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  • "Awful Doubt":Milton and Darwin in the Land of Fire
  • Ian Bickford

"Jemmy believed in dreams, though not, as I have said, in the devil."

—Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, 1839

"With regard to 'Paradise Lost,'" Henry James mused in 1876, "some of the cargo must be thrown overboard to save the ship."1 The problem for James is not the size, length, or volume of a poem that, as Samuel Johnson groused, "none ever wished … longer than it is."2 It is instead, I will venture, a problem of reading John Milton after Charles Darwin, for whom, in precedent, Milton presented both a problem and a provisional solution. James's remark was an elaboration upon the French intellectual Edmond Schérer's estimation that Paradise Lost could be appreciated "only in fragments," and it was a fragment of Milton's epic that returned to Darwin as the HMS Beagle "drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorous" off the eastern coast of South America: "It is impossible to behold this plain of matter, as it were melted & consuming by heat, without being reminded of Milton's description [End Page 103] of Chaos and Anarchy."3 That reminder is also an important remainder, surviving in a process of textual selection as Darwin, concluding his first full year at sea, begins casting Milton's creationist cargo overboard.

The remaining fragments are anything but relics, rudiments, or vestiges. In a Darwinian sense, to survive is to proliferate, and as Darwin confronted a world more abundant, more chaotic, and more mutable than he could have anticipated in his medical studies at Christ's College, the fragmented Milton was always with him: he brought Milton everywhere, and found him everywhere. As Gillian Beer, Joan Richardson, Joseph Wittreich, Robert Richards, and others have remarked, the chronically seasick Darwin carried his copy of Paradise Lost ashore whenever he disembarked, often for long stretches on foot and horseback or Galapagosian tortoise-back, meeting the Beagle at each subsequent port.4 "But what was Milton … doing in the hands of the incipient evolutionist?," asks George Levine—a good but also a guileless question; it would be more surprising for Milton to be missing altogether from Darwin's hands.5 Whether or not Milton's nineteenth century readers were fit to his own poetic standards and political and theological priorities, they were far from few, and "the incipient evolutionist," as Beer and Levine illustrate, possessed an enormous literary knowledge and appetite. What begs attention is not the isolated fact but the insistent repetition—the recursive, iterative, and sustained habit—of Darwin's reading of Milton. "When I could take only a single small volume," he wrote of his excursions in South America, "I always chose Milton."6

He was choosing from a shipboard collection of approximately 400 volumes, large enough for Captain Fitz Roy to "flatter" himself in a letter to his sister, dated March 16, 1826, for having assembled "a complete library in miniature."7 To a catalog dominated by travel narratives and volumes of geology and natural history, Darwin added his own copies of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology and Paradise Lost. The former, famously, provided the framework for reconsidering geological time, a necessary step in Darwin's realizing the longue durée of evolutionary change. The [End Page 104] latter is either an oddity aboard ship, finding its place with very few literary works—Samuel Richardson's Charles Grandison and the works of William Shenstone—along with the King James Bible and two copies of the New Testament in Greek and German; or else, in the company of Carl Linnaeus, Alexander von Humboldt, and Charles Lyell, it achieves a new provisional category, opening, in Darwin's reading, to a generic reconfiguration that would profoundly disrupt its internal argument and essential paradigm, that is, what it seeks to "justify." While serving as a theological contrast and counterpoint to the radically emended version of created reality emerging into Darwin's view, the poem also, if perhaps against its own interests, makes a substantial contribution to that process of emendation, offering up its own substantial interest in and attention to the workings of the natural...