Writing to his friend Mr. Fox, on March 28th, 1843, he says, "I am very slowly progressing with a volume, or rather pamphlet, on the volcanic islands which we visited: I manage only a couple of hours per day, and that not very regularly. It is uphill work writing books, which cost money in publishing, and which are not read even by geologists."
The work occupied Darwin during the whole of the year 1843, and was issued in the spring of the following year, the actual time engaged in preparing it being recorded in his diary as "from the summer of 1842 to January 1844;" but the author does not appear to have been by any means satisfied with the result when the book was finished. He wrote to Lyell, "You have pleased me much by saying that you intend looking through my 'Volcanic Islands;' it cost me eighteen months!!! and I have heard of very few who have read it. Now I shall feel, whatever little (and little it is) there is confirmatory of old work, or new, will work its effect and not be lost." To Sir Joseph Hooker he wrote, "I have just finished a little volume on the volcanic islands which we visited. I do not know how far you care for dry simple geology, but I hope you will let me send you a copy."
Every geologist knows how full of interest and suggestiveness is this book of Darwin's on volcanic islands. Probably the scant satisfaction which its author seemed to find in it may be traced to the effect of a contrast which he felt between the memory of glowing delights he had experienced when, hammer in hand, he roamed over new and interesting scenes, and the slow, laborious, and less congenial task of re-writing and arranging his notes in book-form.
In 1874, in writing an account of the ancient volcanoes of the Hebrides, I had frequent occasion to quote Mr. Darwin's observations on the Atlantic volcanoes, in illustration of the phenomena exhibited by the relics of still older volcanoes in our own islands. Darwin, in writing to his old friend Sir Charles Lyell upon the subject, says, "I was not a little pleased to see my volcanic book quoted, for I thought it was completely dead and forgotten."
Two years later the original publishers of this book and of that on South America proposed to re-issue them. Darwin at first hesitated, for he seemed to think there could be little of abiding interest in them; he consulted me upon the subject in one of the conversations which I used to have with him at that time, and I strongly urged upon him the reprint of the works. I was much gratified when he gave way upon the point, and consented to their appearing just as originally issued. In his preface he says, "Owing to the great progress which Geology has made in recent times, my views on some few points may be somewhat antiquated, but I have thought it best to leave them as they originally appeared."
It may be interesting to indicate, as briefly as possible, the chief geological problem upon which the publication of Darwin's "Volcanic Islands" threw new and important light. The merit of the work consisted in supplying interesting observations, which in some cases have proved of crucial value in exploding prevalent fallacies; in calling attention to phenomena and considerations that had been quite overlooked by geologists, but have since exercised an important influence in moulding geological speculation; and lastly in showing the importance which attaches to small and seemingly insignificant causes, some of which afford a key to the explanation of very curious geological problems.
Visiting as he did the districts in which Von Buch and others had found what they thought to be evidence of the truth of "Elevation-craters," Darwin was able to show that the facts were capable of a totally different interpretation. The views originally put forward by the old German geologist and traveller, and almost universally accepted by his countrymen, had met with much support from Elie de Beaumont and Dufrenoy, the leaders of geological thought in France. They were, however, stoutly opposed by Scrope and Lyell in this country, and by Constant Prevost and Virlet on the other side of the channel.