Erasmus Darwin, described as ‘The Da Vinci of the Midlands’, is a man whose philosophical poetry has been called dangerously radical. Without him ‘On the Origin of Species’ – perhaps even ‘Frankenstein’ – would not have been written.
Son of a Nottingham lawyer, and the youngest of seven children, Erasmus Darwin was born at Elston Hall, near Newark, Nottinghamshire in 1731.
The Darwins’ long association with Elston in Notts began in 1680 and ended with the second world war.
In the mid-1750s Darwin qualified as a doctor and started a medical practice in Nottingham. With no patron to recommend him he only lasted a few months. After treating just one patient the physician moved to Lichfield. A few weeks later he successfully treated a young man for whom death had seemed inevitable. This feat, brought about through unconventional care, led to Darwin becoming famous. His unusual treatments included the advocating of exercise regimes and the use of herbal medicine. He was a strong believer in the benefits of good ventilation, putting holes into crowded rooms for the fresh air. He also held sympathetic views on mental illness, and was known to dish out the opiates and prescribe sex.
Unlike many of his generation Darwin had no sexual hang-ups. He had no issues with masturbation or homosexuality, and was known for having a large heterosexual appetite.
“Sexual reproduction is the chef d’oeuvre, the masterpiece of nature,” he wrote. Darwin believed that reproduction allowed the imprinted patterns of experience to be passed on to each new generation, in a way that sits comfortably with the latest in epigenetics.
Word of Darwin’s reputation reached King George III who asked him to be his personal Royal Physician. Darwin declined. Business was booming, allowing the doctor the financial freedom to treat the poor free of charge.
Darwin married twice and had at least fourteen children. Years after his first wife’s death, he fell in love with a patient, the married Elizabeth Pole. He wooed her with a deluge of verse and, when the situation allowed, married her, moving his offspring in with hers.
Through his poetry, Darwin wanted to achieve things and to change people’s attitudes, so he turned to ‘didactic poetry’ (poetry with a message/instruction). His purpose was “…to enlist imagination under the banner of science”. It was an inventive mix; poetry that contained science and radical ideas including a new theory of biological evolution.
Darwin translated the works of the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, producing volumes of work in which he coined many of the English plant names used today. One long poem ‘The Botanic Garden’ (1789), structured in rhyming couplets of four thousand lines, consisted of two parts, ‘The Economy of Vegetation’, and ‘The Loves of the Plants’.
‘The Economy of Vegetation’ attacked political tyranny and religious superstition. The poem includes a vision of the universe’s creation that’s much like the big bang theory; a pagan version that insists on a non-divine, self-regulating economy of the natural world.
It was ‘The Loves of the Plants’, a popular rendering of the Linnaeus’ works, that contained Darwin’s first record of his theory of evolution. Produced by the radical publisher Joseph Johnson it was quickly followed by further editions. Johnson, later imprisoned for a ‘dangerous’ publication, paid Darwin a huge sum for the poem and went on to publish many of his future works. Darwin became a leading poet of his time and inspired many of the Romantic generation with his epic, erotic, evolutionary and philosophical images.
Mary Shelley’s idea for Frankenstein came as she overheard a conversation between her husband (Percy Shelley) and Lord Byron in which they referred to Erasmus Darwin. Byron would have been well aware of Darwin’s poetry and, tracing back to his time in Southwell, there is a loose but significant connection between a young Byron and Darwin through Elizabeth Pigot who encouraged Byron to publish his juvenile poems (1803/4). One final connection comes in 1824, as works by Darwin and Byron are published together: The Botanic Garden (Darwin’s poem in two parts) and Byron’s Poems (Don Juan) and his memoirs, were bound together in the one book. It made sense as by then both men had a reputation for being mad, bad and dangerous to know. A friend of Darwin’s, the chemist James Keir admitted that Darwin “paid little regard to authority.”
Darwin vigorously opposed slavery and included his views in his poetry and personal correspondence:
E’en now, e’en now, on yonder Western shores
Weeps pale Despair, and writhing Anguish roars:
Ee’n now in Afric’s groves with hideous yell
Fierce SLAVERY stalks, and slips the dogs of hell.
