Decorated initial E

rasmus Darwin started to write poetry relatively early in his life, publishing his first poem in 1751 on the death of Prince Frederick. His first major work, an instant critical success that brought him great fame, was the Loves of the Plants (1789). Four years later he published the Economy of Vegetation, which was another huge success: these two poems were later published together as Botanic Garden. The Economy of Vegetation first expounded Darwin’s radical scientific and political views to wider public. In the eighteenth century, science and poetry were not separate entities, and poetry served many purposes including education. Having translated Linnaeus' Systema Vegetabilium in 1783 and Genera Plantarum in 1787, he now intended to bring his scientific and technical knowledge to a wider reading public. He prefaced Loves of the Plants with a statement of his intention to "inlist Imagination under the banner of Science," and to help the reader he provided extensive footnotes within the poem and additional notes at the end: in fact the footnotes and endnotes combined are longer than the poem itself.

Poetry and the Steam Engine

In Economy of Vegetation Darwin celebrates the steam engine, predicting mighty railways and powerful steamships.

NYMPHS! You erewhile on simmering cauldrons play'd,
And call'd delighted SAVERY to your aid;
Bade round the youth explosive STEAM aspire
In gathering clouds, and wing'd the wave with fire;
Bade with cold streams the quick expansion stop,
And sunk the immense of vapour to a drop.—
Press'd by the ponderous air the Piston falls
Resistless, sliding through it's iron walls;
Quick moves the balanced beam, of giant-birth,
Wields his large limbs, and nodding shakes the earth." [Economy of Vegetation, Canto I: lines 254 - 263].

He had already suggested some possible uses of steam engines in an earlier part of the same canto:

"Soon shall thy arm, UNCONQUER'D STEAM! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying-chariot through the fields of air.
—Fair crews triumphant, leaning from above,
Shall wave their fluttering kerchiefs as they move;
Or warrior-bands alarm the gaping crowd,
And armies shrink beneath the shadowy cloud." [Economy of Vegetation, Canto I: lines 289-96].

Note XI summarizes the history and development of the steam engine, including Newcomen's improvements which allowed it to be used for industrial purposes, and Watt's later invention of the double-acting piston and separate condenser which greatly improved the performance of these machines:

Mr. Watt having ascertained the degree of heat in which water boiled in vacuo, and under progressive degrees of pressure, and instructed by Dr. Black's discovery of latent heat, having calculated the quantity of cold water necessary to condense certain quantities of steam so far as to produce the exhaustion required, he made a communication from the cylinder to a cold vessel previously exhausted of air and water, into which the steam rushed by its elasticity, and became immediately condensed. He then adapted a cover to the cylinder and admitted steam above the piston to press it down instead of air, and instead of applying water he used oil or grease to fill the pores of the oakum and to lubricate the cylinder.

He next applied a pump to extract the injection water, the condensed steam, and the air, from the condensing vessel, every stroke of the engine.

To prevent the cooling of the cylinder by the contact of the external air, he surrounded it with a case containing steam, which he again protected by a covering of matters which conduct heat slowly.

This construction presented an easy means of regulating the power of the engine, for the steam being the acting power, as the pipe which admits it from the boiler is more or less opened, a greater or smaller quantity can enter during the time of a stroke, and consequently the engine can act with exactly the necessary degree of energy. [Economy of Vegetation, Note XI, Steam Engine].

Evolution, selection, and inheritance in The Temple of Nature

In Economy of Vegetation Darwin combined ideas from the physical sciences — he offers a form of Big Bang theory and black holes in space and explanations of rainbows and aurorae — with radical politics, in particular support for the the American War of Independence, Irish freedom, and the anti-slavery movement. The following couplets, for example, describe "the Immortal Franklin" stabbing the “Vampires” that embody “Tyrant-Power” of George III and his ministers before turning attention to Ireland.

So, born on sounding pinions to the WEST,
When Tyrant-Power had built his eagle nest;
While from his eyry shriek'd the famish'd brood,
Clenched their sharp claws, and champ'd their beaks for blood,
Immortal FRANKLIN watch'd the callow crew,
And stabb'd the struggling Vampires, ere they flew.
—The patriot-flame with quick contagion ran,
Hill lighted hill, and man electrised man;
Her heroes slain awhile COLUMBIA mourn'd,
And crown'd with laurels LIBERTY return'd
The Warrior, LIBERTY, with bending sails
Helm'd his bold course to fair HIBERNIA'S vale. [Canto II: lines 361-72]

The Economy of Vegetation fiercely attacked slavery, echoing the movement’s famous question, “Am I not a man and a brother?”

