Poetry and the Darwinian Condition, John Holmes, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Reading email: j.r.holmes@reading.ac.uk

[inclding Social Darwinism during the latter part of the 19th century]

Holmes states:

A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

he American poet Stephen Crane’s terse epigram nails with perfect precision the impact of Darwin’s discoveries on humanity’s sense of our own significance. Our existence does not give us grounds for pompous self-importance, it is just a ‘fact’ of nature. As the Victorian poet James Thomson put it in the most defiantly atheistic poem of his day, The City of Dreadful Night, ‘We bow down to the universal laws, / Which never had for man a special clause’ (section XIV, ll. 61-2). Darwin revealed a natural world formed by the brutal, aimless forces of random variation and natural selection. It was a revelation that was hard to square with the notion of a benevolent God … others sought other motors for evolution and it was famously not until the synthesis of Darwin’s theory with Mendel’s genetics between the wars that the case for natural selection was recognised as conclusive. There was a strong if ultimately unsuccessful rearguard action fought too on behalf of human exceptionalism, especially in the wake of Darwin’s The Descent of Man. Historically speaking, then, there was no sudden Darwinian revolution. But his ideas themselves are no less revolutionary for that. Darwin’s understanding of nature and of humanity’s place in it, very largely corroborated and fleshed out in extraordinary detail by the last one-hundred-and-fifty years of biology, has utterly transformed our understanding of ourselves and of the natural world. They mark the most radical reevaluation of the human condition in our history. After Darwin, the human condition is the condition of living in and as a product of a Darwinian universe; it is the creator. Darwin himself commented in a letter to his friend the American    ‘I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars

(Biodiversity in Space and Time (cited Darwin, 2003, 494), Paul Upchurch, Alistair J. McGowan, Claire S.C. Slater  (eds.),.)

If the Darwinian world were the creation of a divine designer, it seemed  in RobertFrost’s words a ‘design of darkness to appall’    in Robert Frost’s words a ‘design of these laws of nature, we ourselves are not far from being an exception to these laws of nature ..

TThe book covers a range of topics, and reflects some of the twig on Darwin’s famous tree of life, major overall questions in the field such as: with no clear line separating us from apes and other animals.          Darwin’s ideas took time to gain ground.   Evolution had been in the air within a few years of that book coming

A Systematics Association Special Volume

Price: $119.95 (please contact editor-in-chief David Gower on how to get a 20% discount on this price!)   For Table of Contents and ordering information, please visit:http://www.crcpress.com/product/isbn/9781420045512

ISBN: 9781420045512 (hardback)

•How well do ana•Which approaches are best suited to reconstructingl analyriccal echniques devised for researching the biogeography of extant organisms … 

For some time when he published On in the Origin of Species in 1859, and … almost all the scientific community  had come to accept it. Many scientists and lay readers were convinced … about the  argument for natural selection too … ”

Darwinian condition.

The biological sciences—evolutionary biology, genetics, ecology—define our place within the natural world. But to understand fully what it means to live in this Darwinian condition we need the imaginative resources of literature as well. Novels like George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Ian McEwan’s Saturday can explore in depth our life as social and psychological organisms in a secular world. Prehistoric fiction like William Golding’s The Inheritors can open imaginative windows onto our evolutionary past; science fiction like

H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine or Olav Stapledon’s Last and First Men can play out the possibilities of our evolutionary future. But it is poetry more than any other literary form that can help us to grasp for ourselves what it is to be a human being living consciously in a Darwinian universe. Where novels transport us into fictional worlds, poems transport us into new states of mind. Since the news of Darwin’s theories began to

which each encapsulate particular

ways of thinking about the Darwinian condition. Thomas Hardy, George Meredith and May Kendall were among the earliest poets to comprehend fully the implications of Darwin’s ideas. Each looked on Darwin’s world through a different worldview. The author of several famous tragic novels including Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Hardy saw a bleak landscape in Darwinian nature. His infamous pessimism is not as straightforward as it might seem, but he certainly earned the critic I. A. Richards’s compliment that he was ‘the poet who has most steadily refused to be comforted in an age in which the

temptation to seek comfort has been greatest’ (Richards,

1970, 68-9). If Hardy was an ambivalent pessimist,

Meredith was an equally subtle optimist. Of all the Darwinian poets, Meredith conveys best the sense of being part of a vital living nature, both in life and in death. Where Hardy was effectively an atheist and

break in the                                                                                                                                                         Meredith close

