POETRY AND SCIENCE: THE CASE OF CHARLES DARWIN
By EDWARD BRADFORD TITCHENER
IN the autobiographical chapter of the "Life and Letters of Charles Darwin" occurs a well-known passage, in which the writer deplores his loss, in middle life, of the higher esthetic tastes.
Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. . . . But now for many years I can not endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. . . . This curious and lamentable loss of the higher esthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I can not conceive. A man with a mind more highly organized or better constituted than mine would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry ... at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
The loss which Darwin here regrets has often been charged to the particular account of his occupation with science. I have always believed that the charge is unfounded. It is difficult to give precise reasons, to translate into words what is, at bottom, a matter of general cumulative impression; but I shall attempt to show that there are, at any rate, plausible grounds for doubting the common construction put upon his remarks.
I must begin by saying that there is no real evidence to the effect that Darwin showed, at any period of his life, a deep feeling for poetry, or a profound understanding of it. I use the adjectives advisedly. The true love of poetry, and the intimate understanding of poetry, are matters primarily of a man's temperament. But they are also, like everything else that is worth while, largely—much more largely than is ordinarily supposed — matters of technique, of long and studious apprenticeship. Temperament and training, then, must go