The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 52 of 188

It is curious that my father often spoke of his Cambridge life as if it had been so much time wasted, forgetting that, although the set studies of the place were barren enough for him, he yet gained in the highest degree the best advantages of a University life–the contact with men and an opportunity for his mind to grow vigorously. It is true that he valued at its highest the advantages which he gained from associating with Professor Henslow and some others, but he seemed to consider this as a chance outcome of his life at Cambridge, not an advantage for which Alma Mater could claim any credit. One of my father’s Cambridge friends was the late Mr. J.M. Herbert, County Court Judge for South Wales, from whom I was fortunate enough to obtain some notes which help us to gain an idea of how my father impressed his contemporaries. Mr. Herbert writes: “I think it was in the spring of 1828 that I first met Darwin, either at my cousin Whitley’s rooms in St. John’s, or at the rooms of some other of his old Shrewsbury schoolfellows, with many of whom I was on terms of great intimacy. But it certainly was in the summer of that year that our acquaintance ripened into intimacy, when we happened to be together at Barmouth, for the Long Vacation, reading with private tutors,–he with Batterton of St. John’s, his Classical and Mathematical Tutor, and I with Yate of St. John’s.”

The intercourse between them practically ceased in 1831, when my father said goodbye to Herbert at Cambridge, on starting on his Beagle voyage. I once met Mr. Herbert, then almost an old man, and I was much struck by the evident warmth and freshness of the affection with which he remembered my father. The notes from which I quote end with this warm-hearted eulogium: “It would be idle for me to speak of his vast intellectual powers…but I cannot end this cursory and rambling sketch without testifying, and I doubt not all his surviving college friends would concur with me, that he was the most genial, warm-hearted, generous, and affectionate of friends; that his sympathies were with all that was good and true; and that he had a cordial hatred for everything false, or vile, or cruel, or mean, or dishonourable. He was not only great, but pre-eminently good, and just, and loveable.”

Two anecdotes told by Mr. Herbert show that my father’s feeling for suffering, whether of man or beast, was as strong in him as a young man as it was in later years: “Before he left Cambridge he told me that he had made up his mind not to shoot any more; that he had had two days’ shooting at his friend’s, Mr. Owen of Woodhouse; and that on the second day, when going over some of the ground they had beaten on the day before, he picked up a bird not quite dead, but lingering from a shot it had received on the previous day; and that it had made and left such a painful impression on his mind, that he could not reconcile it to his conscience to continue to derive pleasure from a sport which inflicted such cruel suffering.”

To realise the strength of the feeling that led to this resolve, we must remember how passionate was his love of sport. We must recall the boy shooting his first snipe (‘Recollections.’), and trembling with excitement so that he could hardly reload his gun. Or think of such a sentence as, “Upon my soul, it is only about a fortnight to the ‘First,’ then if there is a bliss on earth that is it.” (Letter from C. Darwin to W.D. Fox.)

Another anecdote told by Mr. Herbert illustrates again his tenderness of heart:–

“When at Barmouth he and I went to an exhibition of ‘learned dogs.’ In the middle of the entertainment one of the dogs failed in performing the trick his master told him to do. On the man reproving him, the dog put on a most piteous expression, as if in fear of the whip. Darwin seeing it, asked me to leave with him, saying, ‘Come along, I can’t stand this any longer; how those poor dogs must have been licked.'”

It is curious that the same feeling recurred to my father more than fifty years afterwards, on seeing some performing dogs at the Westminster Aquarium; on this occasion he was reassured by the manager telling him that the dogs were taught more by reward than by punishment. Mr. Herbert goes on:–“It stirred one’s inmost depth of feeling to hear him descant upon, and groan over, the horrors of the slave-trade, or the cruelties to which the suffering Poles were subjected at Warsaw…These, and other like proofs have left on my mind the conviction that a more humane or tender-hearted man never lived.”

His old college friends agree in speaking with affectionate warmth of his pleasant, genial temper as a young man. From what they have been able to tell me, I gain the impression of a young man overflowing with animal spirits–leading a varied healthy life–not over-industrious in the set of studies of the place, but full of other pursuits, which were followed with a rejoicing enthusiasm. Entomology, riding, shooting in the fens, suppers and card-playing, music at King’s Chapel, engravings at the Fitzwilliam Museum, walks with Professor Henslow–all combined to fill up a happy life. He seems to have infected others with his enthusiasm. Mr. Herbert relates how, during the same Barmouth summer, he was pressed into the service of “the science”–as my father called collecting beetles. They took their daily walks together among the hills behind Barmouth, or boated in the Mawddach estuary, or sailed to Sarn Badrig to land there at low water, or went fly-fishing in the Cors-y-gedol lakes. “On these occasions Darwin entomologized most industriously, picking up creatures as he walked along, and bagging everything which seemed worthy of being pursued, or of further examination. And very soon he armed me with a bottle of alcohol, in which I had to drop any beetle which struck me as not of a common kind. I performed this duty with some diligence in my constitutional walks; but alas! my powers of discrimination seldom enabled me to secure a prize–the usual result, on his examining the contents of my bottle, being an exclamation, ‘Well, old Cherbury’ (No doubt in allusion to the title of Lord Herbert of Cherbury.) (the nickname he gave me, and by which he usually addressed me), ‘none of these will do.'” Again, the Rev. T. Butler, who was one of the Barmouth reading-party in 1828, says: “He inoculated me with a taste for Botany which has stuck by me all my life.”

Archdeacon Watkins, another old college friend of my father’s, remembers him unearthing beetles in the willows between Cambridge and Grantchester, and speaks of a certain beetle the remembrance of whose name is “Crux major.” (Panagaeus crux-major.) How enthusiastically must my father have exulted over this beetle to have impressed its name on a companion so that he remembers it after half a century! Archdeacon Watkins goes on: “I do not forget the long and very interesting conversations that we had about Brazilian scenery and tropical vegetation of all sorts. Nor do I forget the way and the vehemence with which he rubbed his chin when he got excited on such subjects, and discoursed eloquently of lianas, orchids, etc.”

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