1860s, poets         The Problem from Alfred

Tennyson to

Shall we conceal the Case, or tell it— Ted Hughes                We who believe the evidence?

have explored Here and there the watch-towers knell it their   With a sullen significance, implications            Heard of the few who hearken intently and carry an eagerly upstrained sense. for human

beings and for Hearts that are happiest hold not by it; nature as a            Better we let, then, the old view reign: whole. For      Since there is peace in that, why decry it? some,  Since there is comfort, why disdain?

Darwin’s           Note not the pigment so long as the painting determines humanity’s joy and pain. to a pagan, Kendall was a committed Christian. She reconciled her faith to evolution in part by rejecting the pre-Darwinian idea that human beings had a special

ideas spell                                                                                                                                                                  place in the

something close to an existential disaster, undermining and even overturning their deepest beliefs and values. For others, the Darwinian world is not so hostile, more beautiful, even hopeful in its own way. Through reading the poems of these different poets we can retrace the paths their explorations have taken, building up our own ever richer and more complex mental maps of our Darwinian condition.In my book Darwin’s Bards (see review in issue 32 of The Systematist) I discuss more than thirty British and American poets who have responded to Darwinism over the past hundred-and-fifty years (Holmes, 2009). I look at what they show us about the kind of God that might preside over a Darwinian universe, about how we can face up to our own mortality now that immortal souls no longer seem compatible with what we know of our evolutionary origins, about our insignificance within the universe and our significance on Earth, about our relationships to other animals and about those animals themselves, and about our deepest personal and sexual relationships with one another. Here I am going to concentrate on just three poets and a handful of poems, providential plan, or that it is possible to know such a plan through science at all (see Holmes, 2010). In her satirical poem, ‘The Lay of the Trilobite’, she skewers this kind of providential evolutionism with a comedy that is still funny and deft over a century on.Hardy declared himself to have been ‘among the earliest acclaimers of The Origin of Species’ (Hardy, 1962, 153), yet Darwinism posed him what he called in the title of one poem ‘The Problem’.In this poem, published in 1901, Hardy gets to the crux of an issue that is debated every time a new book explaining evolution to the wider public is reviewed. To what extent should scientists who understand evolution make public their wider conclusions about the

‘significance’ of the ‘evidence’? If they believe that the only coherent interpretation of Darwin’s world is that it is a world without God, should they say so, publicly and boldly? Or should they politely decline to intrude on other people’s beliefs, even if privately they think they are deluded? In Hardy’s poem it is not church-towers but watch-towers which ring out the discoveries learnt by the more far-sighted scientists and other observers,


including novelists and poets like Hardy himself. Their               poem. But in giving the observable hereditary trait a ringing is not a peal but a ‘knell’, however, showing                voice Hardy personifies it in the same way that Richard that Hardy well knows that to be disillusioned of ‘the        Dawkins personifies the gene, which in Dawkins’s old view’ would be a grave bereavement for many                population genetics translates to whatever components people, as well as a distressing reminder     of a genome determine or increase the of their own mortality. In the end Hardy             Heredity           likelihood of a given trait. The decides against making the ‘Case’ for         characters of these two personifications

this disillusionment. Yet by the time he I am the family face;  are similar too. Hardy’s poem invites us draws that conclusion it is too late. In            Flesh perishes, I live on, to imagine him walking along a allowing himself to speak candidly to a Projecting trait and trace     corridor or down a staircase, perhaps in reader who he imagines is in agreement Through time to time anon,            an old baronial hall, lined with portraits with him, he has already made it clear    And leaping from place to place   going back through the generations. As

