Constance Naden’s deep Darwinian lays

Friday, 7 January 2011 — 5:57pm | Literature, Science

Given my longstanding interest in the use of scientific and mathematical language in literature, it may come as a surprise that I have only recently discovered the poetry of Constance Naden. Naden died very young in 1889 at only 31 years of age, hence her relative obscurity, but she was nevertheless extremely prolific throughout the 1880s as a poet, philosopher, and scientist. Her work was significant enough to elicit the praise of William Gladstone, who dubbed her one of the eight finest women poets of the nineteenth century, alongside such luminaries as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Brontë.

You can find Naden’s writings online in the posthumously published The Complete Poetical Works of Constance Naden (1894), a volume that includes translations of Schiller and Goethe, among others. It seems as though she was something of a polymath.

My introduction to Naden’s work came by way of this audio podcast of a lecture delivered by John Holmes at the Royal Society, who spoke on Charles Darwin’s influence on the ideas and concerns of Victorian English poets. (This is the subject of Holmes’ recent book, Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution.) In the lecture, Holmes speaks briefly on “Natural Selection”, a playful comic poem about a palaeontologist who is scientifically delighted to find that his beloved has been whisked away by an all-singing, all-dancing “idealess lad”. This poem belongs to a quartet entitled Evolutional Erotics (1887), in which Naden explores the collision of love and the scientific mind. Another poem in the set, “Scientific Wooing”, brings science into the register of high romance in a manner that might be construed as ironic (but then again, might not be):

At this I’ll aim, for this I’ll toil,
And this I’ll reach—I will, by Boyle,
By Avogadro, and by Davy!
When every science lends a trope
To feed my love, to fire my hope,
Her maiden pride must cry is “Peccavi!

I’ll sing a deep Darwinian lay
Of little birds with plumage gay,
Who solved by courtship Life’s enigma;
I’ll teach her how the wild‐flowers love,
And why the trembling stamens move,
And how the anthers kiss the stigma.

I am reminded here of the tensor algebra pastoral from one of the great masterworks of science fiction, Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad:

For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,
Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,
Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,
Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?

Cancel me not – for what then shall remain?
Abscissas some mantissas, modules, modes,
A root or two, a torus and a node:
The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

Many of Naden’s other poems are more subtle in their use of science, or at least not as liable to wink at the reader. “Solomon Redivivus”, from the same collection, imbues Solomon and Sheba with a fathomless sense of deep time by turning their story into a macroevolutionary tale, from amoeba to fish to highly developed mammal. Even this one feels a little forced, though, in our retrospective eyes—not unlike the sense we get when we read Cold War writing about atomic power, that this particular strand of science is so dominant, it is all anyone seems to talk about.

The best of Naden’s science poetry, of the selections I’ve read thus far, are to be found among the sonnets. Consider “The Nebular Theory”, which begins with a ruthless, particulate materiality, then bursts into the cosmological plane in line 9 with “raptures of keen torment”:

This is the genesis of Heaven and Earth.
In the beginning was a formless mist
Of atoms isolate, void of life; none wist
Aught of its neighbour atom, nor any mirth,
Nor woe, save its own vibrant pang of dearth;
Until a cosmic motion breathed and hissed
And blazed through the black silence; atoms kissed,
Clinging and clustering, with fierce throbs of birth,

And raptures of keen torment, such as stings
Demons who wed in Tophet; the night swarmed
With ringèd fiery clouds, in glowing gyres
Rotating: æons passed: the encircling rings
Split into satellites; the central fires
Froze into suns, and thus the world was formed.

Or “Poet and Botanist”, which reads like a statement of Naden’s thematic centre of gravity:

Fair are the bells of this bright‐flowering weed;
Nectar and pollen treasuries, where grope
Innocent thieves; the Poet lets them ope
And bloom, and wither, leaving fruit and seed
To ripen; but the Botanist will speed
To win the secret of the blossom’s hope,
And with his cruel knife and microscope
Reveal the embryo life, too early freed.

Yet the mild Poet can be ruthless too,
Crushing the tender leaves to work a spell
Of love or fame; the record of the bud
He will not seek, but only bids it tell
His thoughts, and render up its deepest hue
To tinge his verse as with his own heart’s blood.

The emphasis on the masculinity of Poet and Botanist alike is a curiosity worthy of an essay in itself. Constance Naden’s position as a highly educated woman who crossed both disciplines—one who sometimes masked her gender under the pseudonym “C. Arden” in her philosophical and scientific papers—is of intense interest to scholars of her work. Naden’s double identity figures heavily into this paper by Marion Thain, which offers a comprehensive look at how Naden’s concerns about science and poetry were informed by her materialist philosophy of “Hylo-Idealism” as well as the surrounding context of the Thomas Huxley/Matthew Arnold debate over the value of the classics. (Naden was educated at Mason Science College in Birmingham, where the Huxley/Arnold argument was ignited by Josiah Mason’s edict that the college he founded would not provide its students with “mere literary instruction and education.”)

In our time, the divorce of science from poetry has become so engrained in popular consciousness as a blind assumption (irrespective of the exceptions—and believe me, there are many) that Naden’s poems may stand out for conjoining them at all. I would say, however, that Naden’s poems are insightful because they take the closeness of science and poetry as a given, and seek to explore how that relationship works; sometimes sincerely, other times with a smirk. Science is part of our lexicon, after all, and to sidestep it is to restrict ourselves to a fraction of the palette available to us.

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4 rejoinders to “Constance Naden’s deep Darwinian lays”

  1. At work, so tl;dr (for now), but would I betray a juvenile and prurient nature if I mentioned that the title is unintentionally hilarious?

    Thursday, 13 January 2011 at 9:07pm

  2. Oh, believe me, I noticed the pun.

    Thursday, 13 January 2011 at 9:11pm

  3. Kat

    I laughed at that too. Also, I’m doing a research project for a Victorian lit class and chose to center it around Naden. This was super helpful.

    Sunday, 24 June 2012 at 8:44pm

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