THE PROGRESS OF SOCIETY
By ERASMUS DARWIN
THE PROGRESS OF SOCIETY, A POEM IN FIVE CANTOS1
Prologue to the first Canto
The observations and industry of mankind have discovered many arts, which have influenced their manners, increased their felicity, or added to their numbers. Amongst these may be numbered the discovery of the uses of fire, the calling on the strength of animals to facilitate labour, the invention of letters, preparing and spinning vegetable substances, the discovery of iron, of the magnet, and of gun-powder. But the situations or circumstances which seem more directly to have mark'd the progress of human society are first the Hunting State with its necessary arms, as the club, bow, and fishing net; in this state of the world their heroism consisted in conquering noxious animals, and their sustenance in catching the inoffensive ones. Hence the great deeds of Hercules, Apollo and [. . . .], who were afterwards worship'd as deities. The world must have been thinly inhabited in this state of mankind; in the wilds of North America it has been estimated, that one family scarce could subsist by hunting within five miles of another. Amongst the crimes of this lawless age murders were not infrequent, but Rapes seem to stand prominent, whence the fables of Apollo and Daphne, Pan and Syrinx, Pluto and Proserpine; which were afterwards ornamented by the poets, and allegorized by the philosophers.
The Progress of Society2
1. This title is written inside the cover of 227.2:22.
2. This is preceded by "The Temple of Nature," deleted.
3. I have throughout rendered Darwin's underlinings as italics: in the published version, he would presumably have used small capitals.
4. These opening lines are confusingly retained almost verbatim in lines I, 9-14 of the published Temple, which nowhere describes any such five ages specifically. Unless otherwise specified, lines referred to from Temple are in Canto I.
5. This "image" was dreamed by Nebuchadnezer and interpreted by Daniel. See Daniel, 2, 31-33. Here its changing metals from foot to head—iron, lead, brass, silver and gold—denote the five "ages" of society.
6. The substantial section from ll. 33-182 was retained, with significant additions, in lines 15-214 of the published Temple. This apostrophe to "Immortal Love" echoes De Rerum Natura's opening invocation to Venus, which is also imitated in Knight's address to "Almighty Love" in Progress of Civil Society, I, 91-112.
7. In both this and the published poem, the Temple occupies the site of the Garden of Eden, but with very different implications in each case. Here, the socially productive labour it represents comes appropriately after Adam and Eve's expulsion from Paradise, condemned thenceforth to live by the sweat of their brows. In Temple, Urania's teachings about the real origins of life from the big bang to the evolution of species represents a religiously unorthodox alternative to the creation myth represented by the Garden of Eden.
8. "With circling sweep" is replaced by "Rocks upon rocks" in the latest draft, but this earlier version makes it far clearer than in Temple (47-52) that these rocks now occupy the site of the Garden of Eden, and that their "circling sweep" encloses a central space where the Temple is to be found. However, Temple adds to this a crucial passage warning off unworthy would-be initiates, and describing the Loves and Graces' "tittering" approach to the Temple through a crystal-walled tunnel beneath the rocks (53-64).
9. This first introduction to the temple does not specifically name it the Temple of Nature, as Temple does (I, 66). One of the earliest drafts (in 227.2:23) calls it "Nature's Fane" in the first line, but in this version that identity is less foregrounded.
10. These symbolic murals are appropriate to the poem's function of explicating the historical significance of the myths they depict. As retained in the published poem, this emphasis on the temple's depictions of gods, heroes and lovers becomes opaque and mysterious.
11. Time's "binding" by Sculpture suggests the immortalizing of past discoveries by art and mythology.
12. A mistaken memory from Homer's Odyssey: in the published Temple (85) Ulysses correctly becomes "Atrides," i.e. Menelaus.
13. Pleasure's presence in the Temple underlines the poem's programme of exploring the "joys" and "woes" specific to each age. Through the figure of Venus (93 below), Pleasure is also linked to the sexual instinct which, presumably, prompts human development in specific directions.
