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The Temple of Nature, Edited by Martin Priestman

ORIGINAL ENGRAVINGS BY HENRY FUSELI


Frontispiece | The Creation of Eve | Eros & Dione | The Power of Fancy in Dreams
  frontispiece

Frontispiece: The Temple of Nature.

Like the poem's other three illustrations, this was designed by Henry Fuseli and engraved by his regular engraver and business partner, Moses Haughton. Fuseli (1741-1825, born in Zürich as Johann Heinrich Füssli) is one of the early Romantic Period's greatest artists, perhaps best known for his 1781 painting The Nightmare. Darwin's admiring description of this painting in Loves of the Plants (III, 51-78) led to a creative collaboration whereby Fuseli introduced Darwin to his publisher Joseph Johnson, and contributed two important illustrations to The Economy of Vegetation (one of them engraved by William Blake). The four engravings for Temple represent a fascinating intersection of the demands of the poem with Fuseli's longstanding preoccupation with erotically-charged dreams and visionary apparitions.

This Frontispiece illustrates lines I, 163-70, in which the priestess-muse Urania partly reveals the Goddess Nature to the group of postulants in the background: the fact that they are of both sexes may identify them with the readerly "youths and virgins" of I, 32, or with the "kneeling realms" brought to acknowledge Nature in I, 171. Meanwhile, the poet's own Muse ("thy votary") kneels in the foreground. The intricate network of gazes, from us to our intermediary Muse to Urania to the postulants to the figure of Nature herself, accurately captures the complex interrelationships of Darwin's opening, while also exemplifying the "visions within visions" effect of many of Fuseli's works. Fuseli's fascination with female breasts in odd states of exposure is also exemplified in the figure of the Goddess, her "hundred breasts" somewhat improbably implied by the three on show. See my note to I, 129 for a further discussion of this image.

 
  creation of eve

The Creation of Eve (between pp. 54 and 55).

This is a copy of an earlier Fuseli painting for his 1793 series The Milton Gallery (no 17, illustrating Paradise Lost, VIII, 426-70). In the original, Eve is raising her hands towards a supernatural being who himself gazes further upwards; apparently worried about offending his Zwinglian upbringing by depicting God in person, Fuseli claimed in a letter that believers could see this figure as Christ and unbelievers (like himself) as "merely a superior Being entrusted with Eve's creation" (see the Tate Gallery catalogue, Henry Fuseli, 1741-1825, pp. 88-9). In replacing this figure with a beam of light in the present version, Fuseli sidesteps these troubling issues in favour of a purely deistic reading in which Eve symbolizes the movement of organic life from asexual to sexual reproduction, and thence towards the enlightened consciousness of full humanity. Adam's role as dreamer of this scenario links Fuseli's interest in the creative power of dreams with Darwin's proto-Lamarckian belief in species' ability to desire their own evolutionary development, and in the formation of children's identities by their fathers' imaginations at the moment of conception (see II, 111-120; 118n).

The caption reads:

So erst in Paradise creation's Lord,
Form'd a new sex, the Mother of Mankind,
Buoy'd on light step the Beauty seem'd to swim,
And stretch'd alternate every pliant limb.

 
  eros and dione

Eros & Dione (between pp. 98 and 99).

For Darwin's somewhat confusing insistence that the relevant highly erotic-seeming lines (III, 187-206) concern only the Platonic love of the "sentimental" rather than the physical Eros for Dione (who may or may not be his mother Venus), see my note to III, 181. Fuseli sustains the confusion in what looks clearly like a pair of lovers, in fact modelled on the celebrated classical sculpture of Eros and Psyche in the Capitoline Museum, Rome (see Peter Tomory, The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli, fig. 187). By moving Eros's right arm from his partner's cheek to her waist, crossing her leg and making her the taller of the two, Fuseli makes the composition rather less of an amorous clinch, but the source would be unmistakeable to those who knew it, and the woman's identity with Eros's wife and lover Psyche seems further reinforced by the inclusion in the foreground of Psyche's symbol, the butterfly. Though Eros has Platonically dropped his arrows, the winged boy on the dolphin behind him suggests that the sexual Cupid is still somewhere in the picture.

The caption reads:

Warm as the sun beam, pure as driven snows
The enamour'd God for young Dione glows

 
frontispiece

The Power of Fancy in Dreams (between pp. 146 and 147).

The strange selection of these four rather inconsequential lines for the subject-matter of Canto IV's single illustration seems to attest to Fuseli's predilection for scenes dwelling somewhat perversely on female sexuality. Here, the strangely-coiffed woman dozing over her book seems to be dreaming of herself in more clearly nunlike but ecstatically décolletée form, receiving a vision of a majestic female: perhaps a further projection of herself as the Virgin Mary, whose impregnation by the Holy Spirit is suggested by the ghostly dove above her head. The figure behind seems to be an "enamour'd" Seraph (III, 204), though the instrument she is playing suggests to Peter Tomory that "Here are contrasted the sleeper and the dreamer, a young woman being awakened to the power of celestial love via the imagery of Saint Cecilia and her harpsichord as a symbol of virginity" (The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli 182). Arguing that this picture is Fuseli's fullest exploration of his well-known aphorism, "One of the most unexplored regions of art are [sic] dreams, and what may be called the personification of sentiment," Tomory goes on to link the idea specifically to Darwin's discussion of "reverie" in the Second Interlude of Loves of the Plants. However, at first sight the picture also carries a distinct note of anti-Catholic satire, suggesting an erotic subtext to the otherwise repressed nun's bedroom visions.

The caption reads:

So holy transports in the cloyster's shade
Play round thy toilet, visionary maid!
Charm'd o'er thy bed celestial voices sing,
And Seraphs hover on enamour'd wing.

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October 2006

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