British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution
Edinburgh: University Press, 2013
Paperback. xiv + 288 pp. ISBN 978-0748692071. £19.99
Reviewed by Jacqueline Banerjee
Like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, some of our most important poets have found "more poetry in Mitochondrial Eve than in her mythological namesake".(1) Yet only a handful of critics have explored these poets' engagement with the subject, either in its nineteenth-century beginnings, or as it has since developed. Of the more comprehensive studies, John Holmes himself mentions Lionel Stevenson's Darwin among the Poets (1932) and Georg Roppen's Evolution and Poetic Belief (1956). But, as Holmes says, he is the first since then to look closely at this poetry as a whole. He can therefore see it afresh from our own vantage point, and bring into play a whole new range of poets on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Richard Eberhart, Philip Appleman, Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes. Holmes's opening reference to Edward O. Wilson's Consilience (1999) is also significant. Like Gillian Beer, whose Darwin's Plots (1983) focuses on the evolutionary narrative in fiction, he balances scientific theory and controversy with critical analysis, doing much himself to bring the arts and sciences together. All this makes Darwin's Bards (2009) one of the most significant contributions to recent discussions of Darwinism and its impact on our culture—and explains its recent, and very welcome, reissue in paperback.
Chapter 1 establishes the fundamentals of Holmes's study, arguing that despite competing accounts of Darwin's ideas, and challenges to them with the development of genetics, there is a "core of Darwinism, which has remained constant across the last 150 years". As the first and most basic and comprehensive of its tenets, he proposes: "The entire history of life on earth since its origin can be explained without recourse to teleology or supernatural causes through the known mechanisms of evolution" — even though the "origin of life itself remains unknown" . In the nine tenets that follow, Holmes spells out clearly (his particular skill) what the "mechanisms" are and how they work through "the natural selection of heritable variations" over long periods of time and under different conditions, without evidence of any "predetermined goal" [16-17]. Proponents of "intelligent Design", as of Creationism, get short shrift: while Michael J. Behe is praised for probing scientific theory in The Edge of Evolution (2007), his concept of "Intelligent Design" is dismissed as "a will-o'-the-wisp" .
Yet this is how evolutionary thinking started—that is, from a providential viewpoint. Darwin's own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, expressed such ideas in two verse treatises(2) and, as Holmes suggests, the fact that these notions were already circulating among the intelligentsia would have helped smooth the way for The Origin of Species in 1859. Still, that book marked the watershed. Holmes's concern, of course, is with the poetry that followed its publication. Rather unexpectedly, the first poet he looks at is one who only died a few years ago, the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan. This is clearly going to be a thematic not a chronological study, and a wide-ranging one at that. But Morgan is an excellent choice, his "Trilobites" showing some of the ways a poet can deal with the subject, and make us think about it. It also sets the tone for much of what follows, with its inspirational conclusion: Morgan would not want to exchange his variously damaged "family" of fossils "for Grecian urn or gold Byzantium" , since (in Holmes's convincing reading) it represents for him a sense of "shared heritage and fate" that means more to him than "all the finest transcendental fictions of poetry and art" .
Chapter 2 moves us back, closer to the starting line, where Holmes sets out to interpret an eclectic mix of poems written in the late Victorian period. Examples range from Agnes Mary Robinson's "Darwinism," which he describes as an "appealing piece of evolutionary myth-making" — but one that actually rests on an out-dated premise of evolution as a "directed process" [38-39]; and "The Testament of an Empire" by another Scottish poet, John Davidson, writing at the same time, whose "appalling" rather than appealing brand of right-wing Social Darwinism involves consigning all but the most ruthlessly ambitious to the outer darkness . These are curiosities really, but telling ones, and help to contextualise the more important poets to whom Holmes turns next, especially George Meredith and Tennyson. Here, Holmes's informed approach to poems often loosely described as Darwinian or non-Darwinian, or as promoting Social Darwinism, really pays off. The two are skilfully contrasted: Meredith indeed found "a new faith in evolution as progress", and it gave some of his later poetry wings—notably "The Lark Ascending", which Holmes analyses later—while Tennyson, for all his interest in science, lost this faith . Here, Holmes points out the emphatic "if" in Tennyson's well-known short lyric, "Flower in the crannied wall": "if I could understand / What you are, root and all, and all in all, / I should know what God and man is". Holmes takes this to mean that Tennyson considers it impossible to understand any ultimate truth through science. His analyses of Tennyson's later poems on the subject support the contention that "[U]nlike Meredith, he did not have enough faith in science itself to put his faith in evolution" .
