The Sexual Politics of Classification

Natural History, November 1993 | Go to article overview

The Sexual Politics of Classification


William Hayley (1745-1820), poet, biographer, and patron of the arts, owes his little corner of immortality almost entirely to the couplet written by William Blake at the termination of their relationship:

Thy friendship oft has made my heart to ache:

Do be my enemy for friendship's sake.

The wealthy Hayley had engaged Blake to engrave figures for his books and had housed the great poet and illustrator in a cottage on his estate near Chichester. But Hayley never understood Blake's idiosyncratic brilliance and threatened to throttle his artistic genius with philanthropic kindness attached to expectations for tamer poems and figures. Calling Hayley "an enemy of my spiritual life while [pretending] to be the friend of my corporeal," Blake penned his couplet about artistic integrity and moved back to London.

At about the same time, another acquaintance of Hayley's was also writing heroic couplets. Consider these lines from 1789 about a lovers' meeting on a mountaintop. The woman reaches the summit first, and her love follows:

The steepy path her plighted swain pursues,

and tracks her light step o'er the imprinted dews;

Delighted Hymen gives his torch to blaze,

Winds round the crags, and lights the mazy ways;

Shed o'er their secret vows his influence chaste,

And decks with roses the admiring waste.

Heroic couplets, with their stilted images and forced rhymes in iambic pentameter, tend to attract ridicule these days (although I, as a great fan of Alexander Pope, do not ally myself with this consensus). The lines of Hayley's friend, quoted above, do seem hard to defend, especially when you realize that he is not talking about human lovers stealing a kiss in solitude before a magnificent view, but about lichens--yes, those patches on rocks representing the complex symbiosis of an alga with a fungus.

Nonetheless, Hayley thought highly of his botanical colleague, for he wrote a poem to introduce his friend's versified descriptions of plant sexuality:

Thus Nature and thus Science spake In Flora's friendly bower;

While Darwin's glory seemed to wake New life in every flower.

Now scarcely a column goes by in this series without some mention of Charles Darwin. Moreover, since my hero wrote many botanical books (mostly late in his life), readers might assume that Hayley is praising the author of natural selection in these lines. But unless Hayley had unusual insight into future events, he cannot be speaking of Charles, who was born on Lincoln's birthday in 1809, twenty years after a different Darwin wrote lyrics for lichens. Who, then, is this earlier Darwin?

To achieve best prospects for a ripe old age, one should choose long-lived parents. Similarly, brilliant forebears provide the best predictors for intellectual success (rich doesn't hurt either). Charles Darwin was certainly fortunate in his choice of ancestors. His father, Robert, was a highly respected and wealthy physician. Even better. his grandfather Erasmus (1731-1802), source of Hayley's praise, was one of England's leading intellectuals--physician, scientist, philosopher, and prominent member of a movement of progressive industrialists and scholars, centered in Birmingham. Constituting themselves as the "lunar society" to honor their monthly meetings at the full moon, these men advocated a variety of liberal reforms in politics and economics but eventually ran afoul of public opinion when the French revolution, which they had vigorously supported in its early days, started to suppress religion and execute kings. (As a parochial footnote for Americans, Darwin's good friend and fellow society member the clergyman-chemist Joseph Priestley watched his house, library, and laboratory go up in smoke when crowds rioted in Birmingham on July 14, 1791, the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. Priestley, supported by his friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, eventually settled in Pennsylvania.

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