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Symbiosis or Slaughterhouse? Honeyed Analogy in Erasmus Darwin

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Bees, Science, and Sex in the Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century

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In the eighteenth century, the role of insects in pollination was starting to be understood. The poet and naturalist Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) held to the more traditional view that the relationship between bees and flowers was predatory rather than symbiotic. Paradoxically, however, it was the close kinship of animal and vegetable that put them in competition for the precious resource, honey. The very fact that all life could trace its origin to “one and the same kind of living filaments” turned the “warring world” into “one great slaughter-house”. The case of honey illustrates the high stakes of a Darwinian vision in which the analogy among organisms is not only a poetical conceit but an ontological reality. A work like The Botanic Garden (1792) famously allegorizes the reproduction of plants in terms of the courtship of humans, while also taking pains to establish how structural correspondences between the two instantiate the unity of God’s creation. Darwin grants a certain incommensurability between the “looser” analogies of poetry and the “stricter” ones of natural philosophy, though it would be left to his successors to recognize one application: that flowers need bees differently than bees need flowers.

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  1. 1.

    Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, trans. Martin Ferguson Smith (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), 1.937–48; repeats at 4.11–23.

  2. 2.

    See especially Martin Priestman, The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened Spaces, Romantic Times (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013). Noel Jackson shows how Darwin’s attempt at philosophical poetry in the Lucretian vein led contemporaries to attack The Botanic Garden not only as a pale imitation but as “a dangerously radical text”; Noel Jackson, “Rhyme and Reason: Erasmus Darwin’s Romanticism”, Modern Language Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2009): 175.

  3. 3.

    Erasmus Darwin, The Economy of Vegetation, The Botanic Garden, vol.1, ed. Adam Komisaruk and Allison Dushane (New York: Routledge, 2017), 40. Throughout, my references to Darwin’s works cite poetry by canto and line numbers, prose by page numbers.

  4. 4.

    As Rosalind Powell points out, Linnaeus’s binomial nomenclature was itself “a form of analogizing”; “Linnaeus, Analogy and Taxonomy: Botanical Naming and Categorization in Erasmus Darwin and Charlotte Smith”, Philological Quarterly 95, vol. 1 (2016), 102.

  5. 5.

    Erasmus Darwin, The Loves of the Plants, The Botanic Garden, vol. 2, ed. Adam Komisaruk and Allison Dushane (New York: Routledge, 2017), 1.211, 1.217.

  6. 6.

    Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia; or, The Laws of Organic Life, vol. 1 (London: J. Johnson, 1794–1796), 507.

  7. 7.

    Throughout, I use “honey” and “nectar” interchangeably, as Darwin appears to do. They are now understood as distinct substances: nectar is secreted by the plant; it becomes honey when the bees remove it to the hive, spread it over the wax to facilitate evaporation, and add the enzyme invertase.

  8. 8.

    Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature; or, The Origin of Society (London: J. Johnson, 1803), 4.66.

  9. 9.

    Charles Darwin, letter to J.D. Hooker, 1 August 1857, in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 6, ed. Frederick Burkhardt et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 438.

  10. 10.

    Darwin, Economy, 4.2n.

  11. 11.

    Darwin, Loves, 1.131n.

  12. 12.

    Darwin, Loves, 1.211n.

  13. 13.

    Darwin, Loves, 1.211n.

  14. 14.

    Darwin, Temple, 4.41–46, 4.63–66.

  15. 15.

    Darwin, Temple, 4.373–74, 4.393, 4.399.

  16. 16.

    Darwin, Temple, 4.442.

  17. 17.

    Facing such warfare in his own garden, Darwin first tried improvising an obstacle course to the hive, then relocated the hive altogether, to render it inaccessible to invaders. Erasmus Darwin, Phytologia: or The Philosophy of Agriculture and Gardening (London: J. Johnson, 1800), 366; Temple, 4.39–40 and n.

  18. 18.