14. Oblivion, or death, and the Melancholy aroused by contemplating it (110) perhaps stand for the "woes" of each age, but also for the fear of forgetting our history which led early societies to memorialize it in myth. Knight's parallel poem The Progress of Civil Society (I, 77-82) offsets Pleasure more directly with Pain, as joint stimuli to social progress—in line with Jeremy Bentham's utilitarian understanding of progress as a simple matter of increasing one at the expense of the other. In the published Temple Darwin seems to pick up this idea, which leads into the important arguments of the last canto; but his retention of Oblivion along with Pain leaves the temple somewhat overcrowded at this point.
15. Though reduced to four lines here and in the final Temple, Trophonius looms larger in some of the early plans. As an oracle whose cave revealed truths too disturbing for normal minds, he stands fittingly for the "dark side" of Darwin's vision both of history, as here, and of evolutionary destruction, as in Temple.
16. The positioning of the goddess's shrine is not completely clear, here or in Temple. "High in the midst" suggests it is inside the temple, presumably in the "Central Hall" dedicated to Philosophy in the outline. However, other aspects of the description suggest it is outdoors, and visited before entering the temple building.
17. "Selvage" = "hem." At this point, Temple inserts the crucial passage (137-154) on the Eleusinian Mysteries, describing them as copied from the shrine of Nature. This forms the basis of the Preface's claim that the Mysteries provide the "machinery" of the whole poem.
18. Urania, the Muse of Astronomy who according to Milton inspires Paradise Lost, is also here the "Priestess" or "Hierophant" of Nature who instructs Darwin's own muse. The "trains of virgins" are postulant worshippers of Nature, whose offerings Urania presents at the shrine, half revealing the goddess as she does so.
19. The speaker here seems to be Darwin's own "Muse" (139), asking Urania to reveal more of Nature. In Temple, the whole poem is structured as a dialogue between this muse and Urania, the latter much to the fore.
20. The long description which follows relates to the musician-demigod Orpheus's visit to the Underworld, to retrieve his dead wife Eurydice. Though his music charmed the gods Pluto and Proserpina into releasing her, he broke their conditions by looking back to see if she was following him, whereupon she returned to the underworld. More clearly than in Temple, this passage uses Orpheus to symbolize the recovery of the past through the medium of art. This version is in some ways more vivid than the finally published one, particularly in the rather endearing couplet on the three-headed dog Cerberus (159-60), leading from the naturally plural "ears" and "claws" to a witty double-take on "necks."
21. The Hierophant is the priestess who interprets the Eleusinian Mystery rituals to the initiates. This name for the Priestess of Nature is the only allusion to Eleusinian matters in the draft poem.
22. From this point, the draft poem diverges completely from Temple, where the Priestess answers a wholly new set of questions about the formation of life, rather than referring to the request for explanations of the temple's mythological images—though these questions are, confusingly, retained.
23. In Darwin's day the word "genie" was close to "genius" (as in "genius of the place") in denoting the tutelary spirit of a place or phenomenon, though more modern overtones of an oriental assisting spirit (or "djinn") may be starting to creep in. So these "Genies of the Chase" are the informing spirits of the Age of Hunting, to be succeeded in Canto II's Age of Pasturage by "Genies of the Pastured Plain," and so on. These genies have a similar prettifying function to Economy's elemental spirits, and have no parallel in the published Temple of Nature. The following section (189-234) shows them developing the earliest forms of human technology: a clever way of making these discoveries appealing by removing the need to imagine actual primitive people making them.
24. These genies, which have a similar prettifying function to Economy's elemental spirits, have no parallel in Temple's fundamentally literal scientific explanations of the origins of the universe, life and social impulses.
25. In Rome, the Vestal Virgins tended a sacred fire which must never go out. This twin association of "Vestal" allows Darwin to link his ethereal, presumably virginal, genies to the first discovery of fire-making through rapid friction ("quick attrition") and the subsequent need to conserve the flame for future use.
26. As the first weapon, the club is a major development. But in describing its making, Darwin gestures at other stone-age technologies, including the stone-age flint scraper and "jasper axe"—jasper being quartz, whose crystalline structure lends itself to sharp, hard points and edges.
27. "Adhesive plain" wonderfully indicates the sheer frictional labour of transporting heavy objects before the invention of the wheel. Again earlier technologies—fire and flint tools—are presupposed in the making of the dugout canoe.
