John Holmes, Darwin’s Bards

John Holmes, Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009). xiv + 288 pp. £60.00, hb. ISBN: 9780748639403.

Recently I did a Google Books search for the keywords ‘Darwin’ and ‘poetry’. Fittingly, John Holmes’s Darwin’s Bards topped the list. Published the year of Darwin’s bicentenary—and, of course, the sesquicentenary of the publication of The Origin of Species—Holmes’s book, which is thoroughly readable and highly engaging, not only capitalizes on anniversaries (like a number of related publications and events); it also helps to extend the range of our thinking about Darwinian science, its legacy and its dialogue with literary culture. We have for some time now known that the nineteenth-century evolutionary impulse has shaped and, to an extent, been shaped by contemporary fiction—this is part of what Gillian Beer’s 1983 Darwin’s Plots taught us—but we have heard comparatively little, until quite recently, about how poets—both of the period and since—have wrestled with, responded to and generally ruminated on ideas that have, as Holmes rightly points out, ‘changed our understanding of the natural world and our place within it radically and definitively’ (x). In eight largely theme-centred chapters, Darwin’s Bards demonstrates that poets (from Tennyson and Browning to Thomas Hardy, Edna St Vincent Millay, Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn, among several others) have been some of Darwin’s most imaginative interlocutors. Their ongoing engagement with ‘the Darwinian condition’ (5) attests both to the continuing relevance of the ideas themselves and to the power of poetry as a vehicle for ‘insight and wonder’. Though we cannot expect poems (as we could not expect Darwin) to ‘[tell] us the final truth’ (262), we nevertheless turn to poetry (and to him) when confronting our situations as individuals and as a species. Holmes puts it well in his concluding chapter: ‘Through poetry, we can confront what it might mean to live in a purely material universe, if that is indeed the fate to which Darwinism consigns us’ (260).

What does it mean to live in a purely material universe? For the most part, I think, it means the same things to us as when we believed we lived in a universe that wasn’t purely material, only with different emphases. It means, more or less, a heightened awareness and necessary reconsideration of the topics that have stirred us pretty much since we became tool-using bipeds: ‘God’, ‘Death’, ‘Humanity’s Place in Nature’, our relations with ‘Other Animals’, ‘Love and Sex’. These are some of Holmes’s chapter titles, and they should give you an idea of how the book breaks down its potentially overwhelming subject matter. To my mind, this structure makes more sense than a rigidly chronological one that moves from, say, 1859 to the present, or one organized by individual poet. While there is sustained, synchronic attention to the poetry of Darwin’s own moment (the high Victorian period), as well as a diachronic arc that bridges the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly in chapters 1 and 2 (‘Poetry in the Age of Darwin’ and ‘Poetry and the “Non-Darwinian Revolution”’, respectively), the theme-approach allows us to see that there remains something ‘fundamental’ (Holmes’s word, and probably the right one) about both the problems that Darwinian theories introduce and the ‘human condition’ itself. For example, we don’t stop thinking about theology after Darwin, though we certainly start thinking about it differently. Some basic (I won’t say ‘innate’) preoccupations endure, in nuanced ways, from generation to generation. Hardy and Hughes, writing some fifty (or in some cases a century) apart, share an interest in our animal relations, though the one’s encounter with a thrush is evidently not the other’s with a hawk or a crow (for some reason, Hughes’s book devoted to this last fowl is mentioned only in passing). The ‘nature’ of desire, likewise, perplexes both George Meredith in Modern Love (1862) and Thom Gunn in The Man with Night Sweats (1992), but sexual psychologies and moralities, not to mention correlative biological threats to the human organism, have themselves mutated over time. Though Holmes talks often of a ‘Darwinian worldview’, it is clear that he has multiple ‘views’ in mind. ‘Darwinism’, as Walt Whitman (another conspicuous absence?) might have said, can ‘contain [frequently dissenting] multitudes’, something Holmes addresses judiciously in an opening section titled ‘Whose “Darwinism”?’.

Holmes does this ‘big-picture’ thinking well, and Darwin’s Bards is a thoughtful (rather than merely nominal) exercise in interdisciplinarity. The author brings into rewarding conversation material from evolutionary biology, history and philosophy of science and, of course, literary history in the conventional sense. He also excels at keeping the macro grounded in the micro: the poem and its parts are productively central to his analysis, not ancillary to it. In his first book, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Late-Victorian Sonnet Sequence (Ashgate, 2005), Holmes established himself as an imaginative and discriminating close-reader, as well as a conscientious historicist, and in Darwin’s Bards he reaffirms his interest in—not to mention his fluent explication of—poetic form. At one point he speaks of the ‘dignity of the sonnet form as Hardy handles it’ (81); one could say something similar about Holmes’s privileging of the sonnet form: it takes a ‘dignified’ central place in the narrative he develops. From the counterpointing of ‘Happenstance’ and ‘Design’ in Hardy and Frost to the Evolutionary ‘Petrarchanism’ of Millay and Meredith, one of the oldest ‘closed’ forms is shown to exhibit an openness to pressing ‘modern’ situations, including (but not only) those with what Holmes at one point terms a ‘Darwinian twist’ (130). With its in-built facility for question-answer, point-counterpoint, the sonnet form seems peculiarly amenable to the kind of existential anxieties that Darwinian science throws up; moreover, the form itself is the very emblem of poetic adaptability: one need look no further for the verse embodiment of natural selection.

With the sonnet in mind, I did wonder if at times some of Holmes’s readings weren’t a touch quick at accepting a Petrarchan pattern at face value. Is Hardy’s ‘Hap’ straightforwardly built on the Italian scheme? It seems to me as ‘hard to pin down’ (83) (possibly more so even) than Frost’s ‘Design’. Reading the poem as an exogamous sonnet (as a mingling of English and Italian patterns) might be profitable. In the 1990s Ashby Bland Crowder offered a compelling reading of the ‘countervailing’ mechanics of the Hardy sonnet that might be worth revisiting here (‘The Countervailing Sentiment in Hardy’s “Hap”’, Thomas Hardy Journal 11.3 [1995], 124-25). There are a few instances such as this where formal analysis might have gone further, might have intruded more constructively. These are very small quibbles, though.

Darwin’s Bards is a welcome study. Holmes has selected a bold and expansive topic, one that needed the careful attention that he has shown it. One might say that the book could have been developed differently, or that certain bits might have been emphasized rather than others (Victorianists, I think, will be grateful that Tennyson, in particular the proto-Darwinian strains of In Memoriam, doesn’t overshadow other equally interesting poets and works of the period), but then that would be to overlook the book’s real significance: charting this territory in the first place. No doubt we will hear more about Darwin among the poets (it is to be hoped that we do), and Holmes will have provided this narrative with a fitting point of origin.

Jason David Hall, University of Exeter