getting to know the community of Romantic scholars. Here are some photos of the countryside from some hikes. 

“The Grot” on the grounds of Rydal Mount. The falls were mentioned in Wordsworth’s “An Evening Walk.”

View of Lake Windermere from the top of Nab Scar

Resting along our hike up Mt. Faraday

Hiking over St. Sunday Crag

Share on:

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Talk at the Romanticism Association Conference in Strasbourg, France

I was thrilled to be apart of the 2017 Romanticism Association Conference in Strasbourg, France and to speak about Novalis’s poetry this summer! The RA conference followed a week after the MacDonald Society Conference in Aberdeen, so I  had just enough time to visit the Peterborough Library Archives to peruse the original mss of John Clare’s bird nest poems before taking the train to France.

It was an honor to meet three of the Coleridge scholars whose scholarship guided my first foray into Coleridge’s poetry and his German influence: Richard Berkeley, Frederick Burwick, and Nicholas Reid. Dr. Berkeley is the founder of the Romanticism Association, and his Coleridge and the Crisis of Reason (2007) provides an insightful look at Coleridge’s crisis of reason in context with the Romantic pantheism controversy. Dr. Burwick is an English professor of UCLA, and his Drama: Critical Theory of the Enlightenment and Romantic Era (1991) is a pioneering look into the often-neglected drama of the Romantic Era. His keynote address (which was delightfully entertaining and informative) examined the monsters of the Romantic stage. Dr. Reid’s Coleridge, Form and Symbol (2006) examines the role of Coleridge’s theories on the imagination and symbol influence his metaphysics. I highly recommend his elucidating chapter on Schelling’s philosophy to anyone examining the intersections of Coleridge and German idealism.

The conference was held at the beautiful Église du Temple-Neuf de Strasbourg, in the Espace Tauler. The theme was “Supernatural Romanticism,” and the program promised (and delivered!) a fascinating and diverse group of speakers.

Check out the conference gallery on the Romanticism Association website!

Below is the description for my talk on apophatic theology and Novalis’s poetry.


In 1797, after the death of his fiancé and closest brother, Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) formally broke from Fichtean Idealism by uniting philosophy and poetry and developing an apophatic approach which shifted the emphasis from intellect to experience. His Hymnen an die Nacht (1800) uses poetic and apophatic language to describe a supernatural encounter with both the night and the spirit of his departed bride. In laying the groundwork for systems of knowledge, Novalis had discovered within Fichte’s Idealism an ineffable element. I will examine how this element implies, in part, a denial of kataphatic knowledge similar to Kant’s claim in Kritik der reinen Vernunft: “I had to minimize knowledge to make room for faith.” Echoing Kant in his own way, Novalis wrote, “Spinoza ascended to Nature, Fichte to the Ego, and I ascend to the thesis, God.” This paper will examine Novalis’s “ascension to God” in context with his formal, philosophical break from Fichte and will explore the elements of apophaticism used to shape his expression of “der heiligen, unaussprechlichen, geheimniβvollen Nacht” [the holy, inexpressible, mysterious night] within his Hymnen and die Nacht.

Share on:

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

George MacDonald Conference 2017 (University of Aberdeen)

George MacDonald

Sometimes referred to as the father of modern fantasy, George MacDonald was a prolific author who published fairytales, novels, poetry, works of theology and literary criticism. His friends included Lewis Carrol, John Ruskin, F.D. Maurice, Lady Byron, William Cowper-Temple, and several others, including those made during his US tour (1872-3), such as Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Dudley Warner, and others. His literary influence extends even further to authors such as G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, Madeleine L’Engle, W.H. Auden, Charles William, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.

Considering his enormous impact on literature, it’s amazing how little attention MacDonald has received in the past century. This was one of the topics scholars came to the University of Aberdeen (MacDonald’s alma mater) to discuss at the latest George MacDonald Conference. From July 17th – 21st, attendees from all over the world—the UK, the USA, Canada, Taiwan, Australia, Sweden, Russia—came together to celebrate and promote further

“MacDonald and the Scottish Faerie-Faith: Places, Landscape, and Overlay in MacDonald’s Otherworlds”

scholarship on MacDonald and his works.

The conference was themed “MacDonald’s Scotland,” and the speakers discussed his writings in relation to his native roots. Check out the MacDonald Society Blog for my report on the conference trip to Huntley and conference reports from Sharin Shroeder (Taipei) and Caroline LaPlue (Aberystwyth). 

My conference talk focused on MacDonald’s use of “Fairy land” in his novel Phantastes and the “region of seven dimensions” in Lilith to examine the ways in which MacDonald draws from Scottish faerie-faith. In both novels, the two protagonists, Anodos and Mr. Vane, enter otherworlds and undergo a conversion before returning to the normal world. Acknowledging this trope in literature, Northrop Frye, in The Anatomy of Criticism, calls this comedic device the “green world” and traces it to Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen and some of Shakespeare’s plays (like The Winter’s Tale and Midsummer Night’s Dream), in which “the action of the comedy begins in a world represented as a normal world, moves into the green world, goes into a metamorphosis there in which the comic resolution is achieved, and returns to the normal world.” My thesis and project advisor at Bucknell, Alfred Siewers, traces this even further to Celtic mythology such as Immram Brain and the mythological cycle Tochmarc Étaíne (see “The Green Otherworld of Medieval Literature” in The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment)My talk attempts to shift the focus from MacDonald’s German influence to his native roots of Scotland to examine how landscape in MacDonald’s works functions under a Scottish, Christian-comedic context.

 

Share on:

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized