1792 witnessed the publication of the complete version of Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden, a lengthy nature poem that surveyed the state of science in its day. The Botanic Garden proved immensely popular on its publication but later fell out of favor as the Anti-Jacobin took aim at its liberal politics. This paper focuses on one of the most notorious sections of the poem, in which Darwin describes his plan to change the world’s climate via iceberg destruction. The argument traces the reception of Darwin’s climate imagery from its initial reception through its redeployment in the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although The Botanic Garden and its plan for climate intervention might be framed in terms of what philosophers call the “negative event”—an event that fails to happen—Darwin was essentially correct in his assertion that the technologies of the industrial revolution could be used to change the climate of the globe.
Of all the Romantic-era bestsellers, Erasmus Darwin’s scientific nature poem, The Botanic Garden (1791) was perhaps the most unexpected. The “idea of making a serious poem out of the Linnaean system of botany” (Craik 40) may strike readers as unusual even today. To the Victorian critic George Lillie Craik it was “an absurdity which would have been incredible if the thing had not been actually attempted” (40). Craik’s outrage over The Botanic Garden’s “absurdity” was compounded by the poem’s critical and commercial success. As Alan Bewell has observed, far from disappearing into obscurity on its publication, The Botanic Garden had instead proved “the most popular and the most controversial nature poem of the 1790s” (19), eclipsing the works of Wordsworth and Coleridge, to the latter poet’s eternal disgust. Review after review sang its praises, and the poem itself ran through multiple editions. However, despite the cultural stature enjoyed by The Botanic Garden on its publication, its fall from literary grace was relatively swift. For much of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, if literary critics mentioned The Botanic Garden at all, they presented it as a poem best forgotten.
In literary history, it is possible to construct Darwin’s publication of The Botanic Garden as an event-that-wasn’t. It stands as a famous 1790s poem that inverts our traditional characterization of Romantic poetry; instead of retreating from industrial transformation into an eternal nature, The Botanic Garden places devices such as the steam engine at the center of its vision of the natural world. Clearly, The Botanic Garden did not become the iconic poem of Romanticism, and it is therefore tempting to agree (in spirit if not in fact) with the Victorian critics who framed the poem’s publication as a non-event: a literary intervention that left no mark on the world. But to read their ridicule of Darwin’s vision of humans using geothermal energy, or Craik’s scoffing at the proto-modernist notion that “poetical power or skill. . . could give any grandeur or solemnity to. . . a wheelbarrow” (36), is also to experience the eerie sensation that Darwin’s poetry was in dialogue with a world his critics could not yet see.
Indeed, one of the elements of Darwin’s poem that attracted ridicule—his vision of European governments banding together to combat climate change—has become, in our own moment of environmental crisis, freshly relevant. As Clive Hamilton recently observed, the coinage of the term “Anthropocene” to describe our current geological age has generated fresh interest in the works of eighteenth-century naturalists like Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who described the natural history of the Earth culminating in a final Epoch “Lorsque la puissance de l’Homme a secondé celle de la Nature” (“When the power of Man assisted the operations of Nature”) (Buffon 205; Smellie 306). While not identical to the Anthropocene, Buffon’s “Epoch of Man” represents an early articulation of the “concept of a geological period defined by human agency” (Heringman 63)—agency that Buffon described largely in terms of climate modification. According to Buffon, the Earth was slowly but steadily cooling, and in about ninety-three thousand years would be too cold to support life. Bleak though this eventual prospect might be, Buffon believed that, by improving their local landscapes through forest-clearing and marsh-draining, humans could not only stave off cooling but could essentially fix the planet’s surface “temperature at any point”—arguably, notes Heringman, a “form of geoengineering” (68). Darwin was in dialogue with Buffon’s ideas and, in The Botanic Garden as elsewhere in his writing, he displays a similar confidence in humanity’s ability to aid the operations of nature. However, Darwin took this faith to an unusual extreme in The Botanic Garden, proposing that European nations stage an international intervention in a contemporary climate crisis. Darwin’s poetic call to change the world’s climate might also be portrayed as what philosophers term a “negative event”—an occurrence that did not, or failed to, happen. For, both as an ecological call to action and as a model for Romantic poetry, Darwin’s Botanic Garden seemed in the eyes of its harshest critics to promise futures that never occurred.
To Hail the Floating Frost
Allegedly, Darwin first conceived the idea for a poem illustrating the Linnaean system of botany in 1779, on a walk with the well-known poet Anna Seward. Declaring that the “Linnean [sic] System is unexplored poetic ground,” he urged her to write a poem that personified plants as men and women, to which he would supply scientific notes. When Seward observed that the sex lives of plants was a topic “not strictly proper for a female pen” (Seward 131), the doctor decided to take up the project himself. Fearing professional backlash, Darwin published The Loves of the Plants anonymously in 1789, noting that his rhyming description of cavorting plants was but a section of a longer, unpublished poem. To even Darwin’s surprise, his interdisciplinary attempt to “enlist Imagination under the banner of science” (Loves ix) proved an immediate bestseller, going through four English editions and two Dublin printings by 1799.
Encouraged, Darwin published the complete version of The Botanic Garden in 1792, this time including a rhyming overview of the state of natural and physical science in The Economy of Vegetation. In repeated, flourishing addresses to symbolic creatures such as the “Nymphs of Fire,” the Goddess of Botany lays out Darwin’s vision of the natural world, declaiming at length on subjects ranging from Kew Gardens to electric eels. Lengthy footnotes and endnotes support Darwin’s poetic assertions with references to personal observation, newspaper articles, narratives of exploration, and scientific papers published by international figures such as Jean-André de Luc and Benjamin Franklin. Originally advertised as a description of “the operation of the Elements, as far as they may be supposed to affect the growth of Vegetables” (Loves ix), Economy, like Loves before it, touches on subjects far outside its stated purview. In verse and in footnotes, the complete Botanic Garden not only describes the scientific triumphs of the industrial revolution, but also predicts the rise of steam-driven cars, advocates the abolition of slavery, praises the American and French Revolutions, and otherwise presents humanity’s social and technological progress as intertwined with the investigation and improvement of nature.
Darwin’s stanza describing the steam engine is characteristic of the poem’s bombastic style. Ever eager to promote scientific men as heroes, Darwin begins with a tribute to Thomas Savery, the engineer who patented the first steam engine in England:
NYMPHS! You erewhile on simmering cauldrons play’d,
And call’d delighted SAVERY to your aid;
Bade round the youth explosive STEAM aspire
In gathering clouds, and wing’d the wave with fire. (253-56)
From here, Darwin elaborates the mechanics of the steam engine (then primarily employed to pump water out of mines). His attention to the motion of the machine’s composite parts is paired with what, to some readers, is a jarring appeal to the mythological and sublime, as he likens the engine to a giant extracting resources from the depths of the Earth:
Quick moves the balanced beam, of giant-birth,
Wields his large limbs, and nodding shakes the earth.
The Giant-Power from earth’s remotest caves
Lifts with strong arm her dark reluctant waves;
Each cavern’d rock, and hidden den explores,
Drags her dark coals, and digs her shining ores. (261-66)
Nor are Darwin’s visions of technological sublimity confined to the present moment. Soon, he promises, “UNCONQUER’D STEAM” will “on wide-waving wings expanded bear / The flying-chariot through streams of air” (289, 291-2). While Darwin elsewhere attributes sublime characteristics to more typical Romantic subjects, such as glaciers and volcanoes, at moments such as these, he grants human inventions—and by extension, humans themselves—a similarly sublime power to shape the world in which they dwell.
The vision of nature unfolded in The Botanic Garden is thus a technological one, and one that includes rather than excludes human environmental agency. It is also one that, as the poem’s title might suggest, was tied to the growing scientific reach of the British Empire. Insofar as he was invested in synthesizing information from around the world, Darwin viewed nature similarly to Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society who had helped shape the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Banks served as the unofficial patron of the natural sciences in Britain, using his vast correspondence networks to gather information from all over the globe with an eye towards resources that could enhance British industry and agriculture. Darwin had borrowed books from Banks in composing his translations of Linnaeus and, during the 1780s, had sought Banks’s feedback on his efforts at “propagating the knowledge of Botany” (Darwin “To Joseph Banks” 186). The Botanic Garden reflects the ideology of the scientific networks from which it emerged, gathering in information from all parts of the globe and inviting readers to contemplate how scientific curiosities might be best turned to national advantage. Darwin’s Botanic Garden presents a vision of nature as a mysterious but knowable system, a system which, once understood, can be manipulated, perhaps even controlled, by human beings capable of leveraging the networks, organizations, and discoveries associated with imperial expansion.
One of Darwin’s most dramatic forays into human ecological agency occurs in stanza XI of The Economy of Vegetation. Darwin’s verse describes the Goddess of Botany commanding her nymphs to “expand a thousand sails” on “ice-built isles” (527) into tropical seas. As the icebergs melt, they “cool. . . the tropic year” (542). Newly generated clouds “sail in squadrons o’er the darken’d heaven,” prompting “swarthy nations” to gratefully “hail the floating frost” that has cooled their climate (544, 539, 540). A lengthy footnote clarifies the poem’s imagery. Drawing on the popular theory that the severity of European winters was determined by winds blowing down from the North Pole, Darwin explains that his fellow Britons are facing a climate change crisis. The expansion of arctic icepacks and glaciers reported in recent “accounts of travellers and navigators” (60) are creating increasingly cooler temperatures in Britain and Europe, demanding, Darwin argues, a proactive response from European governments.
Darwin, it should be noted, was not wrong in his weather observations; at this time, Europe was still in the grip of what climate historians refer to as the “Little Ice Age,” a period of low temperatures now thought to have been reversed by the Industrial Revolution’s instigation of global warming. Nor was he the only eighteenth-century observer to believe a climate crisis was underway. William Small, a fellow member of the Lunar Society, had expressed his concern about the increase in “the frozen space of the Globe” in a letter written to James Watt in 1773, and had ventured the notion that Europeans might yet combat its spread by using “gunpowder” to break up polar ice (qtd. in Muirhead 212). Predisposed by their reading of Buffon and his followers to believe that a cooling climate could be arrested by human action, Small and Darwin both believed that more than forest-clearing was needed to reduce the baleful influence of polar ice on the northern hemisphere.
In Economy, Darwin proposes that, rather than watch their agriculturally based societies freeze, European nations instead send their navies to drag icebergs into tropical waters. “If the nations who inhabit this hemisphere of the globe, instead of destroying their sea-men and exhausting their wealth in unnecessary wars, . . . navigate [icebergs] into the more southern oceans,” then, Darwin declares, “two great advantages would result to mankind, the tropic countries would be much cooled by their solution, and our winters in this latitude would be rendered much milder for perhaps a century or two” (60). Whereas the plan Small articulated in his 1773 letter focused only on the destruction of polar ice, Darwin goes a step further in envisioning how his plan might also be used to improve the climates of the tropics. Darwin’s plan calls for a kind of cosmopolitan utopianism, one in which nations abandon war and unite to combat an environmental catastrophe. However, the cosmopolitan society that Darwin anticipates is one in which only European powers are imagined as having the wherewithal to change the planet’s climate, and the power of imperial science is imagined as producing the subservient adulation of “swarthy nations.”
Darwin’s iceberg plan represents what, in twentieth-century politics, would come to be called a climate engineering or “geoengineering” scheme: a plan that calls for a “deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system” (qtd. in Burns and Strauss 85) in order to counteract climate change. While the polar-induced climate change that Darwin fears in 1792 is different from that which dominates newspaper headlines in 2016, Darwin is nevertheless making a set of assumptions that anticipate twenty-first century climate change discussions. Like twenty-first century meteorologists, Darwin sees weather as part of a supranational system. The trajectory of climate change can be predicted and (he hopes) altered by human action. Finally, although Darwin himself does not explore the ethics of his proposal outside of seeing it as a positive alternative to burgeoning military budgets, his unquestioning acceptance of European nations’ right to unilaterally alter the climate of “swarthy nations” demonstrates the kinds of thinking challenged in climate change critiques mounted by and regarding the Global South.
