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The Temple of Nature, Edited by Martin Priestman

facsimile titlepage

Note on the title page

EDITOR'S NOTE: Title page. The poem was advertised as The Origin of Society in The Monthly Magazine for December 1802, and this title still appears as the running header on alternate pages, and on the title page of each canto. Desmond King-Hele suggests (Life of Unequalled Achievement 346) that Darwin always intended this as the main title, with The Temple of Nature as subtitle, but that after his death in 1802 the publisher Joseph Johnson switched them round. Johnson had been imprisoned for publishing radical works, and may have feared that a title flagging the claim that human society originated in microscopic proto-organisms would be too inflammatory. However, the Temple title is not entirely neutral either since, in a long materialist tradition, it posits the replacement of orthodox religion by the worship of Nature. In the early drafts of the poem, which featured the Temple of Nature but otherwise dealt with social and technological development rather than evolution, Darwin seems undecided between the Temple title and The Progress of Society. The Origin of Society title represents an adjustment of the latter to the present poem, where human social impulses are indeed traced to their evolutionary origins; but it may have come to be seen by Johnson—or even by Darwin, in some unrecorded communication before his death—as still harking back too much to the discarded Progress of Society idea. As well as identifying the allegorical image which holds the poem together, the Temple title also better indicates its ambitious aim of presenting the whole of Nature within a single explanatory framework.

"From Spirit and Mind are created men and the beasts; and from Spirit and Mind the flying things, and the strange creatures which ocean beneath its marbled surface brings into being, all have their lives. The strength of their seeds is the strength of fire and their origin is of Heaven" (Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI, p. 169). This comes from the mystical account of the true nature of things given to Aeneas in the underworld by the shade of his father, Anchises. With its emphasis on the immortality and reincarnation of souls, this account was taken by William Warburton in The Divine Legation of Moses (see I, 137n) as a guide to the content of the Eleusinian Mysteries, around which Darwin's poem is constructed. While this epigraph sounds broadly religious, it is notable that the "Spirit and Mind" described are a kind of informing energy akin to fire, rather than an external creator God.

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Published @ RC

October 2006