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

By John Holmes | Go to book overview

2
Poetry and the ‘Non-Darwinian Revolution’

NON-DARWINIAN EVOLUTION IN LATE VICTORIAN POETRY

Before I engage with Darwinian poetry in detail, I want to consider the responses of late Victorian poets to what Peter Bowler calls the ‘non-Darwinian revolution’ in evolutionary biology. In the last chapter I argued that Bowler’s thesis that late Victorian evolutionism was overwhelmingly non-Darwinian was an overstatement. Nonetheless, much of the poetry, as well as the science, of the 1870s and 1880s tallies with Bowler’s account. These poems have a place in this book not only because the poets considered themselves to be responding to Darwinism as they understood it, but also because their very errors and doubts still have a bearing on evolutionary theory as it is understood today.

Take ‘Darwinism’, by the English poet Agnes Mary Robinson, published in 1888:

When first the unflowering Fern-forest
Shadowed the dim lagoons of old,
A vague unconscious long unrest
Swayed the great fronds of green and gold.

Until the flexible stem grew rude,
The fronds began to branch and bower,
And lo! upon the unblossoming wood
There breaks a dawn of apple-flower.

Then on the fruitful Forest-boughs
For ages long the unquiet ape
Swung happy in his airy house
And plucked the apple and sucked the grape.

Until in him at length there stirred
The old, unchanged, remote distress,

-37-

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Preface x
  • 1- Poetry in the Age of Darwin 1
  • 2- Poetry and the ‘Non-Darwinian Revolution’ 37
  • 3- God 75
  • 4- Death 102
  • 5- Humanity’s Place in Nature 130
  • 6- Humans and Other Animals 154
  • 7- Love and Sex 185
  • 8- On Balance 226
  • Conclusion 260
  • Bibliography 263
  • Index 283
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