The System of Nature Perverted
Reaction to the complete version of The Botanic Garden was initially quite positive. Reviewers who had embraced The Loves of the Plants praised the “poetical elegance” of The Economy of Vegetation and hailed Darwin’s project of “explaining, in the language of poetry, the various changes and combinations of matter” (“ART. I” 161). While Darwin’s ice-island scheme was not singled out by critics, many, like the reviewer for the Monthly Review, alluded to Darwin’s praiseworthy tendency to not only report his scientific observations but to draw “from them consequences and conjectures, which merit the serious consideration of the philosophic reader” (“ART. XIII” 186). Occasional notes of doubt were also sounded; The Critical Review’s praise for Darwin’s “excellent” description of the steam engine has an air of reservation about it when the reviewer remarks that “it would have appeared almost an impossibility to adorn a subject seemingly so barren” (“The Botanic Garden” 164). And the English Review responds directly to off-stage complaints that better poems were being ignored for the sake of Darwin’s odd creation by noting that it was, after all, a philosophical poem, and “the present is a philosophical age” (“ART. XXXIV” 271).
The sentiments of this philosophical age took a turn in the later 1790s, as the conservative backlash against Jacobinism began to find Darwin’s socially and scientifically liberal views suspicious. Had “not the author belonged to that school of English politicians who sympathized with the French revolution,” observed one critic in 1880, Darwin’s literary reputation might have remained intact. But given that the much-praised Botanic Garden committed such sins as “eulogizing Franklin, sneering at kings and praising the ‘new morality’” (“Erasmus Darwin” 318), Darwin’s poetic flights needed to be brought to Earth.
The conservative Anti-Jacobin led the charge. Recognizing the propagandistic utility of Darwin’s plan to change the climate, it associated geoengineering with the social engineering schemes of Jacobinism, turning Darwin’s “celebrated experiment of the Ice-island” (“No. XXXIII” 212) into an exemplar of the outlandish excesses of all radicals. In one 1798 satire, Darwin is depicted as leading Britons such as “GODWIN” and “BEDDOES” (“No. XXXIII” 211) in deploying icebergs against Napoleon. The naïve radicals believe that Darwin’s icebergs, once “towed on the coasts of Africa. . . [will spoil] the climate, and immediately terrify[y] and embarras[s] the sailors of Buonaparte’s fleet” (211-12). The satire positions Darwin’s dream of European nations united against nature as a fantasy that, like his compatriots’ dreams of social reform, ignores the brutal realities of the age of “Buonaparte” (212). Quoting extensively from The Botanic Garden in order to damn Darwin with his own words, the satire reframes the poem as an exercise in literary and political foolishness. With pieces such as this one and the yet-more-notorious “Loves of the Triangles” (a satire of “Loves of the Plants” featuring oversexed geometry), the Anti-Jacobin successfully knocked The Botanic Garden off its literary pedestal and began the tarnishing of its reputation.
By the time Darwin died in 1802, criticism of his ideas had become more widespread, and The Botanic Garden’s reputation had declined along with that of its author’s. Reviewers acknowledged that few writers had so “universally or more deservedly excited the public attention” (“Art. L” 437) with their poetry, but even those who were sympathetic to Darwin’s verse admitted that it, like the French Revolution, had failed to deliver on its early utopian promise. Reviewers characterized Darwin as a genius distracted by speculative schemes, a scientist whose capacity for real “discoveries and improvements” had been fatally undermined by his commitment to disseminating “curious, but too frequently groundless hypotheses” (“Art. L” 449). It is roughly at this point that we might characterize the framing of The Botanic Garden’s publication as a “negative event,” as reviewers described his writing as having augured innovations in poetry and science that had then failed to occur.
One of the most famous negative events associated with the Botanic Garden—Darwin’s climate change scheme—lingered in the popular imagination as a telling example of his investment in the speculative. In vain, Darwin supporters like Anna Seward struggled to rehabilitate The Botanic Garden’s arctic stanzas, arguing that only readers overwhelmed by “prejudice” or lacking “taste for the higher orders of poetry” (Seward 204) could find Darwin’s visions of ice circulation wanting. For many British readers, however, The Botanic Garden’s geo-engineering scheme was remembered as embarrassing proof, as Benjamin Silliman wrote, that no “project or hypothesis has been too ridiculous to be proposed and defended by philosophy or to be embellished by poetry and fiction” (23).
