Erasmus Darwin’s Temple of Nature

Open copy of Erasmus Darwin's Temple of Nature

Contributor: Caroline Dauphin

Location: Private collection

Description: Tracing the development of life from marine animalcules to humankind, through “millions of ages”, in heroic couplets: such was the daring project of The Temple of Nature, the last poem written by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). This original edition by Joseph Johnson matches the author’s ambitions: the poem was published in a large in-quarto volume, lavishly illustrated by Henry Fuseli. The size of the volume made it possible for the reader to admire all the details of Fuseli’s delicate frontispiece representing Urania lifting the veil of Nature. More accessorily, it also facilitated the reading of Darwin’s lengthy scientific footnotes.

In this extraordinary work of about 2000 lines, Urania, the Muse of Science, explains how life emerged from a primeval sea under the form of microorganisms and became increasingly complex through sensation and volition. Erasmus Darwin’s colourful narrative, in a brilliant combination of poetical images and scientific speculation, invites the reader to imagine the birth of the universe itself and the apparition of life on Earth: “Nurs’d by warm sun-beams in primeval caves /
Organic Life began beneath the waves” (E. Darwin, 20), anticipating his grandson Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in On The Origin of Species (1859).

Yet, The Temple of Nature is much more than a subversive didactic poem on the biological development of vorticellae. It is fraught with mythological references and scientific digressions, exploring an incredibly wide range of subjects including earthquakes, hieroglyphs, mosquitoes, Isaac Newton, the Eleusinian Mysteries, the secret origin of languages, and an allegorical scene showing the world saved by Love and Beauty. Doctor Darwin was indeed a perfect polymath of the Enlightenment who was curious of everything, from comparative linguistics to civil engineering, and built mechanical birds in his spare time.

Among Erasmus Darwin’s multiple interests is the common history of the inhabitants of Europe, which is developed in the first footnote of The Temple of Nature, related to what he poetically calls “the Cradle of the World”. Darwin bases his reflection upon the works of Lord Monboddo and supposes that, if there is a common origin to the different languages of Europe, there must be a common history of the speakers of such languages. Darwin indulges in a short linguistic study to prove his point: “thus the word sack is said to mean a bag in all of them, as σακκον in Greek, saccus in Latin, sacco in Italian, sac in French, and sack in English and German” (E. Darwin, 5).

Erasmus Darwin then jumps from linguistics to phylogenetics: if all these languages derive from a single origin, then their speakers must descend from a common ancestry. Extrapolating on the common origin of the different peoples of Europe, he even provides a historical explanation to the Biblical narrative: “the nations, which possess Europe and a part of Asia and of Africa, appear to have descended from one family; and to have had their origin near the banks of the Mediterranean, as probably in Syria, the site of Paradise, according to the Mosaic history” (E. Darwin, 5).

Darwin goes even further in his scientific method (and religious blasphemy) by suggesting that there may be a common origin to the religions coexisting in Europe and the Middle East: “The Eleusinian mysteries were invented in Egypt, and afterwards transferred into Greece along with most of the other early arts and religions of Europe” (E. Darwin, 12-13). Thus languages, men and religions are united in Darwin’s bold theories, and his different interests, which seemed to be so diverse first, turn out to be finally connected in an unexpected way.

It is not difficult to see the connections between these theories on the unity of Europe from “one family”, and the unity of species from “one filament”, the “microscopic ens” (E. Darwin, 28), which scientists now call “LUCA” (Last Universal Common Ancestor). Darwin subverts the religious narrative on the common origins of humanity with Adam and Eve by forming a narrative of his own, founded upon linguistic theories and speculative biology, to form a new “religion” of knowledge, cultures and beings, etymologically: religere, link, bind together.

Darwin himself never travelled in Europe: he was not an aristocrat and was not given the opportunity to leave on a Grand Tour, which may have enabled him to back up his theory with many other arguments. However, he would travel there intellectually, always keeping himself informed of the works of his fellow European scientists, like Lavoisier (Erasmus Darwin was the first Englishman to use the word “oxygen” after Lavoisier in France). His works travelled a long way, too: his Botanic Garden was translated into Portuguese, Italian, and French. The name of Erasmus Darwin was familiar to Lamarck who quotes him in his botanical encyclopedia (Lamarck, 438).

Unfortunately, Erasmus Darwin died shortly before the publication of The Temple of Nature, which should have been released in 1802 but was not in print before 1803 (King-Hele 1999, 347). His ideas have never ceased travelling since then, having influenced Blake, Coleridge and the Shelleys (King-Hele 1986, preface). As for his famous grandson Charles, who had read the original edition of The Temple of Nature as a young man, he might have seen, among these colourful pentameters and vibrant digressions on Europe, like the faint promise of a scientific revolution which would take place half a century later: the first intellectual filament, the scientific Ens, at the origin of his Origin

Date: 1802 (official date of publication); 1803 (actual date of publication)

Creator: Erasmus Darwin (author); Joseph Johnson (publisher)

Subject: Erasmus Darwin

Media rights: Caroline Dauphin

Object type: printed book

Format: ink on paper

Language: English

Related objects: Erasmus Darwin’s artificial bird; E Conchis Omnia


Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. London: John Murray, 1859.

Darwin, Erasmus. The Temple of Nature. London: Joseph Johnson, 1802 [actually 1803].

King-Hele, Desmond. Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequalled Achievement. London: De la Mare, 1999.

King-Hele, Desmond. Erasmus Darwin and the Romantic Poets. London: Saint Martin’s Press, 1986.

Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste. Encyclopédie Méthodique de Botanique. Vol. VIII. Paris: Agasse, 1808.

Rhodes, Alice. “Erasmus Darwin’s Artificial Bird”. Euromanticism, December 2019, . Accessed 1 May 2020.

Nota bene : The Temple of Nature is also available online in an excellent scholarly edition by Martin Priestman on the website “Romantic Circles”:

Share this post