Stillness and Desolation: Darwin’s Literary Value

Although at times dry and dull, Darwin’s writings also employ a language that is complexly beautiful in both the style and imagery it uses. In St. Cruz, he follows an almost existential slant as he observes the guanaco, a form of camelid, from a chalky plain, describing the guanaco upon “the hilltop [as] a watchful sentinel over its herd”. The personification and literal elevation of the creature evokes a sense of nobility, which Darwin seems to react to with a quiet dread, stating that “all was stillness and desolation”. Cynically, he remarks “one reflected how many ages the plain had lasted, and how many more it was doomed thus to continue.” A couple sentences later however, he returns to the detached narrative of action and observation, abandoning this icy precision for scientific statements and a more banal form of prose.

Earlier, a similar moment of linguistic beauty is shattered by the return to the scientific register, as Darwin describes the phenomenon of oceanic phosphorescence.

The sea presented a wonderful and most beautiful spectacle. There was a fresh breeze, and every part of the surface, which during the day is seen as foam, now glowed with pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, and in her wake she was followed by a milky train. As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright, and the sky above the horizon, from the reflected glare of these livid flames, was not so utterly obscure, as over the rest of the heavens.

The spectacle presented by the lovely, bridal metaphor of a “milky train”, the “billow[ing]” of the waves, and the violent image of “the reflected glare of these livid flames”, evokes the Romantic sublime – a paralyzing sense of wonderment at the beauty, and the greatness, of nature. However, Darwin is not paralyzed, and this moment of loveliness is supplanted almost immediately by speculation on the phosphorescence’s cause; electricity, minute organisms of the ocean or otherwise larger, and deeper swimming creatures.

Ironically, later on in Origin of Species, he argues “Natural Selection … is a power incessantly ready for action, and is immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.” Yet throughout the text, he makes use of this flawed art, utilising the metaphor of war and the lexicon of battle – animal’s adaptations for sexual selection are compared to “shield”, “sword”, “weapon” and “spear”. The Struggle for Existence is framed within a narrative of war, with the brutal word “destruction” continually used to express to the reader the vitality of the process of evolution, and the consequences it has for those who can’t adapt. Darwin’s emotive connection with nature and the importance its development, however slowly spread across time it is, is expressed through such emotive language. Although unaware of his own linguistic value, Darwin’s writing nonetheless contains a number of poetic qualities that are well worth analysing.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply