Martin Priestman, The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened Spaces, Romantic Times

Martin Priestman, The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened Spaces, Romantic Times(Farnham: Ashgate, 2013). xiv + 310 pp. £70 Hb. ISBN 978-1-4724-1954-5.

Erasmus Darwin was a successful doctor, inventor, scientist and poet, a vast man with an even vaster range of interests and capabilities once described by Coleridge as ‘the first literary character in Europe’ (quoted p. 224). A number of trends in current scholarship have brought Darwin back from the margins of history. His reputation has benefited from the drive to put science at the heart of cultural history, the growth in interest in the history of medicine, and the determination by historians of science to see past the hulking if less bulky figure of his grandson Charles to trace the gradual emergence of evolutionary theory. It has gained too from the rise of scholarly biography as a popular genre. A political progressive with liberal ideas on sex and gender, a loathing of slavery, a sceptical attitude towards religion and orthodoxy, and a commitment to science, Darwin is an ideal subject for a mode of writing which thrives on being able to reflect its readers’ own values back to them across gulfs in time. All told, Erasmus Darwin stands taller and looms larger than he has done at any time since the 1790s, notwithstanding Samuel Butler’s attempt in the 1870s to revive him as a spokesman for an alternative mode of evolution to that championed by his grandson.

There remains one central aspect of Darwin’s achievement, however, where his reputation has barely recovered. Darwin is known as a towering and courageous intellect, but his poetry is still typically ignored, when it is not ridiculed. His two long poems The Loves of the Plants (1789) and The Economy of Vegetation (1791), published together as The Botanic Garden (1791), were widely admired and enthusiastically praised by William Cowper and Horace Walpole. Yet his standing had already waned when his third major poem, The Temple of Nature, was published in 1803, a year after his death. Today the most widely used anthology of literature from the Romantic period – Duncan Wu’s Romanticism – has gone through four editions without finding a place for Darwin.

In The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin, Martin Priestman sets out to redeem him from this long neglect, making the case for his poetry as both aesthetically sophisticated and thematically rich. Priestman argues that, to move beyond the first-generation Romantics’ perspective on Darwin ‘as a dreadful example of how not to write’ (12) – a judgement which has effectively held sway ever since – we need to view his poetry not as a negative antitype to Romanticism but rather as a positive embodiment of the Enlightenment. Priestman’s thesis works through a series of pairings which extend this antithesis. Where the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge impels us forward through time, Darwin’s opens up spaces for our inspection. Where they direct us to individuals, he shows us collective types, a distinction teased out brilliantly by Priestman in contrasting their use of ‘the individuating “a”’ (39) with his use of ‘the’ ‘to imply a plural number while focusing synecdochally on a single instance’ (117). Where they look to Milton’s blank verse for a form which enables continual movement through time, he looks instead to Pope’s couplets with their clear spatial regularity, even though, as Priestman points out, this was a marked departure from the dominant tradition of eighteenth-century didactic verse, typified by the blank-verse poems of Thomson, Young, Akenside and Cowper.

Priestman’s binaries might seem constrictive, but they prove to be extremely fertile as a way of exploring Darwin’s poetry.  Writing about The Botanic Garden, he comments that it is ‘less an impelling single narrative than a space to wander in, granting us some of the power to pick and choose we find in shops as well as gardens’ even if we miss ‘the sense of time-haunted urgency we expect from a major Romantic poem’ (65). Implied in this analogy between reading Darwin and shopping is a claim to this poet’s modernity, his aptitude for a commodity culture like our own. In the wider account of the poem as a space to wander in, we can see the basis too for a claim Priestman does not make: that twentieth-century poetry’s break with directional narrative may make us better equipped than the Romantics and the Victorians were to read and enjoy Darwin.

