With Darwin’s Eyes and Ears

“Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus” by Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678).

Charles Darwin is fascinating to read, from many viewpoints. There is, of course, the obvious one—the scientific one. He is a keen observer. We marvel at the meticulous details he records about botany, geology, marine biology, and zoology, for instance. It’s impossible, though, not to admire the elegance and literary quality of his writing, as well. The breadth and depth of Darwin’s learning are enormous and not limited to science. Literature, art, and music, regularly inform what he sees, thinks, feels, and what and how he writes.

In this post, I would like to share three examples of what I’m talking about from The Voyage of the Beagle. In each instance, Darwin makes an aesthetic reference. The first example is literary; the second one is visual, and the last one is a musical reference.

The following Latin quotation is from Chapter V. There was neither a source reference nor a translation given in the version of the book I’m reading. Perhaps, Darwin expected his readers to know Latin and to be familiar with the quotation’s source. Here’s the text.

Nam simul expletus dapibus, vinoque sepultus
Cervicem inflexam posuit, jacuitque per antrum
Immensus, saniem eructans, ac frusta cruenta
Per somnum commixta mero.

The lines are from Virgil’s Aeneid. John Dryden, the 17th century English poet, playwright, critic, and translator, ingeniously renders the Latin as follows:

For, gorg’d with flesh, and drunk with human wine
While fast asleep the giant lay supine,
Snoring aloud, and belching from his maw,
His indigested foam, and morsels raw.

Whoa! Why did Darwin include this quotation; what was he writing about that made him feel the quote was appropriate? He was in Bahia Blanca, Argentina, and some soldiers came to town. He says of them:

They passed the night here; and it was impossible to conceive anything more wild and savage than the scene of their bivouac. Some drank till they were intoxicated; others swallowed the steaming blood of the cattle slaughtered for their suppers, and then, being sick from drunkenness, they cast it up again, and were besmeared with filth and gore.

Charles Darwin. The Voyage Of The Beagle, Chapter V. 

The Latin quotation follows immediately in Darwin’s text. The reference is perfect, for Darwin was experiencing something in life that vividly called to mind something he had read in classical literature!

Here’s an example from painting. The text is from Chapter VI. Darwin, accompanied by a Gaucho, is traveling by horse from Bahia Blanca to Buenos Aires. He avails himself of a series of “postas” situated along the route at suitable intervals where he can rest, spend the night if need be, and change horses. At one of the postas, he meets a lieutenant and four soldiers. Of the soldiers, he says:

The latter were strange beings… At night, when they were sitting round the fire, and playing at cards, I retired to view such a Salvator Rosa scene. They were seated under a low cliff, so that I could look down upon them; around the party were lying dogs, arms, remnants of deer and ostriches; and their long spears were stuck in the turf. Farther in the dark background their horses were tied up, ready for any sudden danger. If the stillness of the desolate plain was broken by one of the dogs barking, a soldier, leaving the fire, would place his head close to the ground, and thus slowly scan the horizon.

Darwin, Charles. The Voyage Of The Beagle, Chapter VI.

Salvator Rosa was a 17th-century Italian artist during the Baroque period. His paintings foreshadow the paintings of the Romantics. He was particularly fond of painting rural scenes with shepherds, robbers, and soldiers. The example below is titled “Landscape with Armed Men.”

Darwin, in hiding, looking at four soldiers, taking in the surroundings, the sounds of the night, recalls the works of an Italian painter.

My last example is from Chapter XV, and is a musical one. It’s March 20, 1835. Darwin is in Chile, crossing the Cordillera. At noon, he and his party start a difficult ascent up the Peuquenes ridge. For the first time in the mountains, he experiences what he calls, “some little difficulty in our respiration.” Its symptoms are relived for Darwin, so he tells us, by the finding of fossil shells. Then he writes the following:

When near the summit, the wind, as generally happens, was impetuous and extremely cold. On each side of the ridge we had to pass over broad bands of perpetual snow, which were now soon to be covered by a fresh layer. When we reached the crest and looked backwards, a glorious view was presented. The atmosphere resplendently clear; the sky an intense blue; the profound valleys; the wild broken forms: the heaps of ruins, piled up during the lapse of ages; the bright-coloured rocks, contrasted with the quiet mountains of snow, all these together produced a scene no one could have imagined. Neither plant nor bird, excepting a few condors wheeling around the higher pinnacles, distracted my attention from the inanimate mass. I felt glad that I was alone: it was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in full orchestra a chorus of the Messiah.

Darwin, Charles. The Voyage Of The Beagle, Chapter XV.

This most careful observer of nature, a man who develops a theory that will turn the world upside down, reaches the crest of a ridge in Chile. He compares the experience to hearing “in full orchestra” a chorus of Handel’s Messiah. What a mind!

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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