that in his view this case is conclusive.            Over oblivion.   he moves from one portrait to another, He refuses to ‘disdain’ the comforts of           the strong impression forms in his mind

religious faith, but his poem makes that The years-heired feature that can        that these several people going back faith harder to sustain all the same.            In curve and voice and eye          through time bear a strong family Whether or not we agree with Hardy at Despise the human span resemblance to one another. Soon it is the outset, by the end of this poem we      Of durance—that is I; that resemblance, not the individuals are aware that the colour has faded             The eternal thing in man,             themselves, that seems to stare from

from the old world-picture even if its       That heeds no call to die.               each portrait. In its very persistence, it

lines and forms appear to some people                                                                 defies death, but equally it shows

still to be in place. If ‘The Problem’ says one thing and              contempt for individual life. Like the selfish gene, all does another, it is partly because Hardy is ambivalent            that concerns it is its own survival; like the selfish gene, himself about the nature revealed by Darwin. His poetry        it comes across as a sinister deterministic force repeatedly mourns the loss of his more naïve, pre-         undercutting our attempts to assert our own

Darwinian view of nature and humanity, yet at the same time he knew that ultimately he had been ‘By truth made free’, as he says in his last published poem, ‘He Resolves to Say No More’ (l. 18). ‘The Problem’ offers two competing solutions to the problem it raises—to keep silent or to speak. Hardy himself is unsure which is the right answer in principle, but in practice, in this poem and across his other poems and novels, he is persistently driven to speak out.

Hardy finds other thoughts and feelings besides mere disillusionment in Darwin. independence from our heredity. In

The Wind Blew Words                          both cases, the malignity of

heredity is a product of the

The wind blew words along the skies,              personification—neither the And these it blew to me   gene nor the face has any

Through the wide dusk: ‘Lift up your eyes,                  consciousness or even real

Behold this troubled tree,                                              agency—yet at the same time

Complaining as it sways and plies:                                the personification gives us a

It is a limb of thee.                                                           new perspective on ourselves

less as discrete individuals and Yea, too, the creatures sheltering round—                more as part of a biological

Dumb figures, wild and tame,                                    continuum which reaches back

Yea, too, thy fellows who abound—               through time and over which Either of speech the same             each of us individually has

Or far and strange—black, dwarfed, and browned,    very little control.

They are stuff of thy own frame.’                               Hardy was acutely aware that

this biological continuum,

I moved on in a surging awe                                             Darwin’s tree of life, had other

This is his poem on the subject At the pathetic Me I saw               letter he wrote in 1910, he of ‘Heredity’, from his book             In all his huge distress,   noted that ‘Few people seem to Moments of Vision, published             Making self-slaughter of the law               perceive fully as yet that thein 1917.                                             To kill, break, or suppress.                           most far-reaching consequence

Of inarticulateness                                                       profound implications too. In a

If ‘The Problem’ anticipates current debates over science and religion, the ‘family face’ in ‘Heredity’ bears a striking resemblance to the selfish gene. What survives is not the individual but the ‘trait’. Hardy is not concerned with the mechanism of heredity here, so much as the fact of it. Neither natural nor sexual selection come into the

of the establishment of the

common origin of all species is

ethical’ (Hardy, 1962, 349). He captures this ethical imperative through a highly original reworking of Darwin’s own image in another poem (The Wind Blew Words) from the same collection as ‘Heredity’.

