Mrs Darwin – Carol Ann Duffy

Mrs Darwin

7 April 1852.

Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him –
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me
          of you.

– Carol Ann Duffy

This week I had wanted to feature a more interesting poem about evolution, but I haven’t had much time so instead chose this short and fairly simple one.

Carol Ann Duffy is the current Poet Laureate of the UK. “Mrs Darwin” is from her 1999 collection The World’s Wife, in which she writes from the perspective of the women in the lives of famous men, mostly mythological, some fictional, and a few, such as Charles Darwin, who were real personages. It provides a feminist subversion of the mostly androcentric narrative of European history.

The collection itself is very good, but I find this is one of the weaker poems in it. What seems to be the central conceit, that a passing remark by ‘Mrs Darwin’ (Emma nee Wedgwood, Charles’ cousin) may have stimulated Darwin’s thoughts on the relationships between species, is not a particularly original sentiment. The poem is essentially unrelated to Darwin’s actual work, and it doesn’t provide any special insight into the Darwins’ relationship specifically or human relationships in general.

I can’t find any significance for the date in the first line. This was 20 years after the voyage of The Beagle, and Darwin had notes from the mid-1830s that developed into his theory of evolution. By 1852, Darwin was nearing the end of his 8 year study of barnacles: The Origin of Species was published in 1859, and what really makes it stand out from the evolutionary writings of his predecessors and contemporaries is his painstaking efforts to gather over-whelming data in support of his ideas. This wealth of information allowed him to properly develop his ideas of natural selection, as well as to confidentally discuss the influence other factors such as sexual selection, and to discount others such as use and habit. Darwin met Alfred Russel Wallace in 1853, and it was their correspondence that eventually stimulated Darwin to stop observing and start writing seriously. There may not have been the same scientific culture of ‘publish or perish’ as there is now, but he still didn’t want to be scooped and lose priority because he dithered for nearly 30 years (!).

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