The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 101 of 188

The following letter to Mr. Fox (March 28th, 1843) gives among other things my father’s early impressions of Down:– “I will tell you all the trifling particulars about myself that I can think of. We are now exceedingly busy with the first brick laid down yesterday to an addition to our house; with this, with almost making a new kitchen garden and sundry other projected schemes, my days are very full. I find all this very bad for geology, but 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. I forget whether I ever described this place: it is a good, very ugly house with 18 acres, situated on a chalk flat, 560 feet above sea. There are peeps of far distant country and the scenery is moderately pretty: its chief merit is its extreme rurality. I think I was never in a more perfectly quiet country. Three miles south of us the great chalk escarpment quite cuts us off from the low country of Kent, and between us and the escarpment there is not a village or gentleman’s house, but only great woods and arable fields (the latter in sadly preponderant numbers) so that we are absolutely at the extreme verge of the world. The whole country is intersected by foot-paths; but the surface over the chalk is clayey and sticky, which is the worst feature in our purchase. The dingles and banks often remind me of Cambridgeshire and walks with you to Cherry Hinton, and other places, though the general aspect of the country is very different. I was looking over my arranged cabinet (the only remnant I have preserved of all my English insects), and was admiring Panagaeus Crux-major: it is curious the vivid manner in which this insect calls up in my mind your appearance, with little Fan trotting after, when I was first introduced to you. Those entomological days were very pleasant ones. I am very much stronger corporeally, but am little better in being able to stand mental fatigue, or rather excitement, so that I cannot dine out or receive visitors, except relations with whom I can pass some time after dinner in silence.”

I could have wished to give here some idea of the position which, at this period of his life, my father occupied among scientific men and the reading public generally. But contemporary notices are few and of no particular value for my purpose,–which therefore must, in spite of a good deal of pains, remain unfulfilled.

His ‘Journal of Researches’ was then the only one of his books which had any chance of being commonly known. But the fact that it was published with the ‘Voyages’ of Captains King and Fitz-Roy probably interfered with its general popularity. Thus Lyell wrote to him in 1838 (‘Lyell’s Life,’ ii. page 43), “I assure you my father is quite enthusiastic about your journal…and he agrees with me that it would have a large sale if published separately. He was disappointed at hearing that it was to be fettered by the other volumes, for, although he should equally buy it, he feared so many of the public would be checked from doing so.” In a notice of the three voyages in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ (July, 1839), there is nothing leading a reader to believe that he would find it more attractive than its fellow-volumes. And, as a fact, it did not become widely known until it was separately published in 1845. It may be noted, however, that the ‘Quarterly Review’ (December, 1839) called the attention of its readers to the merits of the ‘Journal’ as a book of travels. The reviewer speaks of the “charm arising from the freshness of heart which is thrown over these virgin pages of a strong intellectual man and an acute and deep observer.”

The German translation (1844) of the ‘Journal’ received a favourable notice in No. 12 of the ‘Heidelberger Jahrbucher der Literatur,’ 1847–where the Reviewer speaks of the author’s “varied canvas, on which he sketches in lively colours the strange customs of those distant regions with their remarkable fauna, flora and geological peculiarities.” Alluding to the translation, my father writes–“Dr. Dieffenbach…has translated my ‘Journal’ into German, and I must, with unpardonable vanity, boast that it was at the instigation of Liebig and Humboldt.”

The geological work of which he speaks in the above letter to Mr. Fox occupied him for the whole of 1843, and was published in the spring of the following year. It was entitled ‘Geological Observations on the Volcanic Islands, visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, together with some brief notices on the geology of Australia and the Cape of Good Hope’: it formed the second part of the ‘Geology of the Voyage of the Beagle,’ published “with the Approval of the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Treasury.” The volume on ‘Coral Reefs’ forms Part I. of the series, and was published, as we have seen, in 1842. For the sake of the non-geological reader, I may here quote Professor Geikie’s words (Charles Darwin, ‘Nature’ Series, 1882.) on these two volumes–which were up to this time my father’s chief geological works. Speaking of the ‘Coral Reefs,’ he says:–page 17, “This well-known treatise, the most original of all its author’s geological memoirs, has become one of the classics of geological literature. The origin of those remarkable rings of coral-rock in mid-ocean has given rise to much speculation, but no satisfactory solution of the problem has been proposed. After visiting many of them, and examining also coral reefs that fringe islands and continents, he offered a theory which for simplicity and grandeur strikes every reader with astonishment. It is pleasant, after the lapse of many years, to recall the delight with which one first read the ‘Coral Reefs’; how one watched the facts being marshalled into their places, nothing being ignored or passed lightly over; and how, step by step, one was led to the grand conclusion of wide oceanic subsidence. No more admirable example of scientific method was ever given to the world, and even if he had written nothing else, the treatise alone would have placed Darwin in the very front of investigators of nature.”

