Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/January 1909/Poetry and Science: The Case of Charles Darwin



IN the autobiographical chapter of the "Life and Letters of Charles Darwin" occurs a well-known passage, in which the writer deplores his loss, in middle life, of the higher esthetic tastes.

Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. . . . But now for many years I can not endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. . . . This curious and lamentable loss of the higher esthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I can not conceive. A man with a mind more highly organized or better constituted than mine would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry ... at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

The loss which Darwin here regrets has often been charged to the particular account of his occupation with science. I have always believed that the charge is unfounded. It is difficult to give precise reasons, to translate into words what is, at bottom, a matter of general cumulative impression; but I shall attempt to show that there are, at any rate, plausible grounds for doubting the common construction put upon his remarks.

I must begin by saying that there is no real evidence to the effect that Darwin showed, at any period of his life, a deep feeling for poetry, or a profound understanding of it. I use the adjectives advisedly. The true love of poetry, and the intimate understanding of poetry, are matters primarily of a man's temperament. But they are also, like everything else that is worth while, largely—much more largely than is ordinarily supposed—matters of technique, of long and studious apprenticeship. Temperament and training, then, must go together, if anything more than superficial interest is to result. Now Darwin's temperament was scientific: "My love of natural science," he writes, "has been steady and ardent." I suggest that the combination in a single individual of the scientific and the poetic temperaments is and must be rare. And I suggest, further, that, where it occurs, the temperament will almost inevitably develop one-sidedly, so that poetry outtops science, or science poetry.

In Goethe's case, poetry was in the ascendent. As I said above, I do not think that Darwin had any large admixture of the poet in his make-up; certainly not so large an admixture of poetry as Goethe had of science. But I believe that he had something of the poet in him; I believe that the atrophy of this something went less far than he himself imagined; and I believe that science is not specially responsible for its partial loss.

Every normal man is a poet for a few years of his life. With most of us, the poetic interest and inspiration die out, as naturally and almost as suddenly as they came, somewhere about the age of twenty-five, and usually sooner rather than later. Darwin was a man of genius, and like many other men of genius he came late to maturity; his plastic period extended, as he himself declares, "up to the age of thirty or beyond it;" and the "Origin of Species" was published in 1859, when he was fifty years old. Perhaps as a result of this prolongation of adolescence, perhaps as a coordinate feature of his extraordinary endowment, Darwin possessed the poetic gift, the gift of creative imagination, in a marked degree. He writes:

I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I can not resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it. . . . On the other hand, I am not very sceptical—a frame of mind which I believe to be injurious to the progress of science.

Here is the poetic temper showing, quite unconsciously to its possessor, through the overlay of scientific training; here we get a glimpse, not of "a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts," but of the credulous and imaginative attitude of the poet.

If I am right in my interpretation, and if Darwin, while never profoundly poetical, still had more than the common share of poetic insight, then we ought to find traces of this character in his books. We must not expect too much, for Darwin pruned his manuscripts to the quick. His son tells us:

He had a horror of being lengthy, and seems to have been really much annoyed and distressed when he found how the "Variation of Animals and Plants" was growing under his hands. I remember his cordially agreeing with Tristram Shandy's words, "Let no man say, Come, I'll write a duodecimo."

We shall not, then, look for poetic quotations in the "Variation." If Virgil is cited, it will be only in connection with the choice of seed corn; and if Homer is mentioned, it will be only because there is no mention of Gallus bankiva either in the "Iliad" or in the "Odyssey." Nor shall we look for poetic excerpts in the "Origin," that wonder of compressed argumentation. But we may fairly turn to the "Naturalist's Voyage," and to the "Expression of the Emotions," and to the "Descent of Man." And if we do, our search will be rewarded.

When, for instance, Darwin is describing in the "Voyage" the feasting of the Indian troops at Bahia Blanca, he not only gives a description which is itself reminiscent of Virgil, but he quotes, in the most natural manner possible, the very words—

Nam simul expletus dapibus, vinoque sepultus
Cervicem inflexam posuit, jacuitque per antrum
Immensus, saniem eructans, ac frusta cruenta
Per somnum commixta mero—

in which Virgil in the third book of the "Æneid" describes the gorging of Polyphemus. And when he is surveying the desert behind Port Desire, on the Patagonian coast, he says:

All was stillness and desolation. Yet in passing over these scenes, without one bright object near, an ill-defined but strong sense of pleasure is vividly excited. One asked how many ages the plain had thus lasted, and how many more it was doomed to continue.

None can reply—all seems eternal now.
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue,
Which teaches awful doubt.

It is only fair to say that the passage from Virgil occurs in the first draught of the "Voyage," which appeared in 1839 (when Darwin was thirty) as part of Fitz-Roy's work. But then it is also fair to say that the passage from Shelley's "Mont Blanc" occurs for the first time in the edition of 1845.