    For a scrupulous narrative of Darwin’s place in this developing field, see Alexandra Hankinson, “Flora’s Go-betweens: Nectar, Insects and Flowers in the Romantic Natural History of Pollination”, Romanticism 25, no. 1 (2019): 3–21. While I cover some of the same territory, I am more interested in what it tells us about Darwin’s relationship to figurative language.

  19. 19.

    Jacob Lorch, “The Discovery of Nectar and Nectaries and Its Relation to View on Flowers and Insects”, Isis 69, no. 4 (1978): 522–24; Michael Proctor, Peter Yeo, and Andrew Lack, The Natural History of Pollination (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1996), 14–17.

  20. 20.

    Thomas Andrew Knight, “An Account of Some Experiments on the Fecundation of Vegetables”, Philosophical Transactions 89 (1799): 202.

  21. 21.

    Lorch, 525–26; Proctor, Yeo, and Lack, 15, 17–19.

  22. 22.

    J.W. von Goethe, letter to A.J.G.K. Batsch, 26 February 1794, in Letters from Goethe, trans. M. von Herzfeld and C.A.M. Sym (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1957), 224.

  23. 23.

    J.L.G. Meinecke, quoted in Lorch, 526–27.

  24. 24.

    Meinecke, quoted in Lorch, 527.

  25. 25.

    Devin Griffiths, The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature between the Darwins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 30.

  26. 26.

    Griffiths, 18.

  27. 27.

    Griffiths, 34–35.

  28. 28.

    Darwin, Economy, 41.

  29. 29.

    Darwin, Zoonomia, vol. 1, 1; emphasis in original.

  30. 30.

    Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia, vol. 1, 102.

  31. 31.

    Of all the vital functions, Darwin’s definition of the will may be the most complicated. Zoonomia classifies as “voluntary” any motion caused by “desire” or “aversion”, “whether we have the power of restraining that action, or not”; Darwin, Zoonomia, vol. 1, 420. Sneezing and vomiting, for instance, are voluntary because they rid the body of irritants; epileptic seizures are involuntary because they are unconnected to the pursuit of pleasure or avoidance of pain; Darwin, Zoonomia, vol. 1, 424. In The Loves of the Plants, he asserts that “The Will presides not in the bower of Sleep”, then proceeds to illustrate the opposite: nightmares occur when a fully engaged sensorium strives to exercise the muscles but, the perceptual organs being closed to external stimuli, the muscles refuse to obey; Darwin, Loves, 3.73 and n. If this concept of volition means that flowers are bees are humans, then the human is vegetablized just as surely as the vegetable is anthropomorphized.

  32. 32.

    Darwin, Zoonomia, vol. 1, 107.

  33. 33.

    Darwin, Economy, Additional Notes 39, 268.

  34. 34.

    Darwin, Temple, 2.302n. The “naturalist” has not been identified.

  35. 35.

    Griffiths, 31.

  36. 36.

    Darwin, Temple, 4.66n; emphasis added.

  37. 37.

    For all his conceptual brilliance and polymathic achievement, Darwin’s contributions to science as such are debatable—he was not a particularly sedulous experimentalist, published few papers in the Philosophical Transactions, appears to have regarded his medical practice as his laboratory and Zoonomia as his magnum opus, and except as an occasional curiosity is cited far less often by historians of science than of literature. His disputation of specific scientific cruxes is all the more worthy of attention for its infrequency.

  38. 38.

    Darwin, Economy, Additional Notes 39, 265.

  39. 39.

    Darwin, Phytologia, 56.

  40. 40.

    Darwin, Economy, Additional Notes 39, 265.

  41. 41.

    John Hunter, “Observations on Bees”, Philosophical Transactions 82 (1792): 156–58.

  42. 42.

