A Poetry of Science or a Science of Poetry?

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Abstract

Specialization was not in the lexicon of Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802): doctor, scientist, poet, inventor, and socialite. By profession, he was an unparalleled general physician with a universality of mind that infused his practice of medicine as well as his technical innovation, scientific observation, and poetic vision. For Darwin, scientific findings involved a mixture of informed conjecture and imagination. Darwin’s approach to poetry hinged on this ability to illumine a scope of subjects with concise couplets supported by imaginative exposition and speculation. Scientific facts and theories interwoven with mythological places and characters constitute his “hypotheses”. Writing in an instructive and captivating manner, Darwin became the only best selling scientific poet in English history, largely due to his steadfast conviction that poetry should amuse and entertain the public. His poetry, and in particular his choice to recruit science and technology as its subject matter, will be discussed in this paper. The focus will be on two of Darwin’s long poems. The first, “The Botanic Garden”, is divided into Part I ‘The Economy of Vegetation’ (1791) and Part II ‘The Loves of the Plants’ (1789). The second poem is the posthumous “The Temple of Nature” (1803). Darwin’s speculative method will be shown through close analysis of these works.