Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 74.djvu/51

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47
POETRY AND SCIENCE

lect or building up the moral character, then very certainly the effort would have ended in failure; poetry must be taken for its own sake, or it may as well not be taken at all. I incline to the opinion that the readings, while they would undoubtedly have increased the store of possible quotation, would still have left Darwin with the regrets that the "Autobiography" expresses.

 

The argument of the present note may now be summarized as follows. I do not think that Darwin ever had a profound interest in poetry; the scientific temperament was too strong in him. The historical plays in which as a schoolboy he took "intense delight" probably interested him in the main as stories. The poets whom he read during his plastic period probably attracted him, in large measure, by their felicity of language; the cult of words and phrases is characteristic of adolescence, and is curiously different from a real appreciation of style — into which it may or may not develop, according to the temperament of the reader. On the other side, I think that Darwin's poetic leanings were much more pronounced and much more persistent than those of the average man of science. By his own unconscious confession, and by the evidence of his written works, his mind was leavened with poetic feeling; all through his mature life he is ready with quotation when the occasion calls; and the very poignancy of his regret for the loss of poetry witnesses to his poetic endowment. If and in so far as he did lose his poetic interests, the loss was due, not specifically to his occupation with science, but generally to the combination of a stupendous life-work with continued ill-health. "For nearly forty years he never knew one day of the health of ordinary men," and in those forty years he revolutionized biology. Small wonder, then, that he had neither time nor energy for that critical cultivation of poetry which, however gifted the temperament, is the sine qua non of a true poetic insight. It was not that addiction to science brought with it an atrophy of the higher esthetic tastes. It was rather the fact that an esthetic power, distinctly above the average, though not of the first rank, was left, by the demands of an absorbing pursuit upon a frail constitution, to work itself out unguided, and to show itself as best it might. The cry that Shakespeare is intolerable is the cry of a man to whom Shakespeare is familiar from cover to cover, tragedy and history and comedy, and for whom Shakespeare might, under other circumstances, have been a source of never-ending delight.

I have spoken only of poetry. The considerations which I have here urged apply, however, with the necessary modifications, to Darwin's loss of pleasure in pictures and music.