    Dahlia Porter makes a strong case for Darwin as an inductivist. One of her chief concerns is the ambivalent relationship, recapitulated in the form of the annotated poem, between empirical science and imaginative literature as inductive strategies. My suspicion is that Darwin’s compositional process, whatever the readerly experience, works at least partly as ex post facto theodicy. Dahlia Porter, Science, Form and the Problem of Induction in British Romanticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), chapter 2.

  43. 43.

    John Evans, The Bees: A Poem (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1806).

  44. 44.

    Evans, 1.279–94.

  45. 45.

    Claire Preston, Bee (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), 86–89.

  46. 46.

    Evans, 1.63.

  47. 47.

    Evans, 1.65.

  48. 48.

    Evans, 1.64.

  49. 49.

    “Whereas P. Ovidius Naso, a great Necromancer in the famous Court of Augustus Cæsar, did by art poetic transmute Men, Women, and even Gods and Goddesses, into Trees and Flowers; I have undertaken by similar art to restore some of them to their original animality, after having remained prisoners so long in their respective vegetable mansions”; Darwin, Loves, 6.

  50. 50.

    Evans, 3.101.

  51. 51.

    Evans, 3.101.

  52. 52.

    François Huber, quoted in Evans, 2.89–90.

  53. 53.

    Evans, 1.77, quoting Pope’s Essay on Man and 1 Kings 4:33 respectively.

  54. 54.

    Evans, 3.103.

  55. 55.

    Evans, 1.78.

  56. 56.

    Evans, 1.78, 3.195–98.

  57. 57.

    Evans, 1.559–90.

  58. 58.

    Griffiths, 255. Griffiths may see the ultimate stakes of his project as historicist; that is, as a rethinking of “priority” itself. As his movement “between the Darwins” suggests, and as his examples of non-hierarchical analogy dramatize, his interest seems to lie with positing a “comparative historicism” that “plays different plots against each other, pluralizing them”; Griffiths, 15. Erasmus Darwin anticipated this perspective but stopped short of adopting it. Even as political and scientific revolutions shook his faith in “an engrained system of transcendent order”, he remained wedded to an “epic of universal development”—a linear narrative arising jointly from a “‘church historicism’, which sifted analogies between biblical prophecy and secular events; a Whig-progressive synthesis that understood the restoration as part of a continuous narrative of constitutional development; and the ‘stadial history’ of the Scottish Enlightenment, which analyzed the universal stages of social and economic development that characterize modern and ancient society”; Griffiths, 23, 73, 12.

  59. 59.

    Catherine Packham, “The Science and Poetry of Animation: Personification, Analogy, and Erasmus Darwin’s Loves of the Plants”, Romanticism 10, no. 2 (2004): 202.

  60. 60.

    Robert Mitchell, Experimental Life: Vitalism in Romantic Science and Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 193.

  61. 61.

    Mitchell, 267n35, 268n46.

  62. 62.

    Mitchell, 267n35, 268n46.

  63. 63.

    Gillian Beer, “Plants, Analogies, and Perfection: Loose and Strict Analogies”, in Marking Time: Romanticism and Evolution, ed. Joel Faflak (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 29.

  64. 64.

    Beer, 37.

  65. 65.

    Beer, 39.

  66. 66.

    Darwin, Economy, 40.

  67. 67.

    Darwin, Loves, 41.

  68. 68.

    Darwin, Zoonomia, vol. 1, 1.

  69. 69.

    Darwin, Zoonomia, vol. 1, 1–2.

  70. 70.

    Darwin, Loves, 62.3.

  71. 71.

    Anna Seward, Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin (London: J. Johnson, 1804), 328.

  72. 72.

    Griffiths, 244.

  73. 73.

    Griffiths, 213.

  74. 74.

    Darwin, Zoonomia, vol. 2, 708, 734.

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Komisaruk, A. (2024). Symbiosis or Slaughterhouse? Honeyed Analogy in Erasmus Darwin. In: Harley, A., Harrington, C. (eds) Bees, Science, and Sex in the Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century. Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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