Martin Priestman - The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened Spaces, Romantic Times. Review by Ross Wilson.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015 - 04:30

Martin Priestman, The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened Spaces, Romantic Times. Ashgate, 2013. xiv + 310 pp.

Ross Wilson
University of Cambridge

Perhaps it is not such a bad posthumous fate to be chiefly known as the grandfather of someone much more renowned – not as bad, that is, as being known only as the son or daughter of a more feted progenitor from beneath whose shadow it proves impossible to emerge. Erasmus Darwin died some seven years before the birth of Charles, who was to become, amongst so much else, his grandfather’s somewhat less than hagiographic biographer: ‘It is curious,’ he remarked, with notable restraint, ‘how largely my grandfather […] anticipated [Lamarck’s] erroneous views’; and even more withering is the observation that ‘no one of the present generation reads, as it appears, a single line of [his poetry]’. Overshadowed by his grandson’s achievements and fallen from poetic favour, Erasmus Darwin was long considered as at best an influence on much more celebrated figures, including Charles, but also on poets such as Coleridge and Shelley.

It was Coleridge who paid tribute to Darwin’s pagan polymathy by describing him as ‘the everything, except the Christian’, and he was acclaimed in 1793 by the radical lawyer, Thomas Erskine, as ‘the first poet of the age’, a description by which Darwin would, so Martin Priestman implies, have been readily recognisable. The tale of Darwin’s fall from poetic pre-eminence in the 1790s has often been mapped onto the crude distinction between Enlightenment (or Augustanism) and Romanticism that every teacher of this period tries to drum out of their students. Of course, Darwin’s life and work have been treated to more subtle accounts than that would imply – Priestman draws on the work of Desmond King-Hele, Theresa M. Kelley, and many others in this very widely researched study – but nevertheless Priestman is right to contend that there is still considerable work of recovery to be done. In particular, his book professes a specific interest in Darwin as a poet. Priestman wisely acknowledges the difficulties involved in winning appreciation to Darwin’s work again: the poetic values reflected in his tightly controlled, sub-Popean couplets, and in his elevated poetic diction, are values that are now little shared. Moreover, Darwin’s poetry was a vehicle for the communication of knowledge, buttressed by long and learned notes, which could have been published in their own right – indeed, Darwin’s prose works, especially Zoonomia, were an important influence on F.W.J. Schelling amongst others.

In the book’s closing chapters, Priestman does helpfully discuss the impact of Darwin’s work on the canonical Romantic poets, and, especially, the complex influence of The Loves of the Plants (1789, later incorporated into The Botanic Garden (1791)) on the ‘botanical poetry’ of a number of Romantic women writers, including Hannah More, Elizabeth Moody, and Anna Barbauld. But the most important connections he elaborates are those between Darwin and Anna Seward and, to a slightly lesser extent, between Darwin and Richard Payne Knight. The involvement of Darwin’s work with Seward’s was central to the poetic formation and development of both authors, as Priestman shows in impressive detail. At crucial junctures in the book’s argument, Priestman deploys Seward’s work to interrogate Darwin’s, as when, for example, Seward’s ‘Colebrook Dale’ (1785-87) is used to highlight the absence from Darwin’s poetry of a thoroughgoing critique of the impact of industrialisation. Priestman’s account, therefore, is by no means uncritical of Darwin. The connection between Darwin and Knight is in some ways more tenuous, since neither mentioned nor contacted the other. Nevertheless, Priestman convincingly draws out a number of significant parallels between the two writers in order to specify the kind of Enlightenment culture in which Darwin was involved.

As well as being a significant work of literary criticism and history, the major contribution of Priestman’s book is the provision of a text of Darwin’s unfinished poem, The Progress of Society (c.1798-99). Assembled from notebook drafts held in Cambridge University Library, and building on the text given in Priestman’s appendix to his Romantic Circles edition of The Temple of Nature (1803), the text of this poem is a major contribution to the available corpus of Darwin’s writings.

By and large, Priestman’s book is well written and makes Darwin’s career compelling; in quoting freely and judiciously, it helpfully shares Priestman’s detailed and exhaustive knowledge of Darwin’s oeuvre. At times, some of those quotations might have been submitted to somewhat more extensive close reading – Priestman is a persuasive close reader – and there is occasionally a tendency to cliché (‘movers and shakers’, ‘Wow! factor’) in Priestman’s otherwise nicely uncluttered writing. But these are small complaints to make of a valuable book that will surely be the major treatment of Erasmus Darwin’s work for many years.