Friday Flower Porn: Sexing Up Plants with Erasmus Darwin

Finally, the much anticipated return of Friday Flower Porn! For you debauched botanical voyeurs, I have two offerings for you today: a purple posy and turgid Darwinian prose.

Here's a violet blooming in Princeton's Marchand Park where a fair number of specimen trees and shrubs hang out. Just look at those ticklers. Any red-blooded hymenopteran would make a bee-line toward those babies.


And here's the prose in which our violet is mentioned in passing - Canto I as sung by the Goddess of Botany:

Descend, ye hovering Sylphs! aerial Quires,
And sweep with little hands your silver lyres;
With fairy footsteps print your grassy rings,
Ye Gnomes! accordant to the tinkling strings;

While in soft notes I tune to oaten reed
Gay hopes, and amorous sorrows of the mead.
From giant Oaks, that wave their branches dark,
To the dwarf Moss, that clings upon their bark,
With Beaux and Beauties, crowd the gaudy groves,

And woo and win their vegetable Loves.
How Snowdrops cold, and blue-eyed Harebels blend
Their tender tears, as o'er the stream they bend;
The lovesick Violet, and the Primrose pale
Bow their sweet heads, and whisper to the gale;

This was written by Erasmus Darwin - Charles Darwin's grandfather - in The Botanic Garden. Part II. Containing The Loves of the Plants.

It goes on (and on) from there. Granted, the literary quality isn't quite that of T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas or Walt Whitman, but it's the joy in science and the natural world that makes up for the blowsy verse. Erasmus Darwin wrote an extensive body of poetry, accompanied by commentary, that addressed the taxonomy and sexual configurations of plants as found in The Loves of Plants and natural phenomenon from bioluminescence to human sexuality to magnetism to evolution in The Economy of Vegetation and The Temple of Nature. For a list of E. Darwin's works, here's what Googling gets you.

The example above is pretty light on specifics. Here's Erasmus' ode to a source of one of our favorite fabrics from The Loves of Plants:

So now, where Derwent rolls his dusky floods
Through vaulted mountains, and a night of woods,
The Nymph, GOSSYPIA, treads the velvet sod,
And warms with rosy smiles the watery God;
His ponderous oars to slender spindles turns,
And pours o'er massy wheels his foamy urns;

With playful charms her hoary lover wins,
And wields his trident, --while the Monarch spins.
--first with nice eye merging Naiads cull
From leathery pods the vegetable wool
With wiry teeth revolving cards release
The tangled knots, and smooth the ravell'd fleece;

Next moves the iron-band with fingers fine,
Combs the wide card, and forms the eternal line;
Slow, with soft lips, the whirling Can acquires
The slender skeins, and wraps in rising spires;
With quicken'd pace successive rollers move,
And the retain, and those extend the rove,
Then fly the spoles, the rapid axles glow; --
And slowly circumvolves the labouring wheel below.

Darwin accompanied this with commentary and explanation of his verse, e.g.,

On the river Derwent near Matlock in Derbyshire, Sir RICHARD ARKWRIGHT has created his curious and magnificent machinery for spinning cotton; which had been in vain attempted by many ingenious artists before him.

Darwin then went on to describe the engineering behind Arkwright's machine (these are highlighted in the poem by emphasized text) and noted that the machine improves upon the process as performed by hand. Darwin opined that "it is probable, that the clothing of this small seed will become the principal clothing of mankind;"

He wrote a similar ode to the steam engine as improved by James Watt, his contemporary.

Darwin takes the same tact with any number of scientific and technological subjects. Although the prose is gloriously overwrought, it makes for a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a prominent intellectual of the 18th century. Erasmus was a polymath (physician, poet, philosopher, botanist, naturalist) and was considered a progressive thinker. Jenny Uglow has written a great article in the Guardian on the under-appreciated Erasmus: Sexing the plants. Some excerpts from Uglow's article follow.

This sums up The Botanic Garden nicely. My son gave the two volumes to me for Christmas, demonstrating how well he knows his idiosyncratic parent - or maybe that he had the wherewithal to look at my Amazon Wish List.

