We have now finished the class’s first segment that looked at what Darwin proposed in On the Origin of Species. For the next few weeks, we are discussing the historical context and public reception of those ideas. Our class on Thursday discussed poems responding to Darwin’s theories in some way. The poems included: “Mutability” and “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” by Wordsworth (both pre-date Origins); “Hap” by Hardy; “Dover Beach” by Arnold; “Design” by Frost; and a contemporary poem “Dover Bitch” by Hecht.
In most of these selected poems, what we are seeing is a crisis of faith, a doubt that there may be a kind and ever-watchful God governing our world. Because of Darwin’s papers, many people found themselves at a loss. The sense of loneliness in “Dover Beach” and even anger in “Hap” all show various attempts at reconciling religion, science, and purpose in one’s life.
I also included a very recent poem, “Spirit in the Dark” by Robert Gibb to serve as contrast to this sense of upheaval expressed in many of the Victorian poems. In Gibb’s poem, two people are listening to Beethovan’s Ninth when they feel “something else enter the air.” The video poem depicts a ghoulish hand touching the record player, but I’m not sure if the poem itself is as direct. There is definitely fog, a sense of the dead, but the witnesses are not even sure: “What was that?” our expressions asked. / Decades later, I’d still like to know. // And what changes, if any, were played / upon us? And did any of them take?” Here, we have a speaker experience something very strange, and the response is one of accepted ambiguity. Understanding the limits to one’s knowledge and one’s interpretation of events is a given. Unlike the crisis of faith that many people felt in the Victorian era, I feel like I respond to new information, new discoveries, new perspectives with interest, but rarely feel shaken. Is that for the better? For the worse? I can’t say. But what is clear is that Origins changed how we place ourselves in the universe, even if we haven’t read a word of the text.