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Philosophical Descriptive Poems

THE BOTANIC GARDEN once appeared to open new route through the trodden groves of Parnassus. The poet, to a prodigality of IMAGINATION, united all the minute accuracy of SCIENCE. It is a highly repolished labour, and was in the mind and in the hand of its author for twenty years before its first publication. The excessive polish of the verse has appeared too high to be endured throughout a long composition; it is certain that, in poems of length, a versification, which is not too florid for lyrical composition, will weary by its brilliancy. Darwin, inasmuch as a rich philosophical fancy constitutes a poet, possesses the entire art of poetry; no one has carried the curious mechanism of verse and the artificial magic of poetical diction to a higher perfection. His volcanic head flamed with imagination, but his torpid heart slept unawakened by passion. His standard of poetry is by much too limited; he supposes that the essence of poetry is something of which a painter can make a picture. A picturesque verse was with him a verse completely poetical. But the language of the passions has no connexion with this principle; in truth, what he delineates as poetry itself, is but one of its provinces. Deceived by his illusive standard, he has composed a poem which is perpetually fancy, and never passion. Hence his processional splendour fatigues, and his descriptive ingenuity comes at length to be deficient in novelty, and all the miracles of art cannot supply us with one touch of nature.

Descriptive poetry should be relieved by a skilful intermixture of passages addressed to the heart as well as to the imagination: uniform description satiates; and has been considered as one of the inferior branches of poetry. Of this both Thomson and Goldsmith were sensible. In their beautiful descriptive poems they knew, the art of animating the pictures of FANCY with the glow of SENTIMENT.

Whatever may be thought of the originality of Darwin’s poem, it has been preceded by others of a congenial disposition. Brookes’s poem on “Universal Beauty,” published about 1735, presents us with the very model of Darwin’s versification; and the Latin poem of De la Croix, in 1727, entitled “Connubia Florum,” with his subject. There also exists a race of poems which have hitherto been confined to one object, which the pact selected from the works of nature, to embellish with all the splendour of poetic imagination. I have collected some titles.

Perhaps it is Homer, in his battle of the Frogs and Mice, and Virgil in the poem on a Gnat, attributed to him, who have given birth to these lusory poems. The Jesuits, partiularly when they composed in Latin verse, were partial to such subjects. There is a little poem on Gold, by P. Le Fevre, distinguished for its elegance; and Brumoy has given the Art of making Glass; in which he has described its various productions with equal felicity and knowledge. P. Vaniere has written on Pigeons, Du Cerceau on Butterflies. The success which attended these productions produced numerous imitations, of which several were favourably received. Vaniere composed three on the Grape, the Vintage, and the Kitchen Garden. Another poet selected Oranges for his theme; others have chosen for their subjects, Paper, Birds, and fresh-water Fish. Tarillon has inflamed his imagination with gunpowder; a milder genius, delighted with the oaten pipe, sang of Sheep; one who was more pleased with another kind of pipe, has written on Tobacco; and a droll genius wrote a poem on Asses. Two writers have formed didactic poems on the Art of Enigmas, and on Ships.

Others have written on moral subjects. Brumoy has painted the Passions, with a variety of imagery and vivacity of description; P. Meyer has disserted on Anger; Tarillon, like our Stillingfleet, on the Art of Conversation; and a lively writer has discussed the subjects of Humour and Wit.

Giannetazzi, an Italian Jesuit, celebrated for his Latin poetry, has composed two volumes of poems on Fishing and Navigation. Fracastor has written delicately on an indelicate subject, his Syphilis. Le Brun wrote a delectable poem on Sweetmeats; another writer on Mineral Waters, and a third on Printing. Vida pleases with his Silkworms and his Chess; Buchanan is ingenious with his Sphere. Malapert has aspired to catch the Winds; the philosophic Huet amused himself with Salt, and again with Tea. The Gardens of Rapin is a finer poem than critics generally can write; Quillet’s Callipedia, or Art of getting handsome Children, has been translated by Rowe; and Du Fresnoy at length gratifies the connoisseur with his poem on Painting, by the embellishments which his verses have received from the poetic diction of Mason, and the commentary of Reynolds.

This list might be augmented with a few of our own poets, and there still remain some virgin themes which only require to be touched by the hand of a true poet. In the “Memoirs of Trevoux” they observe, in their review of the poem on Gold, “That poems of this kind have the advantage of instructing us very agreeably. All that has been most remarkably said on the subject is united, compressed in a luminous order, and dressed in all the agreeable graces of poetry. Such writers have no little difficulties to encounter: the style and expression cost dear; and still more to give to an arid topic an agreeable form, and to elevate the subject without falling into another extreme.—In the other kinds of poetry the matter assists and prompts genius; here we must possess an abundance to display it.”

Editor’s Notes

The Botanic Garden was written between 1789 and ’91 by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802, grandfather of Charles).

 ¶ This article first appeared in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. In the earlier version of the piece, D’Israeli writes more favourably of Darwin’s poem. I will quote its opening paragraphs in full, at the risk of repeating some of the above:

In the present age, little distinguished for the originality of its poetic compositions, the Botanic Garden has appeared. It seems, indeed, to have opened a new route through the trodden groves of Parnassus. The poet, who shall rashly venture to wrestle with such a rival, will be exposed to the derision of the Arena; for it will be long before a writer shall appear; who to all the prodigality of Imagination shall unite all the minute accuracy of Science. It is a performance which makes a prominent figure in our national poetry. If it be permitted to censure (however slightly) productions of such eminent felicity, it may be observed, that the excessive polish of the verse to some will appear by much too high to be endured throughout a long composition; it is certain, that in poems of length, a versification which is not too florid for certain delicate opusculæ, offends by its brilliancy. The Abbé Du Bos has finely expressed one of the grand requisites of poetry, by “La Poesie du Style;” this is Gray’s “Words that burn.” For the most perfect example of such a style in a composition of length, the Homer of Pope may be opposed to any poem in any language. The Botanic Garden, allowing much for the nature of its topics, to me appears to have passed that happy limit which Pope regarded. What is the consequence? Every one admires while he reads, but he cannot read long. The conspicuous blemish of this fine poem, is a certain sameness which prevails throughout the work, and which it would not have been difficult to obviate, had a little plot or fable been invented to connect, in some degree, its numerous descriptions, and to animate the whole by a pervading interest. A slight thread is requisite to bind these beautiful flowers.
Descriptive poetry should always be relieved by a skilful intermixture of passages, which are addressed to the heart, as well as to the imagination: constant description fatigues; it gives too violent an exercise to the mind, and must always be considered as one of the inferior branches of poetry. Of this both Thomson and Goldsmith were sensible. In their beautiful descriptive poems they knew the art of animating the pictures of Fancy with the glow of Sentiment. The delightful poet of the Botanic Garden has occasionally interspersed some interesting appeals to the human heart; and, while we feel their magic effect, we wish they had been more frequent.

D’Israeli closes the 1793 version of the piece thus:

If it was thus difficult for a Jesuit, who reposed on the bosom of literature, to evince his talents on the subject of Gold, what must have been the difficulties of the elegant physician who has composed the Botanic Garden amidst the distraction of daily avocations, and in which his mind has grasped the productions of nature, and the compositions of art, while it embellished whatever it touched! To express our sense of such a versatility of poetic talents, it will become us to contemplate the beauties of this poem in silent admiration.