Darwin's long poem "The Botanic Garden" (1789) is one of the most extraordinary - some would say bizarre - works in English literature. Arching between two eras, it was a final exuberant flowering of Enlightenment experiment and optimism but also a glittering treasure trove of images and ideas for the coming Romantic generation, plundered by Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth. Four thousand lines of rhyming couplets humming above thickets of footnotes, with engravings by Blake, Fuseli and others, it consisted of two parts, "The Economy of Vegetation", and "The Loves of the Plants".

Erasmus was a chick magnet, too.

Like (Samuel) Johnson, he was huge, clumsy and pock-marked, often sarcastic, and talked with a rolling stammer. Yet he was immensely attractive to women. His first wife Mary died young, a victim of illness, drink and opium, leaving three sons. At 49, after a decade in which he had two daughters by the family governess, Darwin fell desperately in love with a dashing married patient, Elizabeth Pole, and when her husband died he married her and moved his whole family (legitimate and illegitimate) to her Derbyshire mansion. She had three children, and they soon had seven more. Darwin liked sex, prescribing it as a cure for hypochondria. He had none of the worries that would plague Victorian England; masturbation was fine. Flagrantly heterosexual himself, he had plenty of homosexual friends and made no adverse comments.

As an aside, I think that Darwin's wives and mistress might have appreciated it if he had regularly consumed gossypolicious meal (see male contraception posts in this month's Ask a Science Blogger) from that Nymph.

Darwin's posse (The Lunar Society - they called themselves such because they met monthly around the time of the full moon) consisted of formidable intellects and brilliant inventors:

Darwin was an unstoppable inventor: his futuristic designs included a steam car ("a fiery chariot"); a wire-drawn ferry; a horizontal windmill; an artificial bird; a copying machine and a speaking machine. All these he shared with his remarkable friends: the entrepreneur Matthew Boulton and his Scots partner James Watt, of steam-engine fame; Josiah Wedgwood the potter; Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen and fighting radical; and James Keir, pioneer of the chemical industry. Later members of the group included William Withering, Darwin's bitter rival, who introduced digitalis into mainstream medicine, and two wild Rousseauians, Richard Lovell Edgeworth (father of the novelist Maria) and Thomas Day, the author of Sandford and Merton. Their lives were an interwoven web of stories and their interests were kaleidoscopic. One person's passion immediately sparked off the others. Darwin's preoccupation with botany, for example, was probably prompted by Withering's work around 1775 in applying the new Linnaean classification to British plants.

And just to show I am not the only one titillated by plants:

The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus had revolutionised plant taxonomy. In his Systema Naturae he divided them into classes by the number of "male genitals", the stamens (monandria, one stamen; diandria, two stamens), and then into orders by their pistils, the female "genitals": the supporting structure, the calyx, became the "nuptial bed". This meant, of course, that some flowers had far more than a single male - and the sexual naming went further, with some structures compared to labia minora and majora, let alone a whole class of flowers named Clitoria. There was no escaping the link between Linnaean botany and sex. His system was as accessible to schoolgirls as to scholars - and since botany was an accepted feminine subject, worried translators like Withering hunted feverishly for inoffensive English terms for the sexy Linnaean language, much to the scoffing of Darwin.

As Uglow writes, Erasmus' and the rest of the Lunar Society's progressive views were castigated in the backlash against the French Revolution. In 1791, a mob attacked Priestly's house in Birmingham, burning his house and lab. Priestley later immigrated to America. Darwin's poetry and writings - most crucially, his ideas that the natural world was self-regulating and non-divine - were ridiculed.

Uglow believes that Erasmus' works deserve to be dusted off and read. I concur. Even a jaded post-modernist like me is entertained and moved by this brilliant man's verse which - for all their old-fashioned gaudiness and the wide-eyed optimism for a "golden industrial dawn" - capture the wonder, joy, and the feeling of transcendence experienced by many scientists when we look at the world around us.


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