Hear, oh, BRITANNIA! potent Queen of isles,
On whom fair Art, and meek Religion smiles,
Now AFRIC'S coasts thy craftier sons invade
With murder, rapine, theft,—and call it Trade!
—The SLAVE, in chains, on supplicating knee,
Spreads his wide arms, and lifts his eyes to Thee;
With hunger pale, with wounds and toil oppress'd,
"ARE WE NOT BRETHREN?" sorrow choaks the rest;—
— AIR! bear to heaven upon thy azure flood
Their innocent cries!—EARTH! cover not their blood! [Canto II: lines 421-43]

His ideas initially received a generally positive reception, but that was to change as events on the continent of Europe began to threaten Britain and its political system.

Evolution, natural selection, and epigenetic inheritance in The Temple of Nature

His last poem, The Temple of Nature (1803), which appeared posthumously, was another tour de force of his radical ideas. The first of its four cantos discussed the origins of life in the sea. According to Darwin, life formed spontaneously in water warmed by sunlight:

Then, whilst seas at their coeval birth
Surge over surge, involved the shoreless Earth;
Nurs'd by warm sun-beams in primeval caves
Organic life began beneath the waves.
First HEAT from chemic dissolution springs,
And gives to matter its eccentric wings. [Canto 1 lines 231-37]

In this Canto he developed his idea of natural selection to explain why organisms depend upon each other to live and change through time. In Canto II, he discussed reproduction in organisms by asexual and sexual means:

But REPRODUCTION, when the perfect Elf
Forms from fine glands another like itself,
Gives the true character of life and sense,
And parts the organic from the chemic Ens . . . [Canto II: lines 27-30]

All forms of Life shall this fond Pair delight,
And sex to sex the willing world unite [Canto II: lines 245-46]

A footnote to The Temple of Nature describes how birds and mammals feed their young until the latter are able to look after themselves:

Pelicans form a semicircle in shallow parts of the sea near the coast, standing on their long legs; and thus including a shoal of small fish, they gradually approach the shore; and seizing the fish as they advance, receive them into a pouch under their throats; and bringing them to land regurgitate them for the use of their young [...] Pigeons both male and female swallow the grain or other seeds, which they collect for their young, and bring it up mixed with a kind of milk from their stomachs, with their bills inserted into the mouths of the young doves [...] It may be [...] concluded, that this affection from the parent to the progeny existed before animals were divided into sexes, and produced the beginning of sympathetic society, the source of which may perhaps be thus well accounted for [...] whenever the glandular system is stimulated into greater natural action within certain limits. [Note IX, Storge]

Canto III dealt with the development of aesthetic appreciation of beauty and related it to art and architecture. Canto IV clearly describes violence and death in the natural world:

"The wolf, escorted by his milk-drawn dam,
Unknown to mercy, tears the new born lamb [...]
One scene of blood, one mighty tomb display!
From hunger's arm the shafts of Death are hurl'd,
And one great Slaughter-house the warring world!" [Canto IV, lines 16-17 and 64-66.] He equally considered that human society could transcend this savagery by following the golden rule:

WHAT YOU WOULD WISH BY OTHERS DONE TO YOU [Canto III, lines 486-87, original capitalisation]

Among the footnotes two others are worthy of specific mention. Note XII discussed his ideas on electro-chemistry, demonstrating that he knew and well understood the experiments that had been carried out by Franklin and others. In his comments on heredity disease in Note XI, he observed that grafts taken from older shoots of fruit trees tend to age more rapidly than those taken from new shoots of trees that had been cut back to near the roots. He also observed that parents who drank heavily and suffered from gout tended to have children who also suffered from gout even if they were not heavy drinkers. This latter Lamarckian or epigenetic inheritance has been confirmed in two separate studies on the descendants of adults affected by severe malnutrition while their children were in the wombs of their mothers. Epigenetics is now becoming recognised as an important process in evolution. Darwin also recognised that some diseases seem to affect families and may have an hereditary element: "A tendency to these diseases is certainly hereditary, though perhaps not the diseases themselves; thus a less quantity of ale, cyder, wine, or spirit, will induce the gout and dropsy in those constitutions, whose parents have been intemperate in the use of those liquors; as I have more than once had occasion to observe." This observation implied that family intermarriage can cause of problems for the health of descendants, an observation that was to cause concern to his grandson Charles, who had married his cousin.

