Friday 12 November 2021

'So still the Tadpole cleaves the watery vale...'

 Browsing in the classic anthology of bad verse, The Stuffed Owl, I notice that Erasmus Darwin, that great son of Lichfield, is represented by several passages from The Loves of the Plants (praised at the time by Cowper, Hayley and Walpole), The Economy of Vegetation and The Temple of Nature
   Darwin, a true polymath, is a fascinating figure, but clearly not the great poet that Anna Seward (in her more generous moods) thinks him. I have given up on her biography of the great man, not least because she herself more or less gives up on trying to write his life after he moves from Lichfield to Derby. Miss Seward is, alas, seriously interested in Darwin only at the points where his life and interests happen to impinge on hers – which means, among other things, that she has no real interest in his scientific studies, his thinking and his inventions, but only in his poetry, which she analyses at great length. Her ambiguous attitude to her subject shows through even in her study of his verse, which includes frequent comparisons with other authors, often to the detriment of Dr Darwin. However, where she finds what she considers 'beauties', her praise knows no bounds. Of an 'animated apostrophe to Steel' in The Botanic Garden, she asks 'What has poetry more noble than these first six lines?' 

Hail adamantine Steel! magnetic Lord,
King of the prow, the ploughshare and the sword!
True to the pole, by thee the pilot guides
His steady course amid the struggling tides!
Braves, with broad sail, th' immeasurable sea,
Cleaves the dark air, and asks no star but thee!

What indeed...?
  There is something charming about the idea of an encyclopaedic tour d'horizon that embraces great swathes of what we would now call science – often new science and technology – and a pre-scientific world of nymphs and mythical creatures, all brought together into one vast edifice of heroic verse. Such was Erasmus Darwin's poetical oeuvre, the product of a particular time, when science and the arts could still mingle naturally, and, from the start, is was likely to date fast, and to appear to later generations as absurd, a noble endeavour brought down by bathos, a living example of what Pope called 'the art of sinking in poetry'. Hence Darwin's presence in The Stuffed Owl. Of the specimens of Darwiniana collected there, this passage from The Temple of Nature is perhaps the choicest, and I shall close with it:

So still the Tadpole cleaves the watery vale, 
With balanc'd fins and undulating tail;
New lungs and limbs proclaim his second birth,
Breathe the dry air, and bound upon the earth.
Allied to fish, the Lizard cleaves the flood
With one-celled heart, and dark frigescent blood;
Half-reasoning Beavers long-unbreathing dart
Through Eirie's waves with perforated heart;
With gills and lungs respiring Lampreys steer, 
Kiss the rude rocks, and suck till they adhere;
With gills pulmonic breathes th' enormous Whale,
And spouts aquatic columns to the gale. 

'With perforated heart' is a lovely touch, and the adhesive manoeuvres of the lamprey could hardly be more pithily described. 

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