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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

VIII. Southey

§ 21. Erasmus Darwin; The Botanic Garden; The Loves of the Plants

Who now reads Erasmus Darwin? Yet he pleased both Horace Walpole and William Cowper, his verses were called by the latter “strong, learned and sweet,” and by the former “sublime,” “charming,” “enchanting,” “gorgeous,” “beautiful” and “most poetic.” It is idle to assign Darwin’s poetic extinction to Canning’s parody, admirable as that is, for, if there is one critical axiom universally endorsed by good critics of all ages, schools and principles, it is that parody cannot kill—that it cannot even harm—anything that has not the seeds of death and decay in itself. The fact is that Darwin, with a fatal, and, as if metaphysically aided, certainty, evolved from the eighteenth century couplet poetry all its worst features, and set them in so glaring a light that only those still under the actual spell could fail to perceive their deformity. Unsuitableness of subject; rhetorical extravagance and, at the same time, convention of phrase; otiose and padding epithet; monotonously cadenced verse; every fault of the mere imitators of Pope in poetry, Darwin mustered in The Botanic Garden, and especially in its constituent The Loves of the Plants. It is true, but it is also vain, to say that the subject, in itself, is interesting and positively valuable; that the rhe oric, the phraseology, the effort, are all very craftsmanlike examples of crafts bad in themselves. The very merits of the effort are faults as and where they are; and it has none of the faults which, in true poetry, are not seldom merits. Although one would not lose The Loves of the Triangles for anything, it is superfluous as a mere parody. The Loves of the Plants is a parody in itself and of itself, as well as of the whole school of verse which it crowned and crushed. Time is not likely to destroy, and may rather increase, the credit due to Darwin’s scientific pioneership: its whirligig is never likely to restore the faintest genuine taste for his pseudo-poetry.