It is always interesting to see how far a man's personal characteristics can be traced in his forefathers. Charles Darwin inherited the tall stature, but not the bulky figure of Erasmus; but in his features there is no traceable resemblance to those of his grandfather. Nor, it appears, had Erasmus the love of exercise and of field-sports, so characteristic of Charles Darwin as a young man, though he had, like his grandson, an indomitable love of hard mental work. Benevolence and sympathy with others, and a great personal charm of manner, were common to the two. Charles Darwin possessed, in the highest degree, that "vividness of imagination" of which he speaks as strongly characteristic of Erasmus, and as leading "to his overpowering tendency to theorise and generalise." This tendency, in the case of Charles Darwin, was fully kept in check by the determination to test his theories to the utmost. Erasmus had a strong love of all kinds of mechanism, for which Charles Darwin had no taste. Neither had Charles Darwin the literary temperament which made Erasmus a poet as well as a philosopher. He writes of Erasmus ('Life of Erasmus Darwin,' page 68.): "Throughout his letters I have been struck with his indifference to fame, and the complete absence of all signs of any over- estimation of his own abilities, or of the success of his works." These, indeed, seem indications of traits most strikingly prominent in his own character. Yet we get no evidence in Erasmus of the intense modesty and simplicity that marked Charles Darwin's whole nature. But by the quick bursts of anger provoked in Erasmus, at the sight of any inhumanity or injustice, we are again reminded of him.

On the whole, however, it seems to me that we do not know enough of the essential personal tone of Erasmus Darwin's character to attempt more than a superficial comparison; and I am left with an impression that, in spite of many resemblances, the two men were of a different type. It has been shown that Miss Seward and Mrs. Schimmelpenninck have misrepresented Erasmus Darwin's character. (Ibid., pages 77, 79, etc.) It is, however, extremely probable that the faults which they exaggerate were to some extent characteristic of the man; and this leads me to think that Erasmus had a certain acerbity or severity of temper which did not exist in his grandson.

The sons of Erasmus Darwin inherited in some degree his intellectual tastes, for Charles Darwin writes of them as follows:

"His eldest son, Charles (born September 3, 1758), was a young man of extraordinary promise, but died (May 15, 1778) before he was twenty-one years old, from the effects of a wound received whilst dissecting the brain of a child. He inherited from his father a strong taste for various branches of science, for writing verses, and for mechanics...He also inherited stammering. With the hope of curing him, his father sent him to France, when about eight years old (1766-'67), with a private tutor, thinking that if he was not allowed to speak English for a time, the habit of stammering might be lost; and it is a curious fact, that in after years, when speaking French, he never stammered. At a very early age he collected specimens of all kinds. When sixteen years old he was sent for a year to [Christ Church] Oxford, but he did not like the place, and thought (in the words of his father) that the 'vigour of his mind languished in the pursuit of classical elegance like Hercules at the distaff, and sighed to be removed to the robuster exercise of the medical school of Edinburgh.' He stayed three years at Edinburgh, working hard at his medical studies, and attending 'with diligence all the sick poor of the parish of Waterleith, and supplying them with the necessary medicines.' The Aesculapian Society awarded him its first gold medal for an experimental inquiry on pus and mucus. Notices of him appeared in various journals; and all the writers agree about his uncommon energy and abilities. He seems like his father to have excited the warm affection of his friends.

The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Volume I Page 05

19th Century English Literature

Charles Darwin

Free Books in the public domain from the Classic Literature Library ©

Charles Darwin

All Pages of This Book