Wednesday 27 October 2021

Darwin and Johnson: 'Mutual and strong dislike subsisted between them'

 From the start, it is clear that Anna Seward's biography of Erasmus Darwin is a wonderfully eccentric production, organised on principles entirely her own. It is also clear that she is not hugely enamoured of Dr Darwin as a man, though she reveres him as a poet and respects his intellect (even if she has very little to say about his scientific inquiries and his many inventions). It seems she nursed some animus towards him because he used lines of hers in his Botanic Garden without permission or acknowledgment.
   The first chapter begins with a short, hardly flattering sketch of the corpulent, stuttering, overbearing Darwin, before diverting into something of more interest to Anna Seward – the intellectual life of Lichfield and the luminaries who gave it, in her day, its particular lustre. Most of the first chapter, indeed, is taken up with a lengthy biographical profile of one of them, Thomas Day, an interesting figure in himself – one of many intellectuals led astray by the ideas of the fashionable Jean-Jacques Rousseau – but of no great relevance to the life of Dr Darwin. Seward makes a show of getting back on track at the start of the second chapter. but is soon talking of Sir Brooke Boothby, with a diversion on Mr Munday of Marketon, author of Needwood Forest ('one of the most beautiful local poems that has ever been written'). She returns to her subject with an account of Dr Darwin being thrown from his carriage and breaking the patella of his right knee. 'It is remarkable,' writes Seward, 'that this uncommon accident happened to three of the inhabitants of Lichfield in the course of one year; first, to the author of these memoirs in the prime of her youth; next, to Dr Darwin; and, lastly, to the late Mr Levett, a gentleman of wealth and consequence in the town. No such misfortune was previously remembered in that city, nor has it once recurred through all the years which has since elapsed.' Well, fancy that. 
  After a little more of Dr Darwin, Seward introduces , among others, the Rev. Thomas Seward (no relation), whose poetry she quotes, and the Rev. Archdeacon Vyse, whose verse she quotes at greater length. Any reader hoping that Seward's admiration for the 'choice spirits' of Lichfield would extend to its most famous son, Samuel Johnson, will be disappointed. He and Dr Darwin 'had one or two interviews, but never afterwards sought each other. Mutual and strong dislike subsisted between them' – and Anna Seward cannot forgive Johnson his 'many hints of Lichfield's intellectual barrenness'. The 'arrogant' Johnson, she says, 'liked only worshippers'. Though several of Lichfield's finest paid court to Johnson when he visited his home town, 'they were not in the herd that "paged his heels" and sunk, in servile silence, under the force of his dogmas, when their hearts and their judgments bore contrary testimony'. All of this sounds rather as if Anna Seward could not forgive Johnson for neglecting Lichfield, with its galaxy of starry intellects (in her estimate), in favour of London. It is a shame, though, that the two greatest men Lichfield produced – Erasmus Darwin and Samuel Johnson – did not get on. 

No comments:

Post a Comment