For many Victorian and twentieth-century ideologues, Darwinism seemed to authorise an ethic of


vigorous, even violent, competition. If the natural order

was one of struggle, who were men to countermand it? Better to enter into the spirit of it and battle to assert our own claims to the right to survive. Better, in Hardy’s words, ‘To kill, break, or suppress’. This kind of erroneous Social Darwinism involves the false step of taking what is as a guide to what ought to be. But it also latches on to one half of Darwin’s vision—natural selection—while disregarding the other half—the tree of life. In ‘The Wind Blew Words’ Hardy uses the image of a wind-battered tree to introduce the principle that Darwin’s tree of life implies the kinship of all living things. As a human being, Hardy is a twig on the tree of life, as is the tree itself. They are both part of the same whole. By identifying with that whole Hardy is able to invert Darwin’s image so that the tree—the literal tree, and by extension every other branch of the tree of life— becomes part of his own body. Once Hardy has identified himself with the tree of life, other animals and other people, whatever their nationality or race, all become part of one immense self that he does not hesitate to call ‘Me’. Hardy’s poem was published at the height of both the First World War and the age of empire. In it he exposes war and imperialism, both of which claimed to be licensed by Darwinism, as acts of ‘self-slaughter’ on precisely Darwinian grounds. For all that his poem records a condition of inarticulate realisation, it is itself a masterful example of how poetry can articulate a subtle idea vividly, economically and powerfully. Reading this poem, we too can feel the ‘huge distress’ of the rest of the living world as our own.

Over fifty years before Hardy, George Meredith asked Nature to ‘Teach me to feel myself the tree, / And not the withered leaf’ in his magnificent but now little read ‘Ode to the Spirit of Earth in Autumn’ (ll. 154-5). This poem was published in 1862, only three years after Darwin’s seminal book. But where Hardy wants to move us to feel the ‘distress’ of life to combat the drive towards war, oppression and exploitation, Meredith wants us to revel in an ongoing vitality that far outlasts our own short lives. At the same time, while Meredith celebrates ‘the joy of motion, the rapture of being’ (l. 180), he also accepts the prospect of not being with equanimity. As he writes:

Behold, in yon stripped Autumn, shivering grey, Earth knows no desolation.

She smells regeneration

In the moist breath of decay. (ll. 186-9)

Like Hardy’s family face and his immense, suffering Me, Meredith’s Earth is a personification which enables us to see ourselves and our place in nature in a new way. It gives us a model both for how to live vigorously, with an intense awareness of life itself and its experiences, and how to die, accepting that each individual life is part of an ongoing process of living that does not stop when that one life ends.

Meredith faces death again in a calmer mood in the last lyric of a sequence he published in 1870 called ‘In the Woods’:

A wind sways the pines, And below

Not a breath of wild air:

All still as the mosses that glow

On the flooring and over the lines Of the roots here and there. The pine-tree drops its dead:

They are quiet as under the sea.

Overhead, overhead,

Rushes life in a race,

As the clouds the clouds chase:

And we go,

And we drop like the fruits of the tree, Even we, Even so.

The rhythms and imagery of this poem set up a contrast between movement and stillness—the wind above the treetops and the quiet deep in the wood, life racing competitively and the falling dead. The end of the poem has a dying fall, as Meredith folds us into this natural contrast, so that we too drop like the spent pine-cones. The calmness of the poem marks a stoic acceptance of mortality, and Meredith invites us to join him in acquiescing to the inevitable natural processes of our own death. But even here he reminds us that in dying we are not wholly lost to the cycle of life. The dead pine cones were ‘the fruits of the tree’ from which the seeds have been dispersed by the rushing wind. We too drop, but we too are fruits of the tree of life, bearing seeds of new life, literally in our bodies and those of our children, and figuratively in the legacy left by the lives we have led.

Through their poems, Hardy and Meredith make us look with fresh eyes on the by-now familiar world of Darwinian nature, to reconsider what it means to be a part of a living tree of life, and to face up to the problems that this poses in terms of what to believe and what to say, how to live our lives and how to face our deaths, even how to define where our own selves reside. Their poems are thoughtful and serious and repay serious attention. But poetry can work through comedy too. … “


About Harold L Carter

Bachelor of Science, Columbia University Masters degree, Ohio State University Undergraduate National Officer, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Eastern Asst Vice President, when a student at Columbia University Profile Photograph: Mom & Me, when I was a graduate student
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  1. Poetry and the Darwinian Condition reviews the poetry of George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, an atheist, and May Kendall, a committed Christian and their interpretations of Darwin’s ideas on nature and humanity.

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