Conscience must listen to the voice of Guilt:
Hear him, ye Senates! Hear this truth sublime,
“HE, WHO ALLOWS OPPRESSION, SHARES THE CRIME”.
And in a letter he wrote to Josiah Wedgwood: “I have just heard that there are muzzles or gags made at Birmingham for the slaves in our islands. If this be true, and such an instrument could be exhibited by a speaker in the house of commons, it might have great effect.”
Popular poetic taste began to turn away from Darwin after establishment-backed critics ridiculed his political ideas by attacking his heroic couplets. Samuel Coleridge, who thought of Darwin as “the first literary character of Europe, and the most original-minded Man” commented that “I absolutely nauseate Darwin’s poem.” His popular poetry was parodied, linking him with the French Revolution and the irreligious. In the early 1790s, Darwin nearly became Poet Laureate but the respected doctor was now seen as a crank and labelled an atheist. His next (and best) book ‘Zoonomia’ (or, ‘The Laws of Organic Life’) (1794–1796), wouldn’t help. Darwin’s nationwide approval turned to scorn. William Wordsworth used the book as the source for a poem he published in 1798 but popular opinion was disapproving. Darwin had expected his radical book to stir controversy, saying that he was “too old and hardened to fear a little abuse.” However, his ideas caused great harm to his reputation.
In ‘Zoonomia’ he expanded upon the theory that life could develop without the guiding hand of a Creator. In this two-volume medical work Darwin incorporated pathology, anatomy, psychology and biology, and contained the ideas relating to the theory of evolution that were later developed by his grandson, Charles Darwin. The book had greatly influenced the doctor Robert Grant, who later mentored a young Charles.
Anticipating natural selection Erasmus Darwin wrote about “three great objects of desire” for every organism; those wants being “lust, hunger, and security.” His idea that “the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved” predated the term ‘survival of the fittest’ by seventy years.
…a man who expressed his dangerous ideas and, looking back, was not only on the right side of history, he changed it
He wrote: “Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!”
Undaunted in his commitment to progress Darwin offended political and religious conservatives equally. He was ridiculed for suggesting that electricity might one day have practical uses. He was criticised for his belief that women should have access to education, expressed in ‘A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education’ (1797). He was lambasted for his prodemocracy stance and argument that not just the owners of property should have the right to vote. And above all, he was hated for his views on creation, not helped when he added to the family’s coat of arms the Latin phrase ‘E conchis omnia‘ (‘Everything from shells’).
Together with contacts like Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood, and James Watt he set up the Lunar Society which became an intellectual powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution. Many ideas were shared, with Darwin displaying his incredibly creative and practical mind. He gave the first recognisable explanations of photosynthesis and the formation of clouds. He also invented many mechanical devices. His unpatented inventions include a flushing toilet, weather monitoring machines, a lift for barges, an artificial bird, a copying machine, a steering wheel for his carriage (a mechanism adopted by cars some 130 years later) and a speaking machine able to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments.
Darwin’s final long poem, ‘The Temple of Nature’, was published in 1803, a year after his death. The poem, originally titled ‘The Origin of Society’, is widely considered his best poetic work, tracing the progression of life from micro-organisms to civilized society and confirming his belief in shared ancestry. Like many of his works it owes much to Lucretius.
A child of Nottinghamshire, Erasmus Darwin was a man who expressed his dangerous ideas and, looking back, was not only on the right side of history, he changed it.
Charles Darwin wasn’t born until ten years after his grandfather’s death. He would have visited his ancestral home in Nottinghamshire and wrote a biography of Erasmus. He even named his first-born William Erasmus Darwin. Aware of the controversy his grandfather had aroused, Charles held off on publishing his own theory of evolution for many years.
With ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859) and ‘The Descent of Man’ (1871) Charles was abused and satirised in much the same way Erasmus had been.
To many, the theory of evolution remains a dangerous and controversial.
All nature exists in a state of perpetual improvement.