Page images
PDF
EPUB

where pilasters round
Were set, and Doric pillars, overlaid
With golden architrave; nor did there want
Cornice, or frieze, with bossy sculptures graven :
The roof was fretted gold.

The poem, however, did not rise exactly “ like an exhalation.” “ The verse," writes its author's sprightly biographer, Miss Anna Seward, “ corrected, polished, and modulated with the most sedulous attention; the notes involving such great diversity of matter relating to natural history; and the composition going forward in the short recesses of professional attendance, but chiefly in his chaise, as he travelled from one place to another ; the Botanic Garden could not be the work of one, two, or three years; it was ten from its primal lines to its first publication.” If this account may be depended on, the Doctor's supplies of inspiration must have been vouchsafed to him at the penurious rate of little more than a line a day. At least, therefore, it cannot be said of him, as it was said of his more fluent predecessor in both gifts of Apollo, Sir Richard Blackmore, that he wrote “ to the rumbling of his chariot wheels." The verse, nevertheless, does in another way smack of the travelling-chaise, and of “the short recesses of professional attendance." Nothing is done in passion and power; but all by filing, and scraping, and rubbing, and other painstaking. Every line is as elaborately polished and sharpened as a lancet; and the most effective paragraphs have the air of a lot of those bright little instruments arranged in rows, with their blades out, for sale. You feel as if so thick an array of points and edges demanded careful handling, and that your fingers are scarcely safe in coming near them. Darwin's theory of poetry evidently was, that it was all a mechanical affair-only a higher kind of pin-making. His own poetry, however, with all its defects, is far from being merely mechanical. The Botanic Garden is not a poem which any man of ordinary intelligence could have produced by sheer care and industry, or such faculty of writing as could be acquired by serving an apprenticeship to the trade of poetry. Vicious as it is in manner, it is even there of an imposing and original character; and a true poetic fire lives under all its affectations, and often blazes up through them. There is not much, indeed, of pure soul or high imagination in Darwin; he seldom rises above the visible and material ; but he has at least a poet's eye for the perception of that, and a poet's fancy for its embellishment and exaltation. No writer has surpassed him in the luminous representation of visible objects in verse; his descriptions have the distinctness of drawings by the pencil, with the advantage of conveying, by their harmonious words, many things that no pencil can paint. His images, though they are for the most part tricks of language rather than transformations or new embodiments of impassioned thought, have often at least an Ovidian glitter and prettiness, or are striking from their mere ingenuity and novelty

as, for example, when he addresses the stars as “ flowers of the sky," or apostrophizes the glowworm as “ Star of the earth, and diamond of the night.” These two instances, indeed, thus brought into juxtaposition, may serve to exemplify the principle upon which he constructs such decorations : it is, we see, an economical principle; for, in truth, the one of these figures is little more than the other reversed, or inverted. Still both are happy and effective enough conceits—and one of them is applied and carried out so as to make it more than a mere momentary light flashing from the verse. The passage is not without a tone of grandeur and meditative pathos :

Roll on, ye stars! exult in youthful prime,
Mark with bright curves the printless steps of time;
Near and more near your beamy cars approach,
And lessening orbs on lessening orbs encroach ;-
Flowers of the Sky! ye too to age must yield,
Frail as your silken sisters of the field !
Star after star from heaven's high arch shall rush,
Suns sink on suns, and systems systems crush,
Headlong, extinct, to one dark centre fall,
And death and night and chaos mingle all !
-Till o'er the wreck, emerging from the storm,
Immortal Nature lifts her changeful form,
Mounts from her funeral pyre on wings of flame,

And soars and shines, another and the same. There is also a fine moral inspiration, as well as the usual rhetorical brilliancy, in the following lines :

Hail, adamantine Steel! magnetic Lord !
King of the prow, the ploughshare, and the sword!
True to the pole, by thee the pilot guides
His steady helm amid the struggling tides,
Braves with broad sail the immeasurable sea,

Cleaves the dark air, and asks no star but thee!
Here, to be sure, we have another variation of the same thought

according to which the stars have elsewhere been presented shining on earth as glowworms and blooming in the sky as flowers; and that may be considered to show some poverty of invention in the poet, or an undue partiality for the stars; but this last metaphor, making a star of the mysterious loadstone, in the dark night and on the immeasurable sea—a guiding and, as it were, living, though lustreless star-is more uncommon and surprising, and evinces more imagination, than the other figures. Bursts such as these, however, are of rare occurrence in the poem. Its sounding declamation is for the most part addressed rather to the ear than to either the imagination or the fancy. But the mortal disease inherent in Darwin's poetry is, that it is essentially unspiritual. It has no divine soul : it has not even a heart of humanity beating in it. Its very life is galvanic and artificial. Matter only is what it concerns itself about: not to spiritualize the material, which is the proper business and end of poetry, but to materialize the spiritual, is its constant tendency and effort. It believes only in the world of sense; and even of that it selects for its subject the lowest departments. Not man and his emotions, but animals, vegetables, minerals, mechanical inventions and processes, are what it delights to deal with. But these things are mostly, by doom of nature, incapable of being turned into high poetry. They belong to the domain of the understanding, or the bodily senses and powers, not either to that of the imagination or that of the heart. Dr. Darwin himself probably came to suspect that there were some subjects of which poetry could make nothing, some regions of mental speculation in which she could only make herself ridiculous, when he saw how grotesquely, and at the same time how exactly in many respects, the style and manner of his Loves of the Plants were reflected in the Loves of the Triangles.

