As a young man Darwin was full of fire and passion. He read the poets, Gray, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge and most especially Milton, with great enjoyment. Music and painting gave him extreme pleasure. He deeply loved Handel’s Messiah, and the anthems during evensong that he had heard in King’s Chapel while an undergraduate made him ‘shiver with delight’. When twenty-nine, he spoke of getting up close to a painting and being laid open by ‘the peculiar smell’, presumably varnish, to the ‘old irrational ideas’ that ‘thrilled across me’ in his early twenties in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Above all he was deeply moved to ecstasy by natural scenery. Standing upon the summit of the Andes and gazing at the prospect all around he felt ‘as if his nerves had become fiddle strings and had all taken to rapidly vibrating’. In Patagonia ‘the stillness and desolation’ gave him inexplicable pleasure
On top of the Andes:
‘The atmosphere so resplendently clear, the sky an intense blue, the profound valleys, the wild broken forms, the heaps of ruins piled up during the ages, the bright coloured rocks, contrasted with the quiet mountains of Snow, together produced a scene I could never have imagined…….I felt glad I was by myself, it was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing a chorus of The Messiah in full orchestra’.
In the Cape Verde Islands:
‘here I first saw the glory of tropical vegetation. Tamarinds, Bananas & Palms were flourishing at my feet – I had expected a good deal, for I had read Humboldt’s descriptions & I was afraid of disappointments: how utterly vain such fear is, none can tell but those who have experienced what I today have. – It is not only the gracefulness of their forms or the novel richness of their colours, it is the numberless & confusing associations that rush together on the mind, and produce the effect. – I returned to the shore treading on volcanic rocks, hearing the notes of unknown birds, & seeing new insects fluttering about still newer flowers. – It has been for me a glorious day, like giving to a blind man eyes – he is overwhelmed with what he sees and cannot justly comprehend it – Such are my feelings and such may they remain –
In the Guyatecas
‘It was fortunate we reached this shelter. For now a real storm of T. del Fuego is raging with its wonted fury. White massive clouds were piled up against a dark blue sky & across them black ragged sheets of vapor were rapidly driven. The successive ranges of mountains appeared like dim shadows: it was a most ominous sublime scene. – The setting sun cast on the woodland a yellow gleam much like the flame of spirits of wine on a man’s countenance’
While journeying to Rio
‘At night in these fine regions of the Tropics there is one sure & never failing source of enjoyment; it is admiring the constellations in the heaven. – Many of those who have seen both hemispheres give the victory to the stars of the North. – It is however to me an inexpressible pleasure to behold those constellations, the first sight of which Humboldt describes with such pleasure…’
In Rio de Janeiro
‘At this elevation the landscape has attained its most brilliant tint.- I do not know what epithet such scenery deserves: beautiful is much too tame; every form, every colour is such a complete exaggeration of what one has ever beheld before.- If it may be so compared, it is like one of the gayest scenes in the Opera House or Theatre’
In Terra Del Fuego
‘The gloomy depth of the ravines well accorded with the universal signs of violence.- in every direction were irregular masses of rock & uptorn trees , others decayed and others ready to fall. – to have made the scene perfect there ought to have been a group of Banditti – in place of it a seaman (who accompanied me) & myself, being armed and roughly dressed were in tolerable unison with the surrounding Magnificence.
Again in Terra Del Fuego
‘In many places magnificent glaciers extended from the mountains to the water’s edge. – I cannot imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl blue of these glaciers, especially when contrasted with the Snow’
But above all it was in the great Brazilian rainforests that he felt most keenly the sense of the sublime, in ‘the great, wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse’ of the Amazon. In Brazil even Humboldt’s ‘glorious descriptions’ did not do justice to the reality. Darwin was dazed by:
‘‘the luxuriance of the vegetation…..the elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers’ His mind was ‘a chaos of delight’. Pausing in a shady nook, he listened to the droning, croaking, throbbing life. Now, as in ages past, when no human interlopers were around to hear, the forest reverberated to ‘ a most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence’, like some great cathedral at evensong, with the anthem fading to ‘universal stillness’. Adding ‘raptures to…raptures’ he began collecting flowers enough to ‘make a florist go wild’ and countless beetles. Such ‘transports of pleasure’ he had never known”.
‘The air is motionless and has a peculiar chilling dampness. – While sitting on the trunk of a decaying tree amidst such scenes , one feels an inexpressible delight. – The rippling of some little brook, the tap of a Woodpecker, or scream of some more distant bird, by the distinctness with which it is heard, brings a conviction of how still the rest of Nature is…’
It was beyond description, a source of incommunicable delight, more marvellous, in his own comparison, than the landscapes of Claude Lorraine. Several times during the voyage he felt totally transported by an experiential influx of the sublime, invaded by ‘the higher feelings of wonder, admiration and devotion’ that, he felt at the time, ‘bore irresistible testimony to God and the immortality of the soul’.
Surely this is some of the greatest writing about natural beauty in English. why is Darwin not celebrated as an outstandingly poetic travel writer. Why did none of this get into The Origin?