28. The following line is a nod to Pope's Rape of the Lock (II, 28), where fishing is used as a simile for female beauty rather than vice versa, as here.
29. From the club and spear we have advanced to the bow and arrows, whose venomed tips will reappear in the description of Apollo—reinforcing the wider point that myths are really descriptions of technological advances.
30. David. See 1, Samuel, 17.
31. We are now entering the temple building, via its portico and double door, of which the "valves" are the leaves. If the goddess's shrine "in the midst" was indoors, Urania presumably led us outside to view the genies' activities "in green pavilions or in marble courts" (183). We are now turning from their physical enactments of the skills of the Hunting Age to their artistic depictions of its mythology on the temple's internal walls. An earlier draft (2:23) has "Wide to the West the eternal gates unfold," though the outline in the same notebook puts the Age of Hunting in the "Eastern Hall" and Canto III's Age of Agriculture in the Western one.
32. As well as enacting the "arts and arms" of the Age of Hunting, its genies record its achievements in works of visual art, including statuary, tapestry, mosaics, designs inset into ceilings ("laqueated" means "recessed") and the pictographic, pre-phonetic "unletter'd word" of hieroglyphics. According to Darwin's often-stated theory, classical mythology was largely based on over-literal misreadings of symbolic images attempting to describe real phenomena: here, technological developments rather than the natural processes foregrounded in Temple as well as The Botanic Garden.
33. Hounds "open" when they start baying on finding the prey; "affrighted lair"—the lair whose inhabitant is frightened—illustrates Darwin's penchant for extreme latinate compression. As goddess of hunting, Diana is appropriately the first of the genies' artistic depictions.
34. As Diana's brother, Apollo shares her interest in hunting and archery; the rays indicate that he is also the sun-god.
35. Python was a deadly serpent which was pursuing Apollo's mother, Leto. Once killed, its venom made his arrows especially deadly.
36. Niobe was a Theban queen who boasted that her twenty children made her a more successful mother than Leto, who only had two. To avenge this slur on their mother, Apollo and Diana shot all of Niobe's children; later, she was turned into a perennially weeping statue.
37. A ringed "O" (whether or not by Darwin is unclear) in the main manuscript (DAR 227.2.22) directs us to the back of a loose draft page for Phytologia (DAR 227.2.37) containing the best version of the next fourteen lines. With its fierce protest at the gods' injustice, this is a considerable improvement on the deleted version it replaces, which goes thus:
In fearful agony another stands,
Spreads to the unpitying skies her trembling hands;
The shaft descending drinks her rosy breath
And her pale throbbing bosom heaves in death.
Sink two fair youths in mutual arms caress'd,
One barbed arrow nails them breast to breast;
Her youngest love beneath her robe she hides,
Through her spread arms the cruel arrow glides.
Ten blooming youths in anguish bite the ground,
And ten fair bleeding sisters sleep around.
Modern usage makes the last line of this particularly unfortunate, but Darwin clearly had trouble hitting the right note: "And ten fair sister beauties bleed around" is one of several other attempts.
38. Hercules's link with hunting is emphasised by drawing attention to his cudgel and his habitual wearing of the skin of one of his early antagonists, the Nemaean lion.
39. Hercules received help and guidance from Minerva (Athena) at various times; or this could refer to his final forgiveness by Juno (Hera) after a long period of implacable enmity. In earlier outlines (draft 2:23) Darwin planned to describe Hercules dressing as a woman in servitude to Omphale, but seems to have dropped the idea here.
40. Samson's eyes are sealed, not only in death but because he was blinded by the Philistines on being captured (Judges, 16, 21). Earlier, he killed a lion with his bare hands (Judges 14, 5-6) and a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass (15, 15-17). He pulled down the temple on his enemies (16, 29-31) after being betrayed to them by Dalilah (or Delilah), who cut off his strength-giving hair as he slept (16, 4-20).
41. This was not intended as the end of the canto. In his first outline (draft 2:23), Darwin also includes the hunters Nimrod, Adonis, the English King William Rufus and Cephalus, on whose accidental shooting of his wife Procris he began a few lines in the same draft:
Where were ye, Genies of the sylvan chase
When Cephalus some [??] address'd
And sent the arrow into Procris' breast [?]
