One of my favourite discoveries during this research has been learning about Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather. Erasmus was the colourful character that I think history wishes Charles was. He was a physician, but also an inventor, evolutionist, liberal free-thinker, and also a probable atheist at a time when that wasn't so common. Where Charles was cautious and moderate, choosing his statements carefully and often letting others champion his ideas for him, Erasmus was more brash and outspoken. Where Charles was uncertain he ever wished to marry, but then settled down as a contented family man, Erasmus had multiple happy marriages, being widowed at one point, as well as multiple lovers in the interim. An obituarist at the time of his death noted that he could “never forsake the charms of Venus.”
Hardly surprising, then, that when he turned his hand toward poetry, sex featured prominently. Plant sex, specifically. Charles Darwin’s grandfather wrote racy (for the 18th century) poetry about the love lives of the plant kingdom. You see, Carl Linnaeus – of Latin binomial name fame – also devised a system of classification based on the number of male and female organs in the flower, at the time referred to as ‘the sexual system.’ Erasmus, caught up in the charms of Venus as he was, couldn’t help but imagine those organs as different combinations of men and women in his lengthy poem, The Loves of the Plants. And boy, did he let his mind go wild.
Among the plants with one stamen and one pistil, Darwin started with a pretty vanilla picture of a “virtuous pair,” husband and wife, but from there moved on to a couple sneaking around but betrayed by the appearance of an illegitimate child (“the green progeny betrays her loves”) and a woman awoken by an enamoured lover (“‘Awake, my Love!’ enamour'd Muschus cries, ‘Stretch thy fair limbs, resurgent Maid! Arise’”), among others. Among plants with multiple stamens and a single pistil, Darwin wrote of a frantic queen avenging rejected love by committing infanticide (yikes… who knew Impatiens was such a violent plant?), a seductive harlot, and a beauty guarded by her fond brothers. Once he reached the classes with higher numbers of stamens and pistils, the old boy just couldn’t seem to keep a handle on himself, describing “Each wanton beauty… in gay undress,” a “glittering throng” of “beaux and belles”, and “a hundred virgins” joining one hundred young suitors. Erasmus Darwin did not lack for imagination.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge came right out and said that Darwin’s poetry nauseated him, but Erasmus’ own stated aim was “to inlist Imagination under the banner of Science.”
Which is probably worth a bit of bad poetry.
For anyone interested in reading the entire poem, complete with Darwin’s substantial and sometimes amusing footnotes, it can be found here. And of course, more on Erasmus and his poetry in my book, Unrooted, when it comes out!