Martin Priestman, The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened Spaces, Romantic Times (Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), 324pp. ISBN 978-1-4724-1954-5; £70 (hb).
The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened Spaces, Romantic Times aims to recover the poetry and poetics of Erasmus Darwin from behind the rock of Wordsworthian Romanticism by challenging anew its assumptions about poetic diction and the role of metaphor or analogy. Priestman is working against the grain of ‘the Romantic Movement, with Erasmus Darwin’s absurd efforts the prime specimen of the artificial lumber of “poetic diction” mercifully cleared away for good by Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and its Preface’ (p. 3). While I disagree with Priestman that Wordsworth’s reconceptualized ‘poetic diction’ engenders ‘easy assumptions’ about artificial ornamentation—rather, it remains a hard-won innovation in the development of English poetry—it is easy to be persuaded by Priestman’s argument that the poetry of Erasmus Darwin has been given short shrift to the degree that his more famous grandson could declare that, in his own time, the poetry was barely read.
As Priestman’s enquiry proceeds, however, its ambitious scope becomes more evident and a paradox emerges in relation to his aim of recovering the poetics while at the same time giving due attention to Darwin’s use of myth in the context of a Foucauldian epistemic shift from a static Linnaean taxonomy to an early, dynamic evolutionary model. Similarly, Priestman’s outline of Darwin’s theories of mythology, while pertinent to the project of recovering neglected aspects of the three major poems under discussion, extends into a detailed yet somewhat distracting narrative exploring those fascinating secret societies, the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons. Priestman’s lively and informed treatment of these contextual phenomena is so interesting that the reader may be apt to lose sight of the focus on poetics and poetry, per se. Ironically, Darwin’s poems recede slightly into the background at these stages of the work (chapters 6 through to 8) despite the worthy objective of providing a fresh treatment of The Loves of the Plants, The Economy of Vegetation and The Temple of Nature.
Chapter 11, ‘Romantic Times (1): Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth’, ought to be of particular interest to Romanticism scholars, with its nuanced and astute reading of Coleridge’s complex relationship to Erasmus Darwin. That relationship is more frequently elided or treated reductively through the brief decontextualized quotation of Coleridge’s sometimes damning views of Darwin’s poetics. Priestman, on the other hand, is alive to the complexity of tone in Coleridge’s letters and applies judicious interpretative attention to the links between the purpose and the recipients of the letters in question before making any assertions about Coleridge’s assessment of Erasmus Darwin’s poetry.
The genuine strength of Priestman’s study of the poetics of Erasmus Darwin is his exploration of a distinctively spatial orientation to the poetry, an ‘Enlightenment spatialism’ that can be obscured if the poetry itself is evaluated using a Romanticist lens that prioritizes time, or ‘spots of time’, over spatial arrangement. While conceding that Coleridge needs more empty spaces than Darwin provides for the kind of contemplation that recognizes genuine pathos, Priestman presses home his point that a writer’s poetics ought to be evaluated on its own terms. Such evaluation rightly entails using the aesthetic principles of a poet’s precisely historicized context, regardless of whether these principles have been disparaged by Romanticists, then and since. At the very least, it is of legitimate concern that the principles of Erasmus Darwin’s poetry are simply ignored by post-Enlightenment readers steeped in the legacy of Romanticism.
Priestman carefully considers the role that Darwin’s poetry played in contemporary debates about female education, offering a particularly interesting survey of the legacy of his poetics as it was taken up and transformed by women. In Chapter 12, ‘Romantic Times (2): Later Romantics and Women Poets’, Priestman considers women writing poetry influenced by Darwin’s didacticism but with an eye to the domestic aspect of flowers and life. Such poetry takes on a less sexual but equally intriguing re-interpretation of ‘vegetable love’. Priestman is alert to the problematic category of ‘Romantic women writers’ and sensitively applies an historicized understanding of the stages of life of the women discussed and their contextual experiences, particularly Anna Laetitia Barbauld (as a poet born in the 1740s).
Overall, the work is clearly and cogently written and fills a gap in the existing literature on the literary aspects of the polymath that was Erasmus Darwin, while simultaneously pointing the way towards further enquiry into his more often obscured role as a ‘man of letters’. Priestman succeeds in salvaging the reputation of Erasmus Darwin as the writer of The Loves of the Plants from the dismissive satire, The Loves of the Triangles, which rendered him a poetic absurdity and buried his poetry as the object of serious study for so long. Re-reading The Loves of the Plants, in particular, is a heightened experience as a result of Priestman’s effectiveness in opening up fresh ways of discussing the poetry of Erasmus Darwin. Ultimately, Coleridge’s observation that Darwin displayed the ‘most original mind in Europe’ informs Priestman’s analysis of Darwin’s self-conscious textuality and ‘magpie intertextuality’ (p. 67). The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened Spaces, Romantic Times is a provocative study of a poetic thinker worthy of recovery in light of our current theoretical concerns and abiding appreciation of English poetry.