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.
The Charles Darwin-inspired debate over the Age of the Earth that pitted contemporary Physics against the theory and practice of contemporary Geology was intimately tied to recent unsettling projections on the thermodynamic fate of the universe. The leading voices in the debate were William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, and Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s most able champion. The argument—resolved only in the next century—has exemplary value as an intractable dissonance between two vigorous and well established, but not entirely secure scientific disciplines. And its content laid some of the groundwork for the pessimism that qualified the cult of progress and the whiggish habits of cultural and material complacency towards the end of the century.