Clattery MacHinery on Poetry

August 5, 2006

The Happiness of Species by Means of Poetic Selection

Filed under: Uncategorized — Clattery MacHinery @ 3:44 am

No poet ever felt more delighted at seeing his first poem published than I did at seeing, in Stephens’ ‘Illustrations of British Insects,’ the magic words, “captured by C. Darwin, Esq.”

That quote, and the below excerpt is from The Autobiography of Charles Darwin.


I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily–against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better.

This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.




  1. In other words, Darwin was saying: “I like to watch TV.”

    Great post, incidentally.

    Comment by C. E. Chaffin — August 5, 2006 @ 6:48 am

  2. Sounds like depression or perhaps stress reaction, poor guy.
    Interesting that he not only recognizes these symptoms, but theorizes on a prevention.

    Comment by Micky — August 5, 2006 @ 1:09 pm

  3. Hi C.E. & Micky,

    What an interesting turn on the thread, a doctor, then a psych nurse give insight. Thanks very much for stopping by.

    It does not occur to Darwin, it seems, that by putting parts of the brain to work in one way, precludes its use in another, that if he had read poetry and listened to music to train hiimself on such enjoyment, he would not have been able to do his work–as when a person cannot scratch his nose while carrying the grocery bags. Thinking like Darwin, as intensely and trained as he became, might have put his brain to work such that music became increasingly irritating.


    Comment by Bud Bloom — August 9, 2006 @ 11:18 am

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