It is interesting to see in the following extract from one of Lyell’s letters (To Sir John Herschel, May 24, 1837. ‘Life of Sir Charles Lyell,’ vol. ii. page 12.) how warmly and readily he embraced the theory. The extract also gives incidentally some idea of the theory itself.

“I am very full of Darwin’s new theory of Coral Islands, and have urged Whewell to make him read it at our next meeting. I must give up my volcanic crater theory for ever, though it cost me a pang at first, for it accounted for so much, the annular form, the central lagoon, the sudden rising of an isolated mountain in a deep sea; all went so well with the notion of submerged, crateriform, and conical volcanoes,…and then the fact that in the South Pacific we had scarcely any rocks in the regions of coral islands, save two kinds, coral limestone and volcanic! Yet spite of all this, the whole theory is knocked on the head, and the annular shape and central lagoon have nothing to do with volcanoes, nor even with a crateriform bottom. Perhaps Darwin told you when at the Cape what he considers the true cause? Let any mountain be submerged gradually, and coral grow in the sea in which it is sinking, and there will be a ring of coral, and finally only a lagoon in the centre. Why? For the same reason that a barrier reef of coral grows along certain coasts: Australia, etc. Coral islands are the last efforts of drowning continents to lift their heads above water. Regions of elevation and subsidence in the ocean may be traced by the state of the coral reefs.” There is little to be said as to published contemporary criticism. The book was not reviewed in the ‘Quarterly Review’ till 1847, when a favourable notice was given. The reviewer speaks of the “bold and startling” character of the work, but seems to recognize the fact that the views are generally accepted by geologists. By that time the minds of men were becoming more ready to receive geology of this type. Even ten years before, in 1837, Lyell (‘Life of Sir Charles Lyell,’ vol. ii. page 6.) says, “people are now much better prepared to believe Darwin when he advances proofs of the slow rise of the Andes, than they were in 1830, when I first startled them with that doctrine.” This sentence refers to the theory elaborated in my father’s geological observations on South America (1846), but the gradual change in receptivity of the geological mind must have been favourable to all his geological work. Nevertheless, Lyell seems at first not to have expected any ready acceptance of the Coral theory; thus he wrote to my father in 1837:–“I could think of nothing for days after your lesson on coral reefs, but of the tops of submerged continents. It is all true, but do not flatter yourself that you will be believed till you are growing bald like me, with hard work and vexation at the incredulity of the world.”

The second part of the ‘Geology of the Voyage of the Beagle,’ i.e. the volume on Volcanic Islands, which specially concerns us now, cannot be better described than by again quoting from Professor Geikie (page 18):–

“Full of detailed observations, this work still remains the best authority on the general geological structure of most of the regions it describes. At the time it was written the ‘crater of elevation theory,’ though opposed by Constant Prevost, Scrope, and Lyell, was generally accepted, at least on the Continent. Darwin, however, could not receive it as a valid explanation of the facts; and though he did not share the view of its chief opponents, but ventured to propose a hypothesis of his own, the observations impartially made and described by him in this volume must be regarded as having contributed towards the final solution of the difficulty.” Professor Geikie continues (page 21): “He is one of the earliest writers to recognize the magnitude of the denudation to which even recent geological accumulations have been subjected. One of the most impressive lessons to be learnt from his account of ‘Volcanic Islands’ is the prodigious extent to which they have been denuded…He was disposed to attribute more of this work to the sea than most geologists would now admit; but he lived himself to modify his original views, and on this subject his latest utterances are quite abreast of the time.”

An extract from a letter of my father’s to Lyell shows his estimate of his own work. “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.”

The third of his geological books, ‘Geological Observations on South America,’ may be mentioned here, although it was not published until 1846. “In this work the author embodied all the materials collected by him for the illustration of South American Geology, save some which have been published elsewhere. One of the most important features of the book was the evidence which it brought forward to prove the slow interrupted elevation of the South American Continent during a recent geological period.” (Geikie, loc. cit.)

Of this book my father wrote to Lyell:–“My volume will be about 240 pages, dreadfully dull, yet much condensed. I think whenever you have time to look through it, you will think the collection of facts on the elevation of the land and on the formation of terraces pretty good.”

Of his special geological work as a whole, Professor Geikie, while pointing out that it was not “of the same epoch-making kind as his biological researches,” remarks that he “gave a powerful impulse to” the general reception of Lyell’s teaching “by the way in which he gathered from all parts of the world facts in its support.”

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