From the Prologue to the present version of the canto, it also seems he intended to treat the rapes prevalent in this age at length, illustrating them with a range of relevant myths.
42. This canto appears only in draft 2:25, in a much rougher state than Canto I.
43. Again, we approach the temple from outside. Though Pasturage's door is now in the East, the outline in 2:23 puts it in the West, and one draft version of Canto I gives the Eastern Hall to Hunting (see note 31).
44. I use square brackets to indicate a guess where the writing is unclear, as here.
45. In contrast to the "unletter'd word" of the Hunting Age, the Age of Pasturage's invention of writing is stressed in the "letter'd" frieze bearing its name.
46. Kingship also emerges with pasturage in Richard Payne Knight's The Progress of Civil Society (II, 285-332) and, rather less clearly, in their joint source, Lucretius's De Rerum Natura (V, 1105).
47. The pastoral age precedes that of permanent settlement: people live in movable tents.
48. These shepherd-genies' invention of music and love-poetry echoes a common assumption about the pastoral age, also stressed in Richard Payne Knight's Progress of Civil Society (III, 186-217).
49. They learn to make tents out of beaten and rolled tree-bark, cord and branches.
50. A gnomon is the pin of a sundial. The sciences of astronomy and timekeeping begin in the pastoral age.
51. The roughness of this whole section is indicated by the bad fit between the otherwise unrhymed "bower" at the end of this line and the "hours / bowers" rhyme of the preceding couplet.
52. This half-rhymed couplet is, I admit, my own fabrication from separate lines about winter: "the icy style [i.e. pen] distills" is too good an account of icicles to lose, and neither it nor the next line (leading into a reasonably coherent section on lions) has a legitimate partner.
53. My closing inverted commas. This increasingly illegible passage describes the modern process of printing: the "demon" in the following line is clearly the "printer's devil" or apprentice often blamed for mistakes. Though this technology is way beyond the pastoral age, the aim could be to stress the significance of its invention of writing, which ultimately led to print.
54. In Genesis 24, Rebecca gives Abraham's servant well-water for his camels—a sign that she is a suitable wife for Abraham's son Isaac. Accordingly, the servant gives her bracelets and her family allow her to return with him to marry Isaac, at the first sight of whom she eagerly descends from her camel. The importance of wells as sites of contest and negotiation in the Pastoral Age is stressed in Darwin's first notes for Canto II.
55. For this age's shift from East to West, see note 31 above.
56. As the only age with no designated Hall, Pasturage is presumably in the South, not the East as in the opening of the verse text. Of the topics listed here, that version only includes tents made from branches (not leaves), patriarchs, pastoral love songs, astronomy and sundials.
57. The story of Cain and Abel can easily be read as symbolizing the supersession of pasturage by agricultural crop-growing. In contrast to the pastoral age, whose "woes" apart from war were mainly natural disasters (murrain and famine), the agricultural age involves the socially created evils of slavery, animal labour, iron weapons and alcohol. This fits well with the outline's darkening move from East (dawn of mankind) to South (idyllic noon) to declining West (this agricultural age) to North (the even greater evils of commerce).
58. Despite the triumphs of manufacture, this age of commerce (more or less the present) intensifies the ills of the preceding one: slaves are traded as well as owned, and wine is turned into spirits, which as a doctor Darwin strongly condemned. The only hero is Dedalus: something which possibly bodes ill for the project of explaining myths in terms of technological developments. The keynote line about gold enslaving the world suggests a generally negative reading of the age of capital.
59. It is a nuisance that the two things to be abolished are particularly illegible, but crime and war seem reasonable readings. The concluding embrace of Jesus's moral principle "Do as you would be done by" (though not his claim to be the Son of God) echoes that in Plan for the Conduct of Female Education, and is incorporated in the published Temple of Nature. The positioning of the Age of Philosophy at the temple's centre, perhaps alongside the Goddess of Nature herself (but see note 16), suggests that the other four ages have been painful efforts to realize natural laws, which will only be discovered through scientific progress. In the wake of Tom Paine's scandalously anti-Christian The Age of Reason, it is easy to see what a field-day publications like The Anti-Jacobin could have had with this picture.