Darwin's Bards

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

John Holmes
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Darwin's Bards
    Book Description:

    Darwin's Bards is a comprehensive study of how poets have responded to the ideas of Charles Darwin.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-4090-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-ix)
  4. Preface
    (pp. x-xiv)
  5. 1 Poetry in the Age of Darwin
    (pp. 1-36)

    At the end of the last century, the American naturalist Edward O. Wilson called for the arts and sciences to unite in a new harmony of knowledge. With characteristic panache, the founder of ‘sociobiology’ and prophet of ‘Biophilia’ called his new project ‘Consilience’ (1999). A term from the philosophy of science, ‘consilience’ refers to the ‘jumping together’ of distinct facts within the same explanation. Wilson was not alone in looking to bring the arts and the sciences together. As Wilson called for literary criticism to become more scientific, Richard Dawkins was calling on ‘real poets and true scholars of literature’...

  6. 2 Poetry and the ‘Non-Darwinian Revolution’
    (pp. 37-74)

    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...

  7. 3 God
    (pp. 75-101)

    If you know only one thing about Darwin, the chances are it concerns the fact that his theory has provoked intense religious debate. People who have only a vague idea of evolution and have never heard of natural selection know that. The most mythologised moments in the history of Darwinism – the triumph of T. H. Huxley over Bishop Wilberforce at Oxford, Darwin’s own loss of faith and the false counter-myth of his deathbed conversion, the Scopes trial – all centre on this clash between science and religion. It has been loudly proclaimed by atheists and fundamentalists alike, and as assiduously denied...

  8. 4 Death
    (pp. 102-129)

    In the conclusion to The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote ‘He who believes in the advancement of man from some low organised form, will naturally ask how does this bear on the belief in the immortality of the soul’ ([1871] 2004: 682). Darwinism poses a problem for our belief in immortality because, where evolution is a gradual process, the distinction between being mortal and being immortal is a stark one. As John Dupré notes, ‘it is not that evolution cannot endow an organism with a radically new capacity. This happens throughout the history of life. But evolution does so by...

  9. 5 Humanity’s Place in Nature
    (pp. 130-153)

    In 1863, Darwin’s friend and ally T. H. Huxley published a short book entitled Man’s Place in Nature. In the aftermath of the Origin of Species Huxley had challenged Richard Owen, the doyen of British palaeontologists, over the biological classification of humanity. Following the French school of comparative anatomy founded by Georges Cuvier, Owen and other leading biologists classified human beings as a distinct mammalian order. Humans comprised the two-handed Bimanes, while the other primates were all members of the four-handed Quadrumana. This taxonomy cemented the judgement that, in the words of T. R. Jones, then Professor of Natural History...

  10. 6 Humans and Other Animals
    (pp. 154-184)

    As Huxley observed in Man’s Place in Nature, Darwinism fundamentally alters our relationship with the rest of the natural world. To say that, after Darwin, we are animals does not make this transformation quite clear enough. Pre-Darwinian thinkers from Aristotle to Linnaeus said the same. For them, it was a matter of taxonomy. After Darwin, it is a matter of kinship. Focussing narrowly on us, on human beings, we are now properly animals by nature as well as by kind. This is widely recognised.

    What is not so widely appreciated are the implications for how we should think about them,...

  11. 7 Love and Sex
    (pp. 185-225)

    Since Darwin, sex has been at the very heart of biology. Within Darwinian theory, the winnowing effect of natural selection drives evolution. But natural selection only operates at all because of the variations between organisms thrown up during the processes of reproduction. One source of these variations is the mutation or miscopying of genetic material. Another is the random selection and recombination of genes through sexual reproduction. Sex enables variations that arise in individuals to spread across populations, ultimately shaping whole species.

    Sex also introduces a new element of competition into the process of evolution, or rather two. In intrasexual...

  12. 8 On Balance
    (pp. 226-259)

    In his recent poem ‘Darwin in the Galapagos’ from his sequence ‘Planet Wave’, Edwin Morgan conjures up the image of the air bright with Darwin’s finches – ‘well, bright and dark’ (1. 9). For Morgan himself, Darwin’s revelation of life as a gorgeous evolutionary process is indeed bright. As his Darwin remarks,

    ‘I can hardly sleep for excitement!

    Nothing is immutable, life changes, we evolve.

    Process is gorgeous, is it not!

    Process is progress, don’t you see!’

    (11. 29–32)

    For others, however, Darwin is the prophet of nothing more than ‘the universe’s grand indifference’, as Amy Clampitt puts it in...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 260-262)

    At the end of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin famously declares ‘There is grandeur in this view of life’ ([1859] 2003: 398). Tennyson and Meredith surely bear this out in their poems. But the poetry of Darwinism yields us more than grandeur alone. It brings into focus the spiritual, moral and psychological questions that the Darwinian condition forces us to ask. Through poetry, we can confront what it might mean to live in a purely material universe, if that is indeed the fate to which Darwinism consigns us. We can probe our own need for spiritual comfort and consolation...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 263-282)
  15. Index
    (pp. 283-290)