Darwin's Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution

Darwin's Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution

Darwin's Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution

Darwin's Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution

Synopsis

Is a Darwinian universe necessarily a godless one? What might Darwinism tell us about the nature of God? Is Darwinism compatible with immortality, and if not, how can we face death or the loss of those we love? Darwin's Bards is the first comprehensive study in more than fifty years to examine how poets have responded to the ideas of Darwin. John Holmes argues that poetry can have a profound impact on how we think and feel about the Darwinian condition. What is our own place in the Darwinian universe, and our ecological role here on earth? How does our kinship with other animals affect how we see them? How does the fact that we are animals ourselves alter how we think about our own desires, love, and sexual morality? All told, is life in a Darwinian universe grounds for celebration or despair? Holmes explores the ways in which some of the most perceptive and powerful British and American poets of the last hundred and fifty years have grappled with these questions, from Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Thomas Hardy to Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and from Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn to Amy Clampitt and Edwin Morgan.

Excerpt

Since the first publication of On the Origin of Species 150 years ago, Charles Darwin’s ideas and the discipline of biology founded upon them have changed our understanding of the natural world and our place within it radically and definitively. As a discourse, Darwinism has transformed Western culture. More fundamentally, it has transformed nature as we apprehend it. the sciences of palaeontology, ecology, ethology, evolutionary biology and genetics through which we understand the natural world are all Darwinian sciences. the processes of Darwinism–genetic mutation and recombination, natural and sexual selection–are the processes of biological creation by which, in the last words of Darwin’s book, ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved’ ([1859] 2003: 398). We ourselves are one of these forms, one twig on the tree of life, to use Darwin’s own image.

Darwin himself has been dead for well over a century, yet his thinking has never been more vital nor more contentious than it is today. Now more than ever, with fundamentalism on the rise and ecosystems changing and collapsing around us on a global scale, we need to understand where Darwin’s discoveries leave us, to feel for ourselves what it means to live in, to be born of, a Darwinian world. in this book I will be arguing that poetry has a unique and important role to play in helping us to reach that accommodation with Darwinism. More than any other art, poetry is equipped to knit together our immediate experience and our understanding, to make us feel for ourselves the impact of the ideas that it sets out before us. At the same time, poetry need not speak with a single voice. Many of the most gifted poets of the last 150 years, in Britain and the United States, have wrestled with Darwinism, from Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost to Ted Hughes, A. R. Ammons and Amy Clampitt. Each has confronted the implications of Darwin’s ideas, yet for each those implications and their responses to them are different. By reading their poetry, we can gain for ourselves a more comprehensive sense of the human condition after Darwin and of the distinct ways of living within it.

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