The Botanic Garden by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was first published as a completed poem in 1791/2. It has a slightly complicated publishing history with the second part, The Loves of the plants, being originally published in 1789 and the first part The economy of vegetation being published later in 1791. The Whipple’s copy is a third edition published in 1795 but the title page of part 2 is designated “The fourth edition” dated 1794. Bewell calls the completed work “.. the most popular and the most controversial nature poem of the 1790s,” some of Darwin’s contemporaries loved it, others loathed it.
The Economy of vegetation explores various strands of science through the use of verse and contains a large quantity of notes providing the reader with more in-depth knowledge of the subjects. It is split into 4 cantos, each one represented by an elemental being, who is linked to the subjects covered in that section. For example the 2nd canto directed to the gnomes of earth covers geology and the 3rd canto directed to the nymphs of water comprises information on rivers, springs and even briefly mentions the gardens at Chatsworth.
The Loves of the plants explains flower fertilization via Carl Linnaeus’s (1707-1778) classification scheme. A botanical muse guides the author and readers through descriptions of 83 plants, giving them human characteristics to express the relationship between the male (stamens) and female (pistils) parts. For example the Dodecatheon meadia or American cowslip, which has 5 stamens and 1 pistil, is described as follows:
“MEADIA’S soft chains five suppliant beaux confess,
And hand in hand the laughing belle address;
Alike to all, the bows with wanton air,
Rolls her dark eye, and waves her golden hair.”
Throughout this section of the poem we get an idea of how women were viewed at this time and what roles they were expected to play in society. Janet Browne points out that there is a contrast between these ideas and those of Darwin himself. He was a supporter of education for women and friends with women intellectuals and artists but these roles don’t figure at all in the poem. However, the poem does show Darwin’s genuine views on other matters very clearly. He was a supporter of both American and French revolutions, was in favour of the abolishment of slavery and was against the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
One of the reasons I was attracted to the Botanic Garden was it’s connection to Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). He designed the frontispiece for the Economy of vegetation which shows Flora being attended by the elemental figures referred to by Darwin in the verse. He also designed the plate entitled Tornado which was engraved by William Blake (1757-1827). Both these artists are known for the gothic elements of their work and this supernatural darkness can also be seen in the verse. Darwin’s description of the nightshade includes the lines “Shrill scream the famish’d bats, and shivering owls, And loud and long the dog of midnight howls!” Darwin also mentions mythical characters such as the griffin, ancient Egyptian and Greek gods, and even vampires. An engraving of one of Fuseli most famous painting “The Nightmare” appeared in a version on the Botanic Garden published in 1791 (See Victorian University Library Exhibition). Overall the poem can be seen to bring science to life in an entertaining and accessible way.
Darwin, Erasmus. The Botanic Garden: a poem , in two parts. Part I. Containing the economy of vegatation. Part II. The loves of the plants. With philosophical notes. London: Printed for J. Johnson …, 1795. (STORE 91:22-23)
Bewell, A. “Erasmus Darwin’s cosmopolitan nature” in ELH 76,1, (2009) pp.19-48
Browne, J. Botany for gentlemen: Erasmus Darwin and “The loves of the plants” Isis 80, 4 (1989) pp.593-621