Subsequent chapters depart more completely from the chronological. They cover important topics such as "Darwinism, Christianity and Theology" in Chapter 3, with a fresh look at key poems like Hardy's "Hap", Frost's "Design" and Browning's "Caliban upon Setebos", amongst others, including some by Appleman and fellow-American Pattian Rogers; and "Darwin, Death and Immortality" in Chapter 4, with much about Meredith and Hardy again—clearly, these are important poets for Holmes's thesis, with Meredith especially shown in full bardic flow in "In the Woods." Holmes is unfazed by Meredith's later retitling of the poem, "Dirge in Woods." He has to agree that this points up the note of regret in it, but feels that the text, hardly revised in itself, still shows Meredith's ability to face death unflinchingly as a part of life, and thus to accept the human condition as Darwin has helped us to see it. Long quotations, sometimes of whole poems, are one of the most welcome aspects of Holmes's book.
With The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin drew out further the implications of his first book. These implications were in some ways the most troubling of all. Disputes over evolutionary theory "have been nastier than most" fundamentally because "they are disagreements about the nature and importance of mankind", explains Andrew Brown in the foreword to The Darwin Wars.(3) Holmes comes to this controversial subject next, with Chapters 5 and 6 covering the related topics of "Humanity's Place in Nature" and "Humans and Other Animals". He reminds us first of how T.H. Huxley weighed in against the palaeontologist Richard Owen over the classification of humans as a distinct order of mammals, while at the same time trying to rescue us from the brutes by making us at least a distinct family or sub-order. Not for the first time, Holmes brings Robinson Jeffers into focus here, with a fine analysis of Jeffers's "Night". It is clear from this that Jeffers's recognition "that mankind is neither central nor important to the universe" does not prevent a wholehearted response to "the astonishing beauty of things and their living wholeness" [qtd. 135]. Here as well Holmes quotes the whole of Appleman's "Waldorf-Astoria Euphoria", with its ebullient celebration of our inter-connectedness, showing how "gloriously inclusive" it is  — but finding a "dark note" in its ending, where Appleman says that we ourselves "are all / we've got" . Whether we agree that this a dark note or not perhaps depends on how far we still find the idea disconcerting.
The discussion that follows in Chapter 6, dealing with poems about birds, deer and other animals, is the most engaging in the book, because of the variety of poets included, and the refreshingly new readings of some old favourites. Early in the chapter, the three-way comparison of Jeffers's "Rock and Hawk", Eberhart's "Sea-Hawk" and Hughes's "Hawk Roosting" is something of a tour de force of critical analysis, with the palm going to Eberhart for making the encounter with the hawk "a genuine revelation", and bringing out "the hawk's full power as a symbol of Darwinian nature" . Turning to songbirds, Holmes strips Hardy's "Darkling Thrush" of some of its nostalgic Romantic poignancy only to find that it inspires us instead with "the consolation of poetry itself", the regular rhythm that echoes the "ancient pulse of germ and birth" in the song, in nature, in the very turning of the year . Holmes's crossing of boundaries, between different countries, traditions and disciplines, is very much in evidence again at the end of the chapter, as he turns to the long history of poetry featuring deer, mentioning the important hunting scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight before examining Hardy's "The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House" (1922), Edna St Vincent Millay's "The Fawn" (1932), and others. Whatever the objections to them, Darwinian assertions of our kinship with animals worked in several ways. One way not mentioned here is exemplified in Hardy's "Bags of Meat", where cattle at auction seem to look reproachfully at their cruel "unnatural kin". This kind of empathy could have practical results. Hardy was an ardent anti-vivisectionist.
