Bureaucracy: The Botanic Garden: a Poem in Two Parts, with Philosophical Notes

Darwin, Erasmus. The Botanic Garden: a Poem in Two Parts, with Philosophical Notes. London: J. Johnson, 1795.


Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, published this long, annotated poem in two parts: Part II, Loves of the Plants, originally appeared in 1789, and Part I, The Economy of Vegetation, followed in 1791. The copies on display here are the third and fourth editions, respectively, of this popular and widely read philosophical work. Loves of the Plants rendered Linnaeus’s binomial system of plant classification in ornate, allegorical poetry: the stamen and pistils of each plant appear as the blushing, bowing, kissing, cavorting maids and swains of a pastoral romance, while the voluminous notes explain the scientific concepts behind the behaviors represented in the verse. Economy of Vegetation took a much wider purview, detailing current scientific theories in fields as far reaching as chemistry, galvanism, atmospheric science, and classical mythology. Both volumes contain high quality full-page engravings designed by important artists and botanical illustrators of the day, including Emma Crew, Frederick Polydore Nodder, Henry Fuseli and William Blake.

While explicitly a taxonomic work based on Darwin’s own translation of Linnaeus’s system, Loves of the Plants garnered extreme reactions—both positive and negative—from contemporary readers for the sexual language and imagery it contained. For example, of the American Cowslip, the poem conveys: “Meadia’s soft chains five suppliant beaux confess, / And hand in hand the laughing belle address; / Alike to all, she bows with wanton air, / Rolls her dark eye, and waves her golden hair” (p. 6). In these lines, the italicized “five” indicates the number “male” stamen present in each flower relative to the number of “female” pistils, in this case one. All five “beaux” address the belle at the same time, indicating a difference from plants in which stamen arrive at maturity in stages. The personified plant’s responses indicates the pistil’s motion as it bends toward the stamen to effect pollination; her dark eyes and waving golden hair indicate the colors and shape of the flower, figuratively conveying Darwin’s speculation that “the petals are so beautifully turned back to prevent the rain of dew drops from sliding down [the stem] and washing off [the pollen] prematurely” (p. 6, note). Although the strictly “scientific” content is explained in the accompanying footnote, Darwin’s verse cannot help but move into the risqué—it represents a sexual relationship between five men and one woman—and the addition of a “wanton” bow and rolling eye only heightens the sexual charge of the passage. Whether, as critics have argued, the poem tends to reinforce conventional gendered stereotypes or radically transgresses the sexual mores of the time, it triggered an immediate barrage of responses (see Bewell, Browne, Fulford, and Teute). While conservative critics bemoaned its immorality and corrupting influence on female readers, women authors saw Darwin’s work as an invitation to pursue botanical knowledge and the potentially liberating implications of its sexual system of classification.

Find The Botanic garden: a Poem in Two Parts, with Philosophical Notes in the UNT Libraries Catalog.