Priestman’s own readings of Darwin’s poems reflect his spatial understanding of them.  The first three chapters of his book consider Darwin’s own networks spatially as overlapping circles, and establish the poems too as spaces, examining how we enter them as readers, their picturesque use of language and their ordered garden-like topography. Subsequent chapters move on to consider recurrent themes across his corpus. There are chapters on plants, machinery, evolution, embodied psychology, myth and politics. The readings of the poems across these chapters combine lovingly minute attention to individual passages with precise and carefully judged contextual analogues. In discussing how Darwin draws our attention to the evil of slavery in the third canto of The Loves of the Plants, for example, Priestman shows how ‘the whole poem grinds to an abrupt visual and metrical halt with a double-space both before and after a single doubly-indented couplet in unfamiliar tetrameters’ (194). In an acute reading of The Economy of Vegetation, he reveals how this poem celebrates the flourishing of modern invention and industry in late eighteenth-century England while systematically writing out of the picture the workforce on whom this industrial revolution depended. In his wide-ranging discussions of The Temple of Nature, he shows how it anticipates not only evolutionary ideas but also the Malthusian vision of nature as the site of a struggle to survive which would be so central in Charles Darwin’s thinking. Throughout, Priestman is attentive to the playfulness of Darwin’s poems – their knowing sense of their own flamboyance and absurdity, their ‘humour … put over with an apparently straight face’ (20) – another quality that has potential to resonate with postmodern readers.

Priestman’s are the most detailed, incisive and persuasive readings of Darwin’s poems to date. He is an unfailingly sympathetic and engaged reader, and yet he is not blind to the oddities of his subject. The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin will be invaluable to scholars working on Darwin, both for its own insights and for its comprehensive synthesis of previous scholarship on his poems. (The book also includes the first printed edition of The Progress of Society, the draft poem Darwin abandoned to write The Temple of Nature.) Priestman’s sympathetic grasp of his subject gives his book some of the qualities of Darwin’s poems themselves, not stylistically – though both are in their own ways elegantly written – but structurally. In The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin, as in the poetry of Erasmus Darwin, one thing leads on to another spatially, down alleyways and through odd, unnoticed doors, rather than temporally, with the necessary logic of movement through time or a determined argument. This is especially true of the chapters on mythology. Darwin’s Rosicrucianism and Free Masonry, and his openness to ancient Egypt as a counterweight or complement to Greco-Roman civilisation, are central to Priestman’s account of him as a poet, yet they not only lead him down weird off-routes of their own but they also lead him to set up a parallel between Darwin and Richard Payne Knight in which Knight seems to grow out of proportion to his pertinence to Darwin alone. Priestman’s admirably full and untrammelled account of Darwin’s poems gives his discussion of the satire directed at Darwin and Knight by the Anti-Jacobin in the late 1790s an added edge, as he pinpoints their attack on ‘the whole encyclopaedizing tendency able to leap so lightly from Crimpt Cod to Cucumbers to Concubinage’ (203), a tendency that, if Priestman’s example is typical, Darwin’s readers themselves may need to share to enjoy his poetry to the full.

After discussing Darwin alongside Knight and the Anti-Jacobins, Priestman closes his book with two chapters looking forward to his influence on the first- and second-generation Romantics. Priestman’s binary comes back into play here as he teases out the tension between space and time in the different parts of Wordsworth’s unfinished magnum opus The Recluse, with The Excursion oriented spatially even as The Prelude drives onward through time. The spaces which the younger Romantics set before their readers – the visionary world of the Titans in Keats’s The Fall of Hyperion, the visions of past worlds in Byron’s Cain – are also, Priestman suggests, indebted to Darwin. These chapters, suggestive in themselves, whet the appetite for more intertextual scholarship on Darwin, to tease out any lingering influence he may have had on the Victorian poets, for instance, or to put him in dialogue with his close contemporary, great admirer and yet seeming antithesis Cowper. A comparison of these two major late eighteenth-century poets might put Priestman’s binaries under further strain, but no doubt with revealing results.

In his conclusion, Priestman comments that, even when Darwin is presenting ‘time – the time of verse, the time of evolution, the time of past and future social development’, he does so through ‘some kind of mappable space, whether through his Linnaean tabulations, the chiasmatic symmetries of his couplets or his four-way divisions of history and the elements’ in his poems (257). One of Priestman’s most compelling achievements in this book is to show us how a writer best known for his thoughts about time is best thought about in terms of space. It remains an open question whether readers of poetry will ever return to Darwin in any numbers but, reading Priestman, it is easy to be convinced that we have been missing, as he himself puts it, ‘an astonishingly inventive poet’ characterised by ‘wit, flexibility and sharp focus’ (258).

John Holmes, University of Birmingham