Darwin's poetry is now very little read; and a few extracts, therefore, selected with the object of exhibiting both what is best and what is most peculiar and characteristic in his manner, may not be uninteresting. The first we shall give is the description of the approach of the Goddess of Botany (Darwin manufactures most of his own deities), with part of her address to the Fire Nymphs, in the first canto of the Economy of Vegetation :

She comes !-the goddess ! through the whispering air,
Bright as the moon, descends her blushing car;

Each circling wheel a wreath of flowers entwines,
And gemmed with flowers the silken harness shines ;
The golden bits with flowery studs are decked,
And knots of flowers the crimson reins connect.--
And now on earth the silver axle rings,
And the shell sinks upon its slender springs ;
Light from her airy seat the goddess bounds,
And steps celestial press the pansied grounds.

Fair Spring advancing calls her feathered choir,
And tunes to softer notes her laughing lyre;
Bids her gay hours on purple pinions move,
And crowns her zephyrs with the shafts of love.
Pleased Gnomes, ascending from their earthy beds,
Play round her graceful footsteps as she treads ;
Gay Sylphs attendant beat the fragrant air
On winnowing wings, and wast her golden hair ;
Blue nymphs emerging leave their sparkling streams,
And Fiery Forms alight from orient beams;
Musked in the rose's lap fresh dews they shed,
Or breathe celestial lustres round her head.

First the fine forms her dulcet voice requires, Which bathe or bask in elemental fires ; From each bright gem of Day's refulgent car, From the pale sphere of every twinkling star, From each nice pore of ocean, earth, and air, With eye of flame the sparkling hosts repair, Mix their gay hues, in changeful circles play, Like motes that tenant the meridian ray.So the clear lens collects with magic power The countless glories of the midnight hour; Stars after stars with quivering lustre fall, And twinkling glide along the whitened wall.Pleased, as they pass, she counts the glittering bands, And stills their murmur with her waving hands, Each listening tribe with fond expectance burns, And now to these, and now to those, she turns.

“Nymphs of primeval fire! your vestal train Hung with gold tresses o'er the vast inane, Pierced with your silver shafts the throne of night, And charmed young Nature's opening eyes with light. When love divine, with brooding wings unfurled, Called from the rude abyss the living world. 'Let there be light ! proclaimed the Almighty Lord ; Astonished Chaos heard the potent word; Through all his realms the kindling ether runs, And the mass starts into a million suns; Earths round each sun with quick explosions burst, And second planets issue from the first;

Bend, as they journey with projectile force,
In bright ellipses their reluctant course;
Orbs wheel in orbs, round centres centres roll,
And form, self-balanced, one revolving whole.
-Onward they move amid their bright aboile,
Space without bound, the bosom of their God!

“ Ethereal powers ! you chase the shooting stars,
Or yoke the vollied lightnings to your cars;
Cling round the aerial bow with prisms bright,
And pleased untwist the seven-fold threads of light;
Eve's silken couch with gorgeous tints adorn,
And fire the arrowy throne of rising morn :
-Or, plumed with flame, in gay battalions spring,
To brighter regions borne on broader wing ;
Where lighter gases, circumfused on high,
Form the vast concave of exterior sky;
With airy lens the scattered rays assault,
And bend the twilight round the dusky vault;
Ride, with broad eye and scintillating hair,
The rapid fireball through the midnight air;
Dart from the north on pale electric streams,
Fringing night's sable robe with transient beams.
-Or rein the planets in their swift careers,
Gilding with borrowed light their twinkling spheres ;
Alarm with comet-blaze the sapphire plain,
The wan stars glimmering through its silver train ;
Gem the bright zodiac and the glowing pole,

Or give the sun's phlogistic orb to roll.” There is much more in the same strain ; indeed, the oration of the goddess runs on to very near the end of the canto, or for above 450 lines more. In its first aspect this singular style of Darwin's is not a little imposing, with its sonorous march and glare of decoration; but its real poverty soon makes itself felt. His far-sought epithets and other novel applications of words are speedily found to be less satisfactory than startling ; not unfrequently the effect is something not very far from ludicrous, and at the best the variety proves to be little more than formal, such as might be produced by mere elaboration or trickery. The above passage is rather a favourable specimen: of the peculiar sort of splendour in which Darwin deals, made up in great part of glittering words and other ingenuities of diction, it has as much as perhaps any other passage in the poem ; and the subject is not so unfavourable as some others that he takes up to that kind of display, nor has it led him into any of his more

« PreviousContinue »