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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 9: The Rime of the Ancient Naturalist


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The Rime of the Ancient Naturalist

There is no real conclusion to the Romanticism of Darwin’s life, ideas or his works as they continue to live on as life forever unfolds, particularly in the imaginative world in which science and poetry blend together; a spiritual blend which is a blend of the everyday and the supernatural. The irony here is that despite Darwin’s agnostic tendencies towards the First Cause of Creation, the whole narrative of the story of Creation and its origins overlapping the narrative of his own life story, has a mystical feel to it. And this is made even stronger when both narratives interact with the narrative of the reader’s own life history and imagination.

This chapter, by way of conclusion, deals with the force of this mystical or supernatural view which is beautifully, if not sublimely, drawn out by Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life in Poems. Ruth Padel is Charles Darwin’s great-great granddaughter and so this poetical biography is a direct descendant of Darwin’s own ‘rastros’. Darwin’s ‘rastros’ directly link up with Padel’s own ‘rastros’ and these can be seen in her descriptions of her conversations with her grandmother, Nora Barlow, Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, who had published the unexpurgated version of Darwin’s Autobiography. In particular, Padel remembers her ninety-five-year-old grandmother telling her about her own conversations with Charles Darwin and how he felt his ideas had ‘affected the faith of his wife, Emma’ (Padel, 2010, pp....

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