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The Temple of Nature, Edited by Martin Priestman

 

 

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 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.

 

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Epigraph. "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). The epigraph 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.

 

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Preface Para. 1. The disclaimer of an instructive intention is disingenuous, though Darwin may have felt that many of the "deep researches" behind the poem were more fully laid out in his prose treatises, Zoonomia and Phytologia. The claim to a simply amusing intention echoes the more elaborately playful Prefaces to the two parts of Botanic Garden, but here the apparently simple intention to present natural operations in chronological "course of time" implies a massively ambitious attempt to present the whole known universe as a single coherent system.

 

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Preface Para. 2. This paragraph is confusing in the context of the present poem, and clearly harks back to Darwin's earlier drafts for The Progress of Society, tracing human developments through the five Ages of Hunting, Pasturage, Agriculture, Commerce and Philosophy. In these drafts, the classical gods and heroes are represented as mythologized versions of the achievements of real human beings. Despite Darwin's careful distinction between the Bible's truthful "recording" and the heathens' fictive "celebrating" of such figures, in practice the drafts treat Hercules's feats with the club and David's with the sling on much the same footing. Despite his abandonment of the Progress poem, Darwin may have retained this paragraph in the light of William Warburton's claim that Eleusinian initiates were taught that the gods were "only dead Mortals, subject, in life, to the same Passions and Vices with themselves" (Divine Legation, 149, see I, 137n). Temple of Nature does not, however, usually present the ancient gods as based on specific human beings: more often they are seen as disguised metaphors for physical or mental processes.

 

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Preface Para. 3. See the note to Canto I line 137 for the importance of the Eleusinian Mysteries to the poem.

 

 

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Published @ RC

October 2006