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Darwin waxing lyrical

Charles Darwin was in an unusually poetical mood 175 years ago today:

The night was pitch dark, with a fresh breeze. — The sea from its extreme luminousness presented a wonderful & most beautiful appearance; every part of the water, which by day is seen as foam, glowed with a pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, & in her wake was a milky train. — As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright; & from the reflected light, the sky just above the horizon was not so utterly dark as the rest of the Heavens. — It was impossible to behold this plain of matter, as it were melted & consuming by heat, without being reminded of Milton’s description of the regions of Chaos & Anarchy.

More Darwiniana later today, possibly.


‘amongst other things’

Today’s entry from Darwin’s Beagle diary:

29th May 1832
Rio de Janeiro
Cloudy greyish day, something like an Autumnal one in England; without however its soothing quietness. I wanted to send a note this morning into the city & had the greatest difficulty in procuring anybody to take it. All white men are above it, & every black about here is a slave. This, amongst other things, is one great inconvenience of a slave country.

Darwin was in fact strongly anti-slavery. As a grandson of Josiah Wedgwood he was probably brought up that way, but his experiences visiting Brazil reinforced it and stayed with him for the rest of his life. Still, it’s not the most felicitous bit of phrasing.

Culture Nature Other

Darwin’s prose

I recently found Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary, being posted ‘live’ on the internet with a mere 175 year time-lag (see also Pepys, Thoreau).

He’s only just reached Brazil, so there’s plenty of time to join the fun. This is from today’s entry:

The houses are white and lofty and from the windows being narrow and long have a very light and elegant appearance. Convents, Porticos and public buildings vary the uniformity of the houses: the bay is scattered over with large ships; in short the view is one of the finest in the Brazils. But their beauties are as nothing compared to the Vegetation; I believe from what I have seen Humboldts glorious descriptions are and will for ever be unparalleled: but even he with his dark blue skies and the rare union of poetry with science which he so strongly displays when writing on tropical scenery, with all this falls far short of the truth. The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind, if the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butter-fly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over, if turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future and more quiet pleasure will arise. I am at present fit only to read Humboldt; he like another Sun illumines everything I behold.

A little on the flowery Victorian side, but still a fine bit of prose. What’s interesting is that you’d never know he could do it on the basis of The Origin of Species, a book which is well written but rarely sparkling. But in the diaries, notebooks and letters he can be a lively, engaging writer. One of my favourite quotes from the notebooks: ‘He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke’.