The "Descent of Man" was published in 1871, when its author was sixty-two. In it he quotes from Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" (1859) the words of Guinevere—

Not ev'n in inmost thought to think again
The sins that made the past so pleasant to us—

and, in the second edition (1874), Hookham Frere's rhymed version (1872) of Theognis, Fragment X. The quotation from the Greek poet Xenarchus—"Happy the Cicadas live, since they all have voiceless wives"—bears witness, perhaps, rather to Darwin's sense of humor than to his love of poetry.

The "Expression of the Emotions" came out in 1872, when Darwin was sixty-three. Here he cites from "King Henry VIII." Norfolk's account of Wolsey's "strange commotion," and from "King Henry V." the king's picture of warlike anger. The former passage is correctly given; the latter is printed with some curious omissions, which are not indicated; probably it was written down from memory. The book contains, further, quotations from "King Richard II.," "King Henry IV.," pt. i., "King Henry VI.," pt. ii., the "Merchant of Venice," "King John," "Julius Cæsar," the "Winter's Tale," "Titus Andronicus," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet." Not a bad list for a man who, four years later, was to declare that he has "tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me!" Here Shakespeare is neither dull nor intolerable, but endowed with "wonderful knowledge of the human mind." And it must be understood that the passages quoted are not taken, haphazard, from a Shakespeare concordance. I have worked through the thirty-seven plays myself, with a view to emotive psychology, and I know what the possibilities of quotation are. Darwin's passages are selected, and I have little doubt that they were remembered first and looked up afterwards. Darwin quotes, again, from Somerville's "Chase" the lines—

And with a courtly grin, the fawning hound
Salutes thee cow'ring, his wide op'ning nose
Upward he curls, and his large sloe-black eyes
Melt in soft blandishments, and humble joy—

which may pass for poetry. He quotes the "laughter, holding both his sides" from Milton's "L'Allegro"; he quotes twice from Worsley's rhymed version of the "Odyssey"; he refers to the laughter of the gods in the first book of the "Iliad";[1] and he quotes twice from the "Æneid" of Virgil.

I hope that these illustrations of Darwin's use and knowledge of poetry are enough, if not to prove my point, at any rate to give it plausibility. It is, perhaps, not wholly superfluous to add that the absence of certain apt quotations from Darwin's pages is adequately explained by the circumstance that the poets are post-Darwinians. I have found more than once, in discussing this question, that even highly educated persons may be a trifle hazy in their dates.

When, on the other hand, we ask whether Darwin would have retained his poetic sense by weekly readings, the answer must be doubtful. If he had read with any overt intention of refreshing the intellect or building up the moral character, then very certainly the effort would have ended in failure; poetry must be taken for its own sake, or it may as well not be taken at all. I incline to the opinion that the readings, while they would undoubtedly have increased the store of possible quotation, would still have left Darwin with the regrets that the "Autobiography" expresses.

The argument of the present note may now be summarized as follows. I do not think that Darwin ever had a profound interest in poetry; the scientific temperament was too strong in him. The historical plays in which as a schoolboy he took "intense delight" probably interested him in the main as stories. The poets whom he read during his plastic period probably attracted him, in large measure, by their felicity of language; the cult of words and phrases is characteristic of adolescence, and is curiously different from a real appreciation of style—into which it may or may not develop, according to the temperament of the reader. On the other side, I think that Darwin's poetic leanings were much more pronounced and much more persistent than those of the average man of science. By his own unconscious confession, and by the evidence of his written works, his mind was leavened with poetic feeling; all through his mature life he is ready with quotation when the occasion calls; and the very poignancy of his regret for the loss of poetry witnesses to his poetic endowment. If and in so far as he did lose his poetic interests, the loss was due, not specifically to his occupation with science, but generally to the combination of a stupendous life-work with continued ill-health. "For nearly forty years he never knew one day of the health of ordinary men," and in those forty years he revolutionized biology. Small wonder, then, that he had neither time nor energy for that critical cultivation of poetry which, however gifted the temperament, is the sine qua non of a true poetic insight. It was not that addiction to science brought with it an atrophy of the higher esthetic tastes. It was rather the fact that an esthetic power, distinctly above the average, though not of the first rank, was left, by the demands of an absorbing pursuit upon a frail constitution, to work itself out unguided, and to show itself as best it might. The cry that Shakespeare is intolerable is the cry of a man to whom Shakespeare is familiar from cover to cover, tragedy and history and comedy, and for whom Shakespeare might, under other circumstances, have been a source of never-ending delight.

I have spoken only of poetry. The considerations which I have here urged apply, however, with the necessary modifications, to Darwin's loss of pleasure in pictures and music.

  1. So I have always interpreted the rather puzzling passage at the beginning of chapter VIII. My colleague, Dr. L. L. Forman, suggests, however, that Darwin may have confused the Greek with the Norse gods. If this is the case, the reference is probably to some prose work upon Norse mythology.