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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

The style of Darwin attempts no ornateness


But

the chief Englishmen of science who were men of letters during our period were Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. The opinions of the first of these, their origin, the circumstances of their first expression, and the probabilities of their future, have been the subject of about as much controversy as in a given time has been bestowed upon any subject, certainly on any similar subject. But we enjoy here the privilege of neglecting this almost entirely. Darwin is to the literary historian a very interesting subject, for he was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin, who himself, besides being the capital example of the polished mediocrity of eighteenth century verse when all freshness had gone out of it, was a man of science and an evolutionist in his way. Charles (who was also christened Robert) was the son of yet another Dr. Darwin, an F.R.S. He was born on 12th February 1809 at Shrewsbury, and his mother was (as was afterwards his wife) a daughter of the Wedgwoods of Etruria. After passing through the famous school of his native town, Darwin went to Edinburgh for some years and then entered Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1828. Here he devoted himself to physical science, and after taking his degree was, in 1831, appointed to the _Beagle_, which was starting on a scientific cruise. He spent five years in the South Seas and did not return to England till late in 1836--a voyage which perhaps prejudicially affected his health, but established his knowledge of nature. After his return he
settled down to scientific work, alone and in the scientific societies, married in 1839, and was busy for many years afterwards in publishing the results of the voyage. He possessed considerable means, and for the last forty years of his life lived at his ease at Down near Beckenham, experimenting in crossing species and maturing his views. These took form, under circumstances interesting but foreign to our theme, in the famous _Origin of Species_, published in 1859, and this was followed by a great number of other books, the most noteworthy of which, if not the scientifically soundest, was _The Descent of Man_ (1871). Darwin died after many years of continuous ill-health on 19th April 1882.

Late in life he is said to have confessed that his relish for Shakespeare and for pure literature generally, which had in earlier days been keen, had entirely vanished. But there was perhaps nothing very surprising in this, seeing that he had for half a century given himself up with extraordinary and ever-increasing thoroughness to a class of investigations the most remote possible from literature, and yet not, as pure mathematical study not seldom induces its votaries, inducing men to cultivate letters by mere contrast. Yet the ancestral literary tendency had only fallen dormant in him then; and earlier it had been active. It can indeed hardly be said that either his contribution to the _Voyage of the Beagle_, or _The Origin of Species_, or _The Descent of Man_, or any of the others, is absolutely remarkable for style in the ordinary sense of that phrase. The style of Darwin attempts no ornateness, and on the other hand it is not of those extremely simple styles which are independent of ornament and to which ornament would be simply a defacement. But it is very clear; it is not in the least slovenly; and there is about it the indefinable sense that the writer might have been a much greater writer, simply as such, than he is, if he had cared to take the trouble, and had not been almost solely intent upon his matter. Such writers are not so common that they should be neglected, and they may at least stand in the Court of the Gentiles, the "provincial band" of literature.


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