The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 58 of 188

Charles Darwin to W.D. Fox.

Cambridge, Sunday, January 23, 1831.

My dear Fox,

I do hope you will excuse my not writing before I took my degree. I felt a quite inexplicable aversion to write to anybody. But now I do most heartily congratulate you upon passing your examination, and hope you find your curacy comfortable. If it is my last shilling (I have not many), I will come and pay you a visit.

I do not know why the degree should make one so miserable, both before and afterwards. I recollect you were sufficiently wretched before, and I can assure [you] I am now, and what makes it the more ridiculous is, I know not what about. I believe it is a beautiful provision of nature to make one regret the less leaving so pleasant a place as Cambridge; and amongst all its pleasures–I say it for once and for all–none so great as my friendship with you. I sent you a newspaper yesterday, in which you will see what a good place [10th] I have got in the Poll. As for Christ’s, did you ever see such a college for producing Captains and Apostles? (The “Captain” is at the head of the “Poll”: the “Apostles” are the last twelve in the Mathematical Tripos.) There are no men either at Emmanuel or Christ’s plucked. Cameron is gulfed, together with other three Trinity scholars! My plans are not at all settled. I think I shall keep this term, and then go and economise at Shrewsbury, return and take my degree.

A man may be excused for writing so much about himself when he has just passed the examination; so you must excuse [me]. And on the same principle do you write a letter brimful of yourself and plans. I want to know something about your examination. Tell me about the state of your nerves; what books you got up, and how perfect. I take an interest about that sort of thing, as the time will come when I must suffer. Your tutor, Thompson, begged to be remembered to you, and so does Whitley. If you will answer this, I will send as many stupid answers as you can desire.

Believe me, dear Fox,
Chas. Darwin.

Chapter 1.V. The Appointment to the ‘Beagle.’

[In a letter addressed to Captain Fitz-Roy, before the Beagle sailed, my father wrote, “What a glorious day the 4th of November (The Beagle did not however make her final and successful start until December 27.) will be to me–my second life will then commence, and it shall be as a birthday for the rest of my life.”

The circumstances which led to this second birth–so much more important than my father then imagined–are connected with his Cambridge life, but may be more appropriately told in the present chapter. Foremost in the chain of circumstances which lead to his appointment to the Beagle, was my father’s friendship with Professor Henslow. He wrote in a pocket-book or diary, which contain a brief record of dates, etc., throughout his life:–

“1831. Christmas.–Passed my examination for B.A. degree and kept the two following terms.

“During these months lived much with Professor Henslow, often dining with him and walking with him; became slightly acquainted with several of the learned men in Cambridge, which much quickened the zeal which dinner parties and hunting had not destroyed.

“In the spring paid Mr. Dawes a visit with Ramsay and Kirby, and talked over an excursion to Teneriffe. In the spring Henslow persuaded me to think of Geology, and introduced me to Sedgwick. During Midsummer geologised a little in Shropshire.

“August.–Went on Geological tour (Mentioned by Sedgwick in his preface to Salter’s ‘Catalogue of Cambrian and Silurian Fossils,’ 1873.) by Llangollen, Ruthin, Conway, Bangor, and Capel Curig, where I left Professor Sedgwick, and crossed the mountain to Barmouth.”

In a letter to Fox (May, 1831), my father writes:–“I am very busy…and see a great deal of Henslow, whom I do not know whether I love or respect most.” His feeling for this admirable man is finely expressed in a letter which he wrote to Rev. L. Blomefield (then Rev. L. Jenyns), when the latter was engaged in his ‘Memoir of Professor Henslow’ (published 1862). The passage (‘Memoir of the Rev. John Stevens Henslow, M.A.,’ by the Rev. Leonard Jenyns. 8vo. London, 1862, page 51.) has been made use of in the first of the memorial notices written for ‘Nature,’ and Mr. Romanes points out that my father, “while describing the character of another, is unconsciously giving a most accurate description of his own”:–

“I went to Cambridge early in the year 1828, and soon became acquainted, through some of my brother entomologists, with Professor Henslow, for all who cared for any branch of natural history were equally encouraged by him. Nothing could be more simple, cordial, and unpretending than the encouragement which he afforded to all young naturalists. I soon became intimate with him, for he had a remarkable power of making the young feel completely at ease with him; though we were all awe-struck with the amount of his knowledge. Before I saw him, I heard one young man sum up his attainments by simply saying that he knew everything. When I reflect how immediately we felt at perfect ease with a man older, and in every way so immensely our superior, I think it was as much owing to the transparent sincerity of his character as to his kindness of heart; and, perhaps, even still more, to a highly remarkable absence in him of all self-consciousness. One perceived at once that he never thought of his own varied knowledge or clear intellect, but solely on the subject in hand. Another charm, which must have struck every one, was that his manner to old and distinguished persons and to the youngest student was exactly the same: and to all he showed the same winning courtesy. He would receive with interest the most trifling observation in any branch of natural history; and however absurd a blunder one might make, he pointed it out so clearly and kindly, that one left him no way disheartened, but only determined to be more accurate the next time. In short, no man could be better formed to win the entire confidence of the young, and to encourage them in their pursuits.

“His lectures on Botany were universally popular, and as clear as daylight. So popular were they, that several of the older members of the University attended successive courses. Once every week he kept open house in the evening, and all who cared for natural history attended these parties, which, by thus favouring inter-communication, did the same good in Cambridge, in a very pleasant manner, as the Scientific Societies do in London. At these parties many of the most distinguished members of the University occasionally attended; and when only a few were present, I have listened to the great men of those days, conversing on all sorts of subjects, with the most varied and brilliant powers. This was no small advantage to some of the younger men, as it stimulated their mental activity and ambition. Two or three times in each session he took excursions with his botanical class; either a long walk to the habitat of some rare plant, or in a barge down the river to the fens, or in coaches to some more distant place, as to Gamlingay, to see the wild lily of the valley, and to catch on the heath the rare natter-jack. These excursions have left a delightful impression on my mind. He was, on such occasions, in as good spirits as a boy, and laughed as heartily as a boy at the misadventures of those who chased the splendid swallow-tail butterflies across the broken and treacherous fens. He used to pause every now and then to lecture on some plant or other object; and something he could tell us on every insect, shell, or fossil collected, for he had attended to every branch of natural history. After our day’s work we used to dine at some inn or house, and most jovial we then were. I believe all who joined these excursions will agree with me that they have left an enduring impression of delight on our minds.

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