Tuesday, February 10, 2009

No Rime for the Ancient Naturalist

Why did Darwin lose his taste for poetry late in life?

That may seem like a strange question in our day when, for many of us, the chief experience of poetry was memorizing Paul Revere's Ride and reciting it in grade school. Darwin, of course, born 200 years ago, grew up in a culture where daily exposure to the poetic cadences of the King James Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was standard, where acquaintance with the works of Shakespeare and Dryden was expected of any educated man and the poetry of Lord Byron was fashionable. Former President John Adams, in his 80s when Darwin was a child, reread the complete works of Shakespeare every year; just 35 years ago, veteran journalist Arthur Krock recited Thackeray's whimsical Ballad of Buillabaisse for a young visitor, having read it once 50 years previously.

One expects the senses and appetites to diminish with age, but hopefully, never the taste for art, music, or poetry. One need not argue that Darwin's scientific interests were a bar to appreciation of the Muse; it was on the voyage of the Beagle that he took along a volume of Milton and read through Paradise Lost.

Yet in his old age, Darwin penned this forlorn confession in a letter to his wife, Emma:

Up to the age of 30 or beyond it, poetry of many kinds…gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare…. Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music.… I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly 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 cannot conceive.… 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.

Of course he was 30 when he made his voyage. This loss of aesthetic enjoyment apparently became part of the Darwin legend, especially after the publication of some of his private correspondence, to the point where his son, William, felt compelled to deny it at a Darwin Centennial gathering in 1909.

Unacquainted with any but the bare outline of Darwin's life and career, I knew none of this—the early appreciation of poetry and its subsequent loss—until I read today that Darwin's great-granddaughter, Ruth Padel, had published a poetic biography of her distinguished ancestor; the review, in that noted journal of the arts, The Economist, was favorable, though I was keeping my fingers crossed, imagining filiopietistic hagiography buttressed with bad verse (how many rhymes are there for fossil?).

Fortunately, it seems I was wrong, if this excerpt from her book is typical:

The deck is dazzle, fish-stink, gauze-covered buckets.
Gelatinous ingots, rainbows of wet flinching amethyst
and flubbed, iridescent cream. All this
means he's better; and working on a haul of lumpen light.

Polyps, plankton, jellyfish. Sea butterflies, the pteropods.
'So low in the scale of nature, so exquisite in their forms!
You wonder at so much beauty - created,
apparently, for such little purpose!' They lower his creel

to blue pores of subtropical ocean. Wave-flicker, white
as a gun-flash, over the blown heart of sapphire.
Peacock eyes, beaten and swollen,
tossing on lazuline steel.

Whatever her other accomplishments, Padel is certainly a poet.

But what of her poor great-great grandfather? The religious critic has no trouble seeing, in Darwin's loss, a just requital of his supposed offense against faith; the man whose works imply denial of Divine creation ends by seeing part of his own humanity wither away.

Even in a less orthodox context, I can imagine Coleridge casting a Darwin-like figure as a ruthless hunter whose scientific inquiry, like a crossbow, transfixes and kills the creatures he studies, making everything dead and dry in proportion to his knowledge.

I don't know what happened. I would like to think that, like the man utterly convinced of a fact that consumes and shapes his entire being, as described in Emerson's essay on Character, he came to need nothing else but this knowledge that changed everything—yet he describes himself as having suffered a loss. I would like to think that, like the yogis who achieve the state of nirvikalpa samadhi, described as an entrance into unitary consciousness from which the adept never returns, he reached a point where any works of the imagination seemed feeble and derivative compared to the reality that he had come to know intimately through his studies.

But Darwin himself describes his state as unhappy, and in any case, all this is uninformed speculation on my part.

I am certain that if rejection of religious faith leads to desertion by the Muse, we would have a hard time accounting for the poetic power of A.E. Housman, whose unbelief was, if anything, even more definite than Darwin's own. I have read no biographies of Darwin and have nothing but the evidence of his own words; if we must take them at face value, I am sorry for what happened to him but grateful for the unrelenting pursuit of the truth; as Dobzhanksy said of natural selection, "Nothing in biology makes sense without it."

© Michael Huggins, 2009. All rights reserved.

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