Darwin’s Poetic Form

Darwin wrote his poems in neoclassical heroic couplets. This form, perfected by John Dryden and Alexander Pope, was well suited to a poetry of elegant statement. Difficult to write but easily parodied, its two rhymed iambic pentameter lines could make the second line parallel the first or oppose it, or the first half of a couplet could state a general principle and the second provide an example. Each line usually divided roughly into halves, permitting the poet to create a statement in the first line and a half that could be emphasized or contrasted, often by using wordplay, in the last part, something Pope famously did in The Rape of the Lock when he asked

Whether the Nymph shall break Diana's Law,
Or some frail China Jar recieve a Flaw,
Or stain her Honour, or her new Brocade,
Forget her Prayer's, or miss a Masquerade,
Or lose her Heart, or Necklace, at a Ball... [Canto II, lines 103-9]

Darwin's inventive and playful use of the form, coupled with sexual allusions in Botanic Garden, contributed greatly to his work's popularity. However two factors undermined this positive reception. First of all, Darwin's close association with radical politics alienated deeply conservative readers who hailed from the upper ranks of society. Darwin's popularity suffered as well from the rise and eventual dominance of the Romantics, whose beginnings we can date to the publication of Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798. Coleridge, who had been Darwin's patient, described him as "the first literary character in Europe, and the most original-minded man," and in their early years both pioneers of English romanticism shared Darwin’s radical beliefs, though not his poetic style.

Wordsworth’s emphasis upon using the actual language of men as opposed to the poetic diction employed by Dryden, Pope, and Darwin, helped usher in a new sensibility suited to poetry of expression rather than statement, emotion rather than wit. Of course, it took decades before the Romantics, who were famously mocked as the Cockney poets, displaced the kind of poetry Darwin wrote. In fact, as late as 1815 Wordsworth was still claiming Darwin's poetry was so new that people would have to be taught how to read and enjoy it. Thus, at a time when many young Victorians were still enjoying Pope, and when by far the most famous English Romantic was the atypical Byron (who, like the Augustans, delighted in satire), changing poetic tastes were not the principal reason for his poetry’s declining popularity. The problem was his politics. Once Britain's best known and most popular poet, Darwin sank into relative obscurity within a few decades. His influence lived on in other ways, however. The widespread revival of interest in evolutionary ideas which followed the publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) helped to resuscitate interest in Darwin's ideas about evolution. "Nature red in tooth and claw," Tennyson's famous line from In Memoriam (1850), distantly echoed Darwin's image, in Zoonomia, of the "world as a slaughterhouse."


Darwin, Erasmus. The Botanic Garden, Part II: Containing the Loves of the Plants, a Poem: with Philosophical Notes. London: Joseph Johnson, 1789.

Darwin, Erasmus. The Botanic Garden: A Poem in Two Parts, Part I: Containing the Economy of Vegetation London: J. Johnson, 1791.

Darwin Erasmus. Zoonomia; or the Laws of Organic Life. 2 vols. London: J. Johnson, 1794-96; rev. 1801.

Darwin, Erasmus. Phytologia: or the Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening. London: J. Johnson, 1800.

Darwin, Erasmus. The Temple of Nature, or The Origins of Society. London: J. Johnson, 1803.

Fara, P. Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science and Serendipity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

King-Hele, D. Doctor of Revolution, The Life and Genius of Erasmus Darwin. London: Faber and Faber, 1977.

King-Hele, D. Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unparalleled Achievement. London: Giles de la Mare Publishers, 1999.

King-Hele, D. Erasmus Darwin and Evolution. Sheffield: Stuart Harris, 2014.

Krause E. Erasmus Darwin, with a Preliminary Notice by Charles Darwin. London: Murray, 1879.

Powers, J. Evolution Evolving, "The First 'Darwinian Revolution." Derby: iOpening Books, 2013.

Smith, C.U.M. and R. Arnott, eds. The Genius of Erasmus Darwin. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005.

Last modified 7 April 2018