Darwin’s writings profoundly affected thought and one’s perspective, in England; as such, his ideas would certainly influence English writers. The nineteenth century was a period of turbulence for traditional ideas; Darwin’s writings added to the skepticism of old beliefs regarding humans’ place in the world. For the first time, many began to consider taking the perspective that, perhaps, humankind’s origins lie with the beginnings of all other animals, as Darwin suggests. Such ideas were problematic for religious institutions, as they contradicted the Bible’s explanation of the creation of the universe. While on his voyage, in an attempt to explain why the birds were so docile, Darwin states: “[fear of humans] is not acquired by individual birds in a short time, even when much persecuted; but that in the course of successive generations it becomes hereditary” (Darwin 1272). This quote illustrates the inspiration given to Darwin by the voyage for the idea of natural selection, as he compares the birds he encounters to the birds in England, which do have fear of humans (Darwin 1272). Darwin implies that the laws of natural selection apply to humans, as well: “Nature by making habit omnipotent and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate and the productions of his miserable country” (Darwin 1267). Darwin sees the differences between himself and the Fuegian people; he sees how they evolved differently from himself to adapt to their environment. Whereas many once believed humankind to be separate from the rest of the animal kingdom, Darwin’s revolutionary ideas rendered those ideas null to the open-minded people of English society. As Darwin’s ideas influenced English thinking so much, understanding them and the conflicts they created is important in comprehending the writings of writers of the period.
Since we didn’t get to discuss Charlotte Smith and Dorothy Wordsworth in class today (or last week), I thought I’d post some comments on them here. Please feel free to respond or post on your own if you’d like to discuss.
Charlotte Smith’s “To Melancholy” (1785) embodies all of the features of Romantic landscape poetry that Wordsworth and Coleridge popularized in Lyrical Ballads thirteen years later. It is set in a specific time and place, as indicated by the subtitle “the banks of the Arun [River] October, 1785,” in order to convey the concrete uniqueness of an experience of Nature in mid-Autumn. That subtitle utilizes a convention that Wordsworth and Coleridge would later follow in their poems, the idea being to allow readers to return to the same location and have the same experience, connecting to each other through time and space.
Smith also exemplifies the Romantic notion of Imagination as an active and synthetic faculty of the mind, not a passive mirror held up to the world. Her description of the seasonal landscape, with its “grey mists” that arise from “dim waves,” bears an element of obscurity and fleetingness that suggest supernatural phenomena (line 2). In addition, the “native stream” of the Arun (line 9) seems to contain a national spirit deserving of pity, whose “deep sighs swell the sadden’d wind!” (line 11). She then addresses that spirit directly–“O Melancholy!”–praising its “magic power” to “soothe the pensive visionary mind!” (lines 12, 14). In that way, the natural landscape serves not only as a projection of her inwardly gloomy emotional state, but also binds her with some element of the national spirit of Englishness. It’s that connection with her readers individually and with the nation in general through its native landscape that she expresses a vision of national unity, however distinct from politics.
Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven” (1812) makes a similar appeal for connection based on a notion of Englishness as a natural, inborn essence. Though her poem is overtly political, there are several passages that invoke the names of rivers to suggest the flowing of time as well as geographic connection and “spiritual” (in the sense of national Genius) connection. I am thinking in particular of the stanza on lines 127-156, where various rivers and other landscape features of England and the United States form a network among some of the great British thinkers and leaders throughout its history: King John and the signing of the Magna Carta, sir Isaac Newton and his definitive model of physics (now deposed by Einstein’s relativity), and so on. What’s interesting here, though, is that Barbauld extends the landscape-inhabited-by-national-Genius to Britain’s colonies, where she seems to agree with the Imperial claim that “If westward streams the light that leaves thy [our] shores, / Still from thy [our] lamp the streaming radiance pours” (lines 79-80). The poem is generally anti-Imperial in condemning the injustices of appropriated wealth and the corrupt political and financial practices that they have led to, yet seems positive about the cultural inheritance it bestows on foreign peoples and their lands.
Dorothy Wordsworth’s “Grasmere” (1805) seems the odd member of this trio of women writers. It follows the tradition of picturesque poetry set in the English Lake District, up north near the border with Scotland, prized for its rugged beauty. The landscape is peopled by cottages in a valley, but one in particular catches her fancy. She goes for a walk that takes her off the beaten path, where she finds an unexpected scene. As we’ve discussed all semester, the Romantic quest for rural landscapes has to do with a searching for British identity, specifically away from the cities. It is a response to modernity, the industrial revolution, and unsavory foreign involvements, even though it might not always refer to them directly.
Dorothy’s landscape describes a pastoral setting in a valley that provides protection from harsher elements.
And when the storm comes from the North
It lingers near that pastoral spot,
And, piping through the mossy walls,
It seems delighted with its lot.
And let it take its own delight;
And let it range the pastures bare;
Until it reach that group of trees,
–It may not enter there!
The mild pleasure afforded by her journey and the scenes she describes represent the aesthetic of the beautiful, which is the least represented among the poems we’ve looked at. There is a faith in the ability of “England’s green and pleasant land” not only to provide unexpected wonder, but to protect and endure. I’m not sure we find the same optimism in Smith and Barbauld.
Can we find anything in Dorothy’s poem that seems to mark her as consistent with the other two women writers here? She expresses a connection to Englishness through a connection to the land, but apparently without the skepticism and concern for the damaging effects of Time we find in the other two. Perhaps you have an answer to this, or see some connections I haven’t teased out?