The Botanic Garden: A Poem in Two Parts
The Botanic Garden is a long poem divided into two sections. The first section, The Economy of Vegetation, is organized into four cantos, each of which focuses on botany and natural science. According to "The Botanic Garden: The Economy of Vegetation," the format of the first section contains four cantos that focuses on a particular natural affinity that connects to other natural elements in the world; “Canto I focuses on fire, Canto II focuses on earth, Canto III focuses on water, and Canto IV focuses on air."
The Economy of Vegetation is recognized as the more successful portion of The Botanic Garden. The Loves of the Plants is also divided into four cantos, and it is narrated by the Goddess of Botany. Both volumes contain footnotes that are detailed scientific observations and extensive explanations on the mythologies involved in the poems. According to Martin Priestman, author of The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin, “the two parts [of the poem] are so different that it makes sense to call each [section] a poem in its own right” (23).
Categorized as a didactic poem, The Botanic Garden's purpose was to educate the public on plant life and to present Darwin’s admiration for plants and natural science. The book popularized the study of scientific investigation. This particular work not only interested and inspired scientists, but it also inspired works by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, including her novel Frankenstein (1832). The Economy of Vegetation includes a “Rosicrucian doctrine” that relates cultural mythology, philosophy and history to the societal values of Darwin’s time. According to the article Botany for Gentleman: Erasmus Darwin and The Loves of the Plants, it is suggested that The Loves of the Plants reinforced the male view of feminine behavior in the late 1700s. Based on the ideas of natural science in The Botanic Garden, the poem did not experience any religious backlash, and his poem was praised by the scientific community.
Later on, the poem and Darwin did receive speculation of how he created The Botanic Garden. Priestman explains that the lengthy opening of The Economy of Vegetation may have been borrowed “or perhaps [was] stolen from Anna Seward’s [an eighteenth-century English Romantic poet] ‘Verses Written in Dr. Darwin’s Botanic Garden, Near Lichfield’ dating from 1778” (24). On the other hand, Siobhan Carroll, specialist of British literature of the Romantic century, suggests that Darwin and Seward worked together on the poems related to The Loves of the Plants.
By late 1790s, Darwin’s poem began to receive negative philosophical criticism. Due to conservative philosophers of anti-Jacobin perspective, The Botanic Garden started to lose its high reputation, and Anti-Jacobin, an English newspaper founded in 1797, criticized Darwin’s poem (by using Darwin’s own words) as “an exercise in literary and political foolishness” (Carroll).
Today, literary scholars refer to Erasmus Darwin through one or more of the other eighteenth century Romantic poets like Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats in order to present Darwin’s role as the “before” affect to the Romantic period (Priestman).
About the Editions
The text in the Marymount University’s Gomatos collection is the first American edition, which was published in 1798, and includes a handwritten note on the flyleaf noting a sale price: "5 vols $25." The American and London editions varied by price and by printing method. The American edition, like the Dublin edition, is printed in octavo, while the London edition is printed in quarto.
Both editions are divided into two volumes, and they are further divided into four cantos, suggesting the Linnean principles of classification. Also, both editions contain detailed footnotes and illustrations. The first London edition of The Botanic Garden was illustrated by William Blake and Henry Fuseli, and the American edition was reprinted with the illustrations by Fuseli. Later editions comprise all content and illustrations in to one volume.
About the Author
Erasmus Darwin was born in Nottinghamshire, England in 1731, and he was the grandfather of Charles Darwin, whom wrote the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin was a physician, poet, and botanist. His strong interest in botany, later, inspired him to write The Botanic Garden. He had also written Zoonomia (1796) and A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education, in Boarding Schools (1797). Darwin was a founding member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, which greatly influenced the industrial revolution in the late eighteenth-century, which came to also influence the fashion, ideas, and beliefs of English and American society. In 1802, Darwin died due to a lung infection, and his last work, The Temple Nature,was published in 1803.
Browne, Janet. “Botany for Gentleman: Erasmus Darwin and ‘The Love of Plants’” Isis, vol. 80, no. 4, 1989, pp. 592-621. JSTOR, JSTOR.
Carroll, Siobhan. “On Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden, 1791-1792.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. Accessed 31 Oct. 2018.
Emery, Clark. “Scientific Theory in Erasmus Darwin's ‘The Botanic Garden’ (1789-91).” Isis, vol. 33, no. 3, 1941, pp. 315–325. JSTOR, JSTOR.
"Erasmus Darwin." Britannica Academic, Encyclopædia Britannica, 20 Oct. 2008. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.
“Erasmus Darwin” Poetry Foundation. 30 Oct. 2018.
Garfinkle, Norton. “Science and Religion in England, 1790-1800: The Critical Response to the Work of Erasmus Darwin.” The Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 16, no. 3, 1955, pp. 376-388. JSTOR, JSTOR.
George, Sam. “Carl Linnaeus, Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward: Botanical Poetry and Female Education.” Science & Education, vol. 23, no. 3, Mar. 2014, pp. 673–694, EBSCOhost.
Page, M. (2005). “The Darwin before Darwin: Erasmus Darwin, Visionary Science, and Romantic poetry.” Papers on Language and Literature, 41(2), 146-169.
Priestman, Martin. The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened Spaces, Romantic Times. Burlington, Ashgate, 2013. Print.
"The Botanic Garden: The Economy of Vegetation." British Writers, Supplement 16, edited by Jay Parini, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2010, pp. 129-131. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 30 Oct. 2018.