Tuesday, 22 January 2008

A scientific and literary circle in a cathedral city

Patrick Comerford

IT is 250 years since Dr Erasmus Darwin and his young wife moved into their new home in Beacon Street, backing onto the Cathedral Close in Lichfield in the English Midlands. Polly and Erasmus were married on 30 December 1757, and at the end of 1757 or early in 1758 they moved into their new home, where they had a dramatic view across the Vicars’ Close towards the west front of Lichfield Cathedral.

In the generations that followed, there were many marriages between the Darwin and Wedgwood families, so that the descendants of Erasmus Darwin and his friend Josiah Wedgwood included Charles Darwin (1809-1882), at least ten Fellows of the Royal Society and several politicians, artists and poets, including the composer Vaughan Williams and the former Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn.

Two and half centuries after Erasmus and Polly moved into Darwin House, his memory is overshadowed by his grandson, Charles Darwin. But Erasmus Darwin is worth remembering for his literary and scientific work. And, despite the initially negative reaction from Church leaders to his theories of those of his grandson, he also had interesting connections with church life – and interesting friends among Irish literary figures of the day.

Origins of a theory

Next year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin in 1809. But the “theory of evolution” did not originate with him. The basic principle was already laid out by the ancient Greeks and it was advocated by, among many others, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) who was an eminent scientist himself.

Erasmus Darwin’s coach displayed a coat-of-arms with the motto E Conchis Omnia (Everything from Shells). His neighbour, Canon Thomas Seward (1708-1790), accused Erasmus of “renouncing his creator” and told him to renounce his “foolish motto” or risk the defection of a number of his patients. Eventually, he felt forced to paint over the motto on his carriage.

Erasmus Darwin’s ideas may have inspired the early ideas that helped Charles Darwin articulate his explanation for evolution of living species, with his theories of natural selection and the survival of the fittest in The Origin of Species (1859). This simple scientific explanation has been the focus of more than its share of religious outcry in many parts of the world. But the ideas can be traced back to his grandfather.

Erasmus was one of the leading intellectuals of 18th century England, a man with a remarkable array of interests and pursuits. He was a medical practitioner, a natural philosopher, a physiologist, an inventor, a poet, a botanist, and a naturalist. As a naturalist, he formulated one of the first formal theories on evolution in his most important scientific work, Zoönomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life (1794-1796), which includes a treatise on “generation.”

Erasmus wrestled with the question of how one species could evolve into another, and debated how competition and sexual selection could cause changes in species. He arrived at his conclusions through an “integrative” approach: he used his observations of domesticated animals, the behaviour of wildlife, and he integrated his vast knowledge of many different fields, such as palaeontology, biogeography, systematics, embryology, and comparative anatomy.

Erasmus also presented his evolutionary ideas in verse, in particular in the posthumously published poem The Temple of Nature (1802), in which he put forward his ideas in poetic style:

Organic life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.


Inspiring inventor

Darwin formed the Lichfield Botanical Society to translate the works of the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus from Latin into English, and coined many of the English names of plants we use today. He experimented with the use of air and gases to alleviate infections and cancers in patients, he conducted research into the formation of clouds, and his experiments in galvanism were an important source of inspiration for Mary Shelley when she wrote Frankenstein.

Darwin was the inventor of several devices, although he did not patent any of them, believing this would damage his reputation as a doctor. His inventions included a horizontal windmill, which he designed for Josiah Wedgwood, a carriage that would not tip over, a speaking machine, a canal lift for barges, a minute artificial bird, a copying machine, a variety of weather monitoring machines, and an artesian well.

Erasmus was also a leading figure in the intellectual community that contributed to the emergence of the industrial era. He was one of the founder members of the Lunar Society, a gathering of industrialists and philosophers who met in Birmingham and occasionally in Darwin House, Lichfield. Members of the Lunar Society included Matthew Boulton, John Whitehurst the pioneer of geology, Josiah Wedgwood the potter, Richard Lovell Edgeworth the Irish inventor, James Watt the inventor of the steam engine, James Keir the pioneer of the chemical industry, Thomas Day the author, and Joseph Priestly the experimental chemist.

The Lunar Society was an intellectual driving force behind the Industrial Revolution in England. Many of its members also opposed slavery, and Erasmus Darwin attacked the slave trade in The Botanic Garden (1789 - 1791), The Loves of Plants (1789) and The Economy of Vegetation (1791). Darwin had a life-long friendship with Benjamin Franklin, sharing his support for the American and French revolutions. When King George III invited Darwin to be his Royal Physician, Darwin declined.

Although his poetry was admired by Coleridge, Wordsworth and Walpole, Erasmus Darwin is largely forgotten today as a poet. Visiting the botanical garden behind Darwin House, looking onto Vicar’s Close and the east end of the cathedral, it is easy to understand the inspiration for The Botanic Garden, his most famous work of poetry, and why his poetry often made reference to his interests in science, including botany and steam engines.

