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.
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 Garden, The 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).
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).