And yet Darwin’s iceberg scheme would not die. Whenever another geo-engineering project made an appearance—such as John Williams’s 1806 scheme to electrify the atmosphere of Britain—critics were swift to position it as yet another tribute to that “high priest of absurdity and impiety, Dr. Darwin” (“Climate of Great Britain” 346). Nor were all such associations critical. At times of severe weather disturbance, as during the notorious crisis of 1816’s “year without a summer” (see Gillen D’Arcy Wood, “1816, The Year without a Summer”), Darwin’s icebergs once again surfaced in British newspapers and periodicals. Reflecting on the very real dangers of the climate change attributed to the growth of polar ice, one 1817 Morning Chronicle article proposed that the time had come to implement Darwin’s iceberg scheme. Observing that enough data had been collected to “verify the theory of those observers of nature, who have said that the extreme cold of the north is gradually making encroachments upon the extreme heat of the south,” the author argues that the “growing evil” (“Climate” 4) of climate change should be counteracted by dispatching ships to the arctic to destroy icebergs. The article concludes by quoting from The Botanic Garden, noting that even those who find climate change “dull and uninteresting” (4) may yet be moved to action by poetry. While no Britons took up The Morning Chronicle’s call for an iceberg intervention, the article itself had a long afterlife; the radical publisher William Hone included a slightly revised version of it in his immensely popular Every-day Book (1825-26), in which form it was republished well into the late 1880s. Articles such as this one may have done little to change the climate, but in arguing for the power of poetry to motivate readers to grand environmental action, they helped strengthen a perceived connection between poetry and climate-modification schemes.
Indeed, in some nineteenth-century commentary on Darwin, poetry and geoengineering are virtually conflated. In 1827, William Wadd characterized Darwin as “a poetical man of science,” adding that this title “will readily be granted him, when we enumerate a few of his plans, by which. . . he was to controul the winds, and manage the seasons” (292). In Wadd’s view, it is not Darwin’s poetry-writing that associates him with “poets or poetry” (OED), but his ambitions of “altering the climate” (292). After reviewing some of Darwin’s other plans to harness the power of planetary systems—including Darwin’s speculations regarding the utility of geothermal energy—Wadd concludes by condemning such versified visions of “the system of nature perverted and distorted, to support. . . artificial systems” (293). Ostensibly aimed at Darwin’s geoengineering plans, Wadd’s characterization of Darwin’s poetical perversions sounds a familiar note with the Anti-Jacobin: the outrageous specter of climate manipulation becomes a useful vector by which to condemn the revolutionary who uses a distorted understanding of (human) nature to justify the installing of an artificially created (social) system. While conservative writers like William Wadd considered such improvement schemes ridiculous, if not dangerous, the early decades of the nineteenth century also bore witness to the regrets of writers such as Robert Southey, who came to look back with nostalgia on Darwin’s poetical “ice island. . . and the dreams of what might be effected if mankind were employed in attempts to diminish the physical evils of the world” (70).
The Afterlife of Icebergs
Of subsequent writers who believed that Darwin’s revolutionary icebergs still held potential, Percy Bysshe Shelley is perhaps the best known. Shelley was an admirer of the politics and interdisciplinary ambitions of Darwin’s poetry, and, particularly in his early years, its characteristic form. In Queen Mab (1813), Shelley embarked on a Darwin-inspired “philosophical poem” that outlines his own vision of humanity’s capacity for improvement. As Carl Grabo and Desmond King-Hele have argued, Queen Mab shares many of The Botanic Garden’s characteristically Darwinian features, including a goddess-expositor, lengthy discursive footnotes, and a belief in the human race’s ability to transform climate (Grabo 30-60, King-Hele 303-6). The poem also, as Eric Gidal observes, expresses a “faith in science to alter the inhospitable climates of the globe, to make the deserts green and the arctic regions melt,” a belief that, as Gidal observes, “emerges out of a broader faith in the human imagination to transform the very conditions of its own emergence” (76-77). Like Darwin, Shelley sees the human race as functioning as an engine of natural as well as social transformation, and looks forward to a future epoch in which “man, with changeless Nature coalescing / Will undertake regeneration’s work” (Queen Mab 6.39-40). Queen Mab prophesizes that as the human race achieves new levels of enlightenment, the “ungenial poles” (6.44) will melt and every patch of ground will be improved so that it becomes a “pure dwelling-place” (6.40). Unlike Darwin, however, Shelley attributes climate change to indirect rather than direct human action; it is the alteration of axis of the Earth—which Shelley presents as sympathetically tied to the progress of the human race—that will bring about the destruction of polar ice.
