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Charles Darwin’s Debt to the Romantics

How Alexander von Humboldt, Goethe and Wordsworth Helped Shape Darwin’s View of Nature

Charles Morris Lansley

This book argues that the Romantic movement influenced Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection. Given that Darwin has traditionally been placed within Victorian naturalism, these Romantic connections have often been overlooked. The volume traces specific examples of Darwin’s reliance on the Romantics – such as Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative, which he took with him on the Beagle, and the poetry of William Wordsworth, discussed in his notebooks – and explores correlations in Darwin’s own writings. When Darwin refers to the «archetype» in Origin, could he be drawing on Goethe’s own use of the concept? And how to explain his description of all poetry as creating a feeling of «nausea»? In addition to these key figures, the book also explores the possible influence of Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. The book cleverly follows Darwin’s form of the narrative in a search for traces of history in both science and poetry, inspired by the unique imagination of Darwin himself.

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Chapter 6: Darwin’s Moral and Reflective Nature: Conflicting Values in the Victorian Era


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Darwin’s Moral and Reflective Nature: Conflicting Values in the Victorian Era

This chapter will examine the question of whether Darwin was a Victorian and whether he could be both a Romantic and a Victorian. Answering the question ‘Was Darwin a Romantic?’ is an easier question to answer as there are at least Romantic concepts to use as a measuring tool as the previous chapters have demonstrated. However, the question of whether Darwin was a Victorian is a more difficult question to answer. Firstly, Darwin was born in 1809 before Victoria became Queen in 1837, and so clearly he was not brought up as a ‘Victorian’ and was certainly not a ‘Victorian’ during the voyage of the Beagle between 1831 and 1836, although he lived the majority of his life in the Victorian era. If the question is rephrased to ask ‘Was Darwin a Victorian in the sense of holding Victorian values?’, this is equally problematical as one could answer ‘yes’ for some values and ‘no’ for others. For example, when Darwin published the Origin in 1859 this went against the grain of established church values, so in this respect Darwin could be seen as anti-Victorian (yet he was supported by the established ‘Victorian’ geologist Charles Lyell and the botanist Joseph Hooker). On the other hand he could be regarded as a distinguished Victorian gentleman of independent financial means coming from a respectable line of Darwins and Wedgwoods before him....

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