The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 59 of 188

“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.

“As time passed on at Cambridge I became very intimate with Professor Henslow, and his kindness was unbounded; he continually asked me to his house, and allowed me to accompany him in his walks. He talked on all subjects, including his deep sense of religion, and was entirely open. I own more than I can express to this excellent man…

“During the years when I associated so much with Professor Henslow, I never once saw his temper even ruffled. He never took an ill-natured view of any one’s character, though very far from blind to the foibles of others. It always struck me that his mind could not be even touched by any paltry feeling of vanity, envy, or jealousy. With all this equability of temper and remarkable benevolence, there was no insipidity of character. A man must have been blind not to have perceived that beneath this placid exterior there was a vigorous and determined will. When principle came into play, no power on earth could have turned him one hair’s-breadth…

“Reflecting over his character with gratitude and reverence, his moral attributes rise, as they should do in the highest character, in pre-eminence over his intellect.”

In a letter to Rev. L. Blomefield (Jenyns), May 24, 1862, my father wrote with the same feelings that he had expressed in his letters thirty years before:–

“I thank you most sincerely for your kind present of your Memoir of Henslow. I have read about half, and it has interested me much. I do not think that I could have venerated him more than I did; but your book has even exalted his character in my eyes. From turning over the pages of the latter half, I should think your account would be invaluable to any clergyman who wished to follow poor dear Henslow’s noble example. What an admirable man he was.”

The geological work mentioned in the quotation from my father’s pocket-book was doubtless of importance as giving him some practical experience, and perhaps of more importance in helping to give him some confidence in himself. In July of the same year, 1831, he was “working like a tiger” at Geology, and trying to make a map of Shropshire, but not finding it “as easy as I expected.”

In writing to Henslow about the same time, he gives some account of his work:–

“I should have written to you some time ago, only I was determined to wait for the clinometer, and I am very glad to say I think it will answer admirably. I put all the tables in my bedroom at every conceivable angle and direction. I will venture to say I have measured them as accurately as any geologist going could do…I have been working at so many things that I have not got on much with geology. I suspect the first expedition I take, clinometer and hammer in hand, will send me back very little wiser and a good deal more puzzled than when I started. As yet I have only indulged in hypotheses, but they are such powerful ones that I suppose, if they were put into action for but one day, the world would come to an end.”

He was evidently most keen to get to work with Sedgwick, for he wrote to Henslow: “I have not heard from Professor Sedgwick, so I am afraid he will not pay the Severn formations a visit. I hope and trust you did your best to urge him.”

My father has given in his Recollections some account of this Tour.

There too we read of the projected excursion to the Canaries, of which slight mention occurs in letters to Fox and Henslow.

In April 1831 he writes to Fox: “At present I talk, think, and dream of a scheme I have almost hatched of going to the Canary Islands. I have long had a wish of seeing tropical scenery and vegetation, and, according to Humboldt, Teneriffe is a very pretty specimen.” And again in May: “As for my Canary scheme, it is rash of you to ask questions; my other friends most sincerely wish me there, I plague them so with talking about tropical scenery, etc. Eyton will go next summer, and I am learning Spanish.”

Later on in the summer the scheme took more definite form, and the date seems to have been fixed for June, 1832. He got information in London about passage-money, and in July was working at Spanish and calling Fox “un grandisimo lebron,” in proof of his knowledge of the language; which, however, he found “intensely stupid.” But even then he seems to have had some doubts about his companions’ zeal, for he writes to Henslow (July 27, 1831): “I hope you continue to fan your Canary ardour. I read and re-read Humboldt; do you do the same? I am sure nothing will prevent us seeing the Great Dragon Tree.”

Geological work and Teneriffe dreams carried him through the summer, till on returning from Barmouth for the sacred 1st of September, he received the offer of appointment as Naturalist to the Beagle.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. (To tell the truth I don't even really care if you give me your email or not.)