About Darwin

by Edwin Watts Chubb

When a prominent literary journal at the close of the last century asked a number of distinguished Americans and Englishmen to name the ten most influential books of the century, it was interesting to note that Darwin's Origin of Species received more frequent mention than any other book. Five years after Charles Darwin had been buried (he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey in 1882), his son published the Life and Letters of Darwin, which included an autobiographical chapter. From this work we can gather enough to show some aspects of this remarkable man.

Men of genius are often in childhood very imaginative. It is sometimes pretty difficult to distinguish between playful imagination and lying. Let us give Darwin the benefit of the doubt in this instance:

"One little event during this year (1817) has fixed itself very firmly in my mind, and I hope that it has done so from my conscience having been afterwards sorely troubled by it; it is curious as showing that apparently I was interested at this early age in the variability of plants! I told another little boy (I believe it was Leighton, who afterwards became a well-known lichenologist and botanist), that I could produce variously colored polyanthuses and primroses by watering them with certain colored fluids, which was of course a monstrous fable, and had never been tried by me."

Darwin's school experiences were not always profitable. He says:

"I had many friends, and got together a good collection of old verses, which by patching together, sometimes aided by other boys, I could work into any subject. Much attention was paid to learning by heart the lessons of the previous day. This I could effect with great facility, learning forty or fifty lines of Virgil or Homer whilst I was in morning chapel. But this exercise was utterly useless, for every verse was forgotten in forty-eight hours. I was not idle, and with the exception of versification, generally worked conscientiously at my classics, not using cribs. The sole pleasure I ever received from such studies, was from some of the odes of Horace, which I admired greatly."

Of his years at Cambridge he writes:

"During the three years which I spent at Cambridge my time was wasted, as far as the academical studies were concerned, as completely as at Edinburgh and at school. I attempted mathematics, and even went, during the summer of 1828, with a private tutor (a very dull man) to Barmouth, but I got on very slowly. The work was repugnant to me chiefly from my not being able to see any meaning in the very early steps in algebra. This impatience was very foolish, and in after years I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense.... In order to pass the B.A. examination, it was also necessary to get up Paley's Evidences of Christianity, and his Moral Philosophy. This was done in a thorough manner, and I am convinced that I could have written out the whole of the Evidences with perfect correctness, but not of course in the clear language of Paley. The logic of this book and, as I may add, of his Natural Theology, gave me as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the academical course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind. I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley's premises, and taking these on trust I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation."

One of the great opportunities of Darwin's life came to him when, some time after he had finished his course at Cambridge, he was offered a place as naturalist on the Beagle, a ship sent by the English government on a survey. At first Darwin thought he could not go because his father was opposed to the plan. Finally the father said he would consent if any man of common sense should advise his son to go. This common sense man "was found in the person of his uncle, a Josiah Wedgwood, who advised the father to permit his son to go. The voyage has been described by Darwin, and thousands have been interested and profited by the reading. Some of the letters that he wrote to his friends during his trip are also very interesting. Here is one he sent to his cousin, Fox:

"My mind has been, since leaving England, in a perfect hurricane of delight and astonishment, and to this hour scarcely a minute has passed in idleness.... Geology carries the day; it is like the pleasure of gambling. Speculating, on first arrival, what the rocks may be, I often mentally cry out, three to one tertiary against primitive; but the latter has hitherto won all the bets.... My life, when at sea, is so quiet, that to a person who can employ himself, nothing can be pleasanter; the beauty of the sky and brilliancy of the ocean together make a picture. But when on shore, and wandering in the sublime forests, surrounded by views more gorgeous than Claude ever imagined, I enjoy a delight which none but those who have experienced it can understand. If it is to be done, it must be by studying Humboldt. At our ancient snug breakfasts, at Cambridge, I little thought that the wide Atlantic would ever separate us; but it is a rare privilege that with the body, the feelings and memory are not divided. On the contrary, the pleasantest scenes of my life, many of which have been at Cambridge, rise from the contrast of the present the more vividly in my imagination."

From Valparaiso, after he had been two years on the voyage, he writes to a friend:

"That this voyage must come to a conclusion my reason tells me, otherwise I see no end to it. It is impossible not bitterly to regret the friends and other sources of pleasure one leaves behind in England; in place of it there is much solid enjoyment, some present, but more in anticipation, when the ideas gained during the voyage can be compared with fresh ones. I find in Geology a never-failing interest, as it has been remarked, it creates the same grand ideas respecting the world which astronomy does for the universe. We have seen much fine scenery; that of the tropics in its glory and luxuriance exceeds even the language of Humboldt to describe. A Persian writer could alone do justice to it, and if he succeeded he would in England be called the 'Grandfather of all liars.'"

No one can read the life of Darwin without feeling great respect for his perseverance. His faithful devotion to his work can teach us all a useful lesson. Says his son:

"No one except my mother, knows the full amount of suffering he endured, or the full amount of his wonderful patience. For all the latter years of his life she never left him for a night, and her days were so planned that all his resting hours might be shared with her. She shielded him from every possible annoyance, and omitted nothing that might save him trouble, or prevent his becoming overtired, or that might alleviate the many discomforts of his ill-health. I hesitate to speak thus freely of a thing so sacred as the life-long devotion which prompted this constant and tender care. But it is, I repeat, a principal feature of his life, that for nearly forty years he never knew one day of the health of ordinary men, and that thus his life was one long struggle against the weariness and strain of sickness. And this cannot be told without speaking of the one condition which enabled him to bear the strain and fight out the struggle to the end."

That Darwin himself appreciated the goodness of his wife can be seen from the following tribute which has appeared in More Letters of Charles Darwin. It does not appear in the Autobiography because Mrs. Darwin was living at the time of its publication. Where in all literature can a more tender and beautiful appreciation be found?—

"You all know your mother, and what a good mother she has been to all of you. She has been my greatest blessing, and I can declare that in my whole life I have never heard her utter one word I would rather have been unsaid. She has never failed in kindest sympathy towards me, and has borne with the utmost patience my frequent complaints of ill-health and discomfort. I do not believe she has ever missed an opportunity of doing a kind action to any one near her. I marvel at my good fortune that she, so infinitely my superior in every single moral quality, consented to be my wife. She has been my wise adviser and cheerful comforter throughout life, which without her would have been during a very long period a miserable one from ill-health. She has earned the love of every soul near her."