While historians of science have focused significant attention on Erasmus Darwin’s scientific ideas and milieu, relatively little attention has been paid to Darwin as a literary writer. In The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened Spaces, Romantic Times, Martin Priestman situates Darwin’s three major poems - The Loves of the Plants (1789), The Economy of Vegetation (1791) and The Temple of Nature (1803) - and Darwin himself within a large, polymathic late-Enlightenment network of other scientists, writers, thinkers and social movers and shakers. Interpreting Darwin’s poetry in terms of Darwin’s broader sense of the poetic text as a material space, he posits a significant shift from the Enlightenment’s emphases on conceptual spaces to the Romantic period’s emphases on historical time. He shows how Darwin’s poetry illuminates his stance toward all the major physical sciences and his well-formulated theories of evolution and materially based psychology. Priestman’s study also offers the first substantial accounts of Darwin’s mythological theories and their links to Enlightenment Rosicrucianism and Freemansonry, and of the reading of history that emerges from the fragment-poem The Progress of Society, a first-ever printed edition of which is included in an appendix. Ultimately, Priestman’s book offers readers a sustained account of Darwin’s polymathic Enlightenment worldview and cognate poetics in a period when texts are too often judged by their adherence to a retrospectively constructed ’Romanticism’.
Martin Priestman is Professor of English and Co-Director of the Centre for Research in Romanticism at the University of Roehampton, UK.
’Drawing on a wide range of research in literature and the history of science, Martin Priestman’s in-depth exploration of Darwin’s poetry is important not only for its illumination of Darwinian scholarship, but also for its use of Darwin to reassess the relationships between the British Enlightenment and the Romantic period’. Patricia Fara, Clare College, Cambridge, author of Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science, and Serendipity ’Martin Priestman’s new book is an authoritative and wide-ranging survey on the place of Darwin as a significant writer and poet in the Enlightenment and Romantic eras’. Desmond King-Hele, FRS, author of Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequalled Achievement ’...[A] thought-provoking read.’ Anglisik 'The results of this examination are fascinating. Darwin has long been recognized as an intriguing man with polymath interests, as a physician, an inventor, a radical in his politics, and a poet ... Darwin's poems are lengthy, written in heroic couplets, and are perhaps not best suited to our modern tastes, but Priestman gives a good account of them and the ideas they communicate. He provides an admirably clear summary of the poems' content and in doing so has had to master an encyclopedic range of knowledge himself.' Times Literary Supplement '... [A] comprehensive, exciting, and truly indispensible achievement. Priestman has given us a fresh, thoroughgoing literary critical image of Darwin's oeuvre: poetic and scientific in inextricable measure, The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin bristles with insights and fuel for future work, and demonstrates, by compendious scholarship and lively example, the now elusive delights of Darwin's late-Enlightenment style.' Review of English Studies 'The Poetry of Erasmus Dmwin is a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship, comprising Dr. Darwin's poetic works as a whole. ... readers can trust [Preiestman's] leadership and enjoy his enthusiasm even as they admire his scholarship.' Wordsworth Circle