Darwin died suddenly on 18 April 1802, and is buried in All Saints’ Church, Breadsall, near Derby. In the debates about evolution and theology, his family connections with Church life are often ignored. His brother, the Revd John Darwin (1730-1805), was Rector of Elston, while Polly Darwin’s father was a cathedral canon in Lichfield.

‘The Swan of Lichfield’

Darwin spent the best part of 25 years in Lichfield. Life in the cathedral close in Lichfield during those years was one of intellectual ferment and creativity. Among the most celebrated residents of the close was the poet Anna Seward (1747-1809), who was known as “the Swan of Lichfield,” and was the daughter of Canon Thomas Seward, who had publicly reprimanded Erasmus Darwin for the motto on his coach.

Lichfield was also the home of the essayist Joseph Addison, whose father was Dean of Lichfield, and the birthplace of the lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) – known as “Doctor Johnston” because of the honorary degree he received from Trinity College Dublin. It was the home too of the Shakespearean actor David Garrick (1717-1779), and the cathedral city was regularly visited by Johnson’s travelling companion and biographer, the diarist James Boswell (1740-1795).

Boswell wrote glowingly of Lichfield in his biography of Johnson: “I felt all my old Toryism glowing in this old capital of Staffordshire. I could have offered incense to the genius of the place.” Anna Seward proudly boasted that 18th century Lichfield was “a little Athens.”

Anna Seward lived in the Bishop’s Palace, built at the end of the 17th century for the Bishops of Lichfield, and her reputation as a poet earned her the sobriquet of the “Swan of Lichfield.” She was a friend and correspondent of the Ladies of Llangollen, Lady Eleanor Butler from Kilkenny Castle and Sarah Ponsonby from Woodstock, who shocked their families in Co Kilkenny when they fled Ireland in 1778 and set up home in Wales. In one of her letters to Eleanor and Sarah in Plas Newydd, Anna described the view from the Cathedral Close across Stowe Pool to Stowe House, which was the home for some years of the Edgeworth family.

Irish inventor and writer

Other contemporaries of Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward in the literary and intellectual life in the cathedral city included Thomas Day (1748-1789), author of The History of Sandford and Merton, Honora Sneyd, who first described the three spires of Lichfield Cathedral as the “Ladies of the Valley,” and Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817).

Edgeworth came to Lichfield after his days at Trinity College Dublin and at Oxford without receiving a degree from either institution, and like Erasmus Darwin he dabbled in scientific inventions and was a member of the Lunar Society. To Anna Seward, he was “gracefully spirited and his conversation excellent.” He formed a close friendship with Thomas Day, and the two visited Rousseau in France with Edgeworth’s son Dick.

In July 1773, the widowed Richard Edgeworth married Honora Sneyd, Anna Seward’s cousin and adopted sister, in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral. Honora and Richard lived for a short time in Edgeworthstown, Co Longford, but they returned to England and when she died of consumption in 1780 Richard married Honora’s sister Elizabeth.

Richard returned once again to Edgeworthstown and his estates in Co Longford in 1782 with his young daughter, Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849), who acted as his chief assistant and secretary in the management of her father’s estates in Co Longford. Back in Ireland he continued in the scientific and literary pursuits he had shared with Erasmus Darwin in Lichfield, inventing a turnip cutter, an umbrella for covering haystacks and an early version of semaphore, and writing books on education, as well as looking after his 22 children from four marriages.

Maria Edgeworth has often been described as the “Irish Jane Austen” or the “female Walter Scott” – although she actually influenced both writers. Her first publication was Letters for Literary Ladies (1795), a plea for the reform of women’s education. Her first novel, Castle Rackrent (1800), was an immediate success. In 1825, Sir Walter Scott visited her at Edgeworthstown and they toured the Goldsmith country.

Maria Edgeworth may have been too young to remember her days in Lichfield, and the cultural and intellectual life that revolved around her father, her step-mother, Anna Seward, and the Darwin family. But when Lichfield celebrates the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin next year and the tercentenary of Samuel Johnson, who was born there in 1709, it may be worth remembering the Irish friends and the great intellects that lived in the cathedral city two and a half centuries ago, for they brought together the arts and the sciences, wisdom and vision, poetry and invention, intellectual pursuit and theological questioning.

On Thursday 14 February 2008, Choral Evensong at 6 p.m. in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, is sung by Lichfield Cathedral Girls’ Choir, with Preces and responses (Brown), Evening Service in C minor (Dyson), and Let all the world (Lang). For Christ Church Cathedral Dublin, see: http://cccdub.ie/index.html. For details of Lichfield Cathedral Girls’ Choir, see: http://www.lichfieldgirlschoir.co.uk/.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) in January 2008. The photograph shows the view of the Vicars’ Close and Lichfield Cathedral from Erasmus Darwin House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford).

© Patrick Comerford, 2008