Throughout his brief career, Shelley would continue to return to the themes and imagery of Darwinian scientific poetry. As the fears generated by the “year without a summer” waned, Shelley would celebrate the “effect of the vigorous awakening of spring in that divinest climate [of Rome]” with a lyrical drama that expressed his renewed confidence in his passion “for reforming the world” (Shelley Prometheus Unbound 207, 232). As in Queen Mab, Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820) identifies oppressive tyranny with “snow” (3.12) and with the dangerous “crawling glaciers” (1.312) that, in Shelley’s day as in Darwin’s, were believed by many Britons to signify the apocalyptic, climate-threatening growth of polar ice. However, as in Queen Mab, Shelley looks forward in Prometheus Unbound to a utopian moment in which harmony is restored to the universe. Following Prometheus’s liberation, the climate of not only the Earth but also the Moon improves: ice melts, and the Moon orbits the Earth as though attracted by the magnetic “polar Paradise. . . of lover’s eyes” (4.465). The moon reference invokes not only magnetism, but also the genial poles of Queen Mab, liberated from ice by the spiritual as well as geological improvement of the planet.
It is from Shelley’s poetry, rather than from the original Botanic Garden, that many Victorian writers would take their “poetical” images of climate change: weather alterations caused by human action, but through indirect rather than direct mechanisms. In his “Remarks on the Present State of Meteorological Science” (1839), John Ruskin quotes from Prometheus Unbound in envisioning scientists’ ability to survey and manipulate planetary weather systems. It is possible, in reading Ruskin’s remarks on the importance of pursuing “beauty” as well as “utility” in science, and his utopian vision of Victorian scientists one day becoming “omnipotent over the globe” (59), to trace the genealogical line of Ruskin’s weather conceptions back to Darwin’s interdisciplinary visions of the human species’ capacity to intervene in nature. Even later in life, when despairing over atmospheric pollution and climate change in The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, Ruskin was always ready to aver that “Whether you can affect the signs of the sky or not, you can the signs of the times” (63). Weather could yet unite large human communities, he insisted, and change on the ground would do much to reform nineteenth-century skies.
In our own historical moment, it is possible to look back on Darwin’s poetic intervention as an event that did and did not happen. In literary and political history, European nations never did respond to The Botanic Garden’s call for climate intervention by casting aside their petty differences and uniting to destroy polar ice. But climate historians attempting to pinpoint the beginning of global warming do indeed finger Darwin’s era—indeed, identify the steam engine praised in Darwin’s poetry and developed by his associates—as creating an industrial age that continues to reshape global ecology. In a different sense, Darwin’s vision of nations uniting to destroy arctic ice and warm the climate has proved correct. What is unclear, in looking back at this moment of anthropogenic vision, is whether it offers us any positive way forward: whether the confidence of visionary poets like Darwin and Shelley in the human race’s capacity to save itself in the face of the slow violence of environmental catastrophe will be borne out, or whether, as George Craik exclaimed, such faith in human responsibility and ingenuity will prove an “absurdity” at last.
published April 2016
HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)
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 Although dated 1791, the complete poem first appeared in 1792.
 See Coleridge’s famous remark to Thelwall, “I absolutely nauseate Darwin’s poem” (13 May 1796, Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Griggs, 1:216).
 See Buffon 168.
 The Anti-Jacobin is forging a connection here between Thomas Beddoes’s attempts to cure illnesses with gases and the atmospheric reform implied in his mentor’s plan of altering the climate. For more on Beddoes, Darwin, and the association of “airs” with Jacobinism, see Jay.