Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth's Response to Darwin

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth's Response to Darwin

Article excerpt

In 1929, Aldous Huxley, grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's friend, advocate, and protector, published "Wordsworth in the Tropics," the essay in which he complained that seventy-nine years after Wordsworth's death, his influence was still impeding acceptance of the Darwinian vision of nature.

  In the neighborhood of latitude fifty north, and for the last
  hundred years or thereabouts, it has been an axiom that Nature is
  divine and morally uplifting. For good Wordsworthians--and most
  serious-minded people are now Wordsworthians, either by direct
  inspiration or at second hand--a walk in the country is the
  equivalent of going to church, a tour through Westmorland is as good
  as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. To commune with the fields and waters,
  the woodlands and the hills, is to commune, according to our modern
  and northern ideas, with the visible manifestations of the 'Wisdom
  and Spirit of the Universe.' (672)

Huxley was puzzled and annoyed by the survival of the Word-sworthian belief that nature is "divine and morally uplifting" seventy years after his grandfather helped Darwin publicize a strikingly different vision of the natural world. "Our direct intuitions of Nature," he continued, "tell us that the world is bottomlessly strange: alien, even when it is kind and beautiful; having innumerable modes of being that are not our modes; always mysteriously not personal, not conscious, not moral; often hostile and sinister; sometimes even unimaginably, because inhumanly, evil." He went on to suggest that if the Wordsworthians left latitude 50 north and Look a walk through a tropical jungle they would be "liable to have [their] religious convictions somewhat rudely disturbed."

There is an ironic edge to Huxley's remark that "most serious-minded people" in 1929 were Wordsworthians, but it was not an indefensible exaggeration. Nor was his reference to the continued popularity of pilgrimages to the Lake District: four years earlier in 1925, Dove Cottage had counted 18,496 visitors (Patton, 13 )That same year in his Lowell Institute lectures on "Science and the Modern World," Alfred North Whitehead spoke of the poet's enduring importance in the development of modern thought (83). Wordsworth's influence was profound and ubiquitous in the 19th century and well into the 20th. As Ian Reid recently observed, "The ordinary educated person today would probably be perplexed to learn that only a few decades ago Wordsworth was still a supremely powerful influence for a multitude of writers, literary critics, philosophers, scientists, ministers of religion, educational and social reformers" (2). The Wordsworthians Huxley complained of included politicians, eminent jurists, university professors, editors of periodicals, poets and painters, and multitudes of "common readers" who looked to Wordsworth for religious and moral instruction as well as for the pleasures of poetry. There were Wordsworthians even in Darwin's own family. It was said of his daughter Henrietta, who was still alive in 1921, "Wordsworth was her religion" (Raverat, 132).

A major result of the poet's influence, as Huxley complained, was the persistent, pervasive belief that the natural world was an expression of divine benevolence and a medium through which one might come into contact with divinity. For Wordsworthians, Huxley said, "To commune with the fields and waters" was "to commune with the Spirit of the universe." Huxley may or may not have been aware that Wordsworth apparently invented the concept of communion with nature. The OED cites The Excursion as the earliest source of the word "communion" used in this sense, although in fact it appeared earlier, in the 1805 Prelude (2:368).

So when Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, he presented it to a society, in Britain and the rest of the English-speaking world, whose conception of and response to nature had been profoundly shaped by Wordsworth. …

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