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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 7: The Transmutation of Darwin’s Romanticism


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The Transmutation of Darwin’s Romanticism

This chapter analyses the text of the Voyage of the Beagle and Darwin’s Beagle notebooks in relation to Darwin’s Romantic concepts, discussed in earlier chapters, to see how they were developed in the early Darwin, to see how the language was used to express them, and how the form of Darwin’s expression changed as he matured in years, as reflected in the Origin and the Descent.

Darwin’s early piecing together of the history of Nature has already been described as similar to a South American Indian following the tracks (or ‘rastro’) of horses. This reading of Nature creates the narrative of Nature, and throughout Darwin’s writing the reader is presented with a ‘double movement of prose’ in which he is first presented with an impossible-to-believe discovery (for example, shells found at the top of a mountain) creating the experience of wonder, followed by an explanation (for example, the sea beds were upheaved over millions of years to form mountains) creating yet more wonder that such a thing could actually happen (often followed by an exclamation mark). The narrative of Darwin’s works reveals not only the development of Man’s Mind from simple beginnings, but also the development of Darwin’s Mind alongside that of the reader’s. The ‘rastro’ reading of Nature along with the ‘double movement of prose’ is an experience shared by writer and reader and this chapter will examine these two aspects of Darwin’s...

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