In a logical progression, Holmes moves on in Chapter 7 from animals to human animals, and what does seem to make them (us) different: his chapter heading here is "Love and Sex". Asking how Darwinism has made poets feel about our love-lives, about the often tortured arena in which our emotions and physical desires are played out, he turns a good part of his attention again to Meredith and Millay, this time with their respective sonnet cycles about adultery, "Modern Love" (1862) and (with its early, direct reference to the earlier sequence) "Fatal Interview" (1932). As throughout, close reading yields results, and both poets are shown to give powerful expression "to the moral and psychological implications of Darwinian biology", and to "call too for sexual equality and the social liberation of women" . The "moral … implications" that Holmes draws out have nothing to do with any restrictive code of conduct, nothing to do with "what the tongues / Of tedious men will say, / Or what the law" [Millay's sonnet XXII]; but everything to do with honesty, sympathy and forgiveness. As readers, we are put through the mill by these poems, but it is all in a good cause. The third of the "major Darwinian love poets" selected by Holmes is Thom Gunn, who reflects the new openness of modern times in his five "centaur" poems. These powerful and memorable works suggest how our animal nature compels us to merge our individual identities with others in our most intimate relationships, both as partners and progenitors.
What is most striking about this book is its inspirational tone. The title of the final chapter is "On Balance", and on balance the effect of Darwinism on poetry has not been to induce pessimism (even in Hardy, who is so often accused of it), but to produce that sense of wonder felt by Dawkins. The bards of Holmes's title are often exactly that: bards, poets whose engagement with Darwinism encourages their readers to get in touch with the wonder of life in a universe no longer predicated on a supernatural creator with a divine scheme for our salvation. Loss of faith in such a creator, their poetry suggests, need not rob us of purpose and hope in life. Poets like Meredith, Hardy, Frost, Jeffers and Millay, in particular, show that Darwinism itself can invest our earthly existence with meaning. Could this be the most direct way in which poetry replaces "empty heaven and its hymns", as Wallace Stevens proposed in his well-known poem, "Man with the Blue Guitar"? At any rate, and as Holmes himself suggests, such poets form "an important and powerful counterweight to modernism"  with its dismaying sense of dislocation and crisis. Here was a way of celebrating the natural world, and man's place in it, that was utterly modern without being modernist, and that has indeed—as Holmes shows through his examples of more recent poetry—outlasted modernism.
A more chronological organisation would have helped to drive home this important point more fully. It would also have helped when looking at the individual poets: for this reader, it was frustrating—despite some judicious cross-referencing—to come to Meredith's early "Modern Love" long after some of his later poetry. Another possible quibble is that while some poets are widely dispersed across the whole book, others whose work seems relevant are mentioned only in passing, or even entirely omitted. For example, some of D.H. Lawrence's poems in Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), such as "Tortoise Shout" with its reference to the "primeval rudiments of life" in both man and beast, might have repaid attention in Chapter 6 or 7. Lawrence certainly read Darwin, and Holmes himself has referred elsewhere to the new awareness of Lawrence's "sophisticated and perceptive engagement with science".(4) However, so many poems are discussed in such depth and so rewardingly that it seems ungrateful to ask for even more. In truth, there can only be one verdict here. Darwin's Bards is that rare thing, a critical study that actually lifts the spirits. It achieves the most important of goals: it returns us to the poetry itself in the expectation of seeing it in a new light, and understanding and enjoying it more fully.
(1) Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995 : xii.
(2) For example, in "The Temple of Nature", he exclaims "GOD THE FIRST CAUSE! — in this terrene abode / Young Nature lisps, she is the child of GOD". The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin. London: J. Johnson, 1806 : ll. 223-224.
(3)The Darwin Wars : How Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods. London: Simon & Schuster, 1999 : ix.
(4) See his introduction to Science in Modern Poetry : New Directions, J. Holmes ed. Liverpool: University Press, 2012 : 1-15 .
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