An exploration of the unpredictable worlds of Charles Darwin and Stevie Smith
Chaos is the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. It teaches us to expect the unexpected'
Dr Jonathan Wolfe
Charles Darwin (1809-18820) whose best known work is The Origin of Species, longed to be an explorer when he was young and was thrilled to be invited to join a round the world voyage which began his career as a naturalist and father of modern evolutionary ideas.
Darwin's writings often turned the conventional world upside down: worms are shown to accomplish feats of strength, pea-hens to have surprising powers of discrimination, and an insect eating plant called sundew secretes the same digestive chemicals as the human stomach. His writings often deal with forms of life and behaviours which are unexpected, grotesque and even comic. His last book on worms, for instance, includes an account of how his family played the bassoon and piano to worms to find out if they could hear. On the Darwin pages I explore his writings and also those of other writers whose work influenced him: people as various as the explorer Alexander von Humboldt, the geologist Charles Lyell and the poet William Wordsworth.
To put Darwin's vision in context I include a biography, and, as his work was part of an ongoing exploration of how species originated, I also include a short history of evolutionary ideas from ancient Greece to the present.
Stevie Smith (1902- 1971) whose best known work is the poem 'Not Waving but Drowning', longed to become an explorer when she was young but became a secretary and wrote novels and poems in her spare time. She lived in a London Suburb all her life with her aunt.
Smith's poems explore death, despair religion and a variety of human relationships. Seas, rivers, mountains, geological time and suburbs feature prominently in her poems, together with cats and dogs and a variety of other animals including anacondas, lions, mosquitoes. voles and parrots.
Animal poems are sometimes dismissed as trivial, but animals play important roles in all societies and in literature. The biblical story of creation firmly separates mand and beast but in ancient mythologies and fairy tales humans, supernatural beings shape shift into each other. In mediaeval bestiaries and Aesop's fables real and imaginary animals embody aspects of religious or moral teaching. Skylarks and nightingales illuminate the Romantic poets' conception of the sublime.
Smith gathered material from many sources for her poems, from her suburban neighbourhood to the world of myths and from other writers as various as Percy Shelley, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Thomas de Quincy and Racine.
To explore the pages on her life and work go to the Stevie Smith biography or the Stevie Smith home page
The poet Chris Torrance also has pages on this site
The copyright of the poems, prose, and photographs on this web site are the property of the authors. Stevie Smith's work is reproduced here by kind permission of the Estate of James MacGibbon. Stevie Smith's works, or any part of them, may not be downloaded, reprinted, or reproduced in any other form without the permission of which may be requested by contacting Faber and Faber
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