Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 7. Richard Payne Knight; Erasmus Darwin

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

II. Political Writers and Speakers

§ 7. Richard Payne Knight; Erasmus Darwin

More body, if less bouquet, is to be found in two longer contributions. It was a time when the genuine muse had retired to her “interlunar cave,” and massive didactic poems enjoyed a transitory reign. Two authors of note took the lead, Richard Payne Knight and Erasmus Darwin. Both were philosophes in their opinions and broached a variety of doctrines most obnoxious to The Anti-Jacobin. And, however invulnerable to attack they might be in their serious work, they were mortal in their verse. Knight’s Progress of Civil Society was pompous and humourless; Darwin’s machine-turned couplets glittered with a profusion of inappropriate poetical trappings. Knight’s turn came first. The Progress of Man traced, with mischievous assurance, the decline of the human race from the days of the blameless savage, who fed “on hips and haws.”

  • Man only,—rash, refined, presumptuous man,
  • Starts from his rank, and mars creation’s plan.
  • Born the free heir of nature’s wide domain,
  • To art’s strict limits bounds his narrow’d reign;
  • Resigns his native rights for meaner things,
  • For faith and fetters—laws, and priests, and kings.
  • Darwin’s Loves of the Plants was taken off as The Loves of the Triangles. The merit of both these parodies consists, not only in their sparkling wit, but in their genuine exaggeration of the original authors’ foibles. They are not a forced, ridiculous echo; only the real traits are accentuated to caricature.