Darwinism and Vitalism

The Darwinian world-view initiates two different currents in modern literature. One tends towards the analysis of the world as system and incipient order. The biologist Louis Agassiz's doctrine of 'correspondences', espoused by Emerson, finds echoes throughout the twentieth century: not only in Pound's use of his work, but in comments like Moore's declaration that Williams's strength is 'the ability to see resemblances in things which are dissimilar' (Moore, 1986, p. 56). To be sure, for the strict Darwinist the world is a place of disorder, of random variations — and the best example here is Thomas Hardy. As a Victorian novelist Hardy read Spencer and Comte and moved in scientific circles in London; as a largely twentieth-century poet he kept abreast of scientific thinking. Hardy's Darwinism refuses even the comforts of 'organic memory' (the idea that memory may be inherited biologically, taken up by Lawrence and others), and depicts a world dominated by chance, a universe in which human beings are, like the rest of creation, struggling to adapt. He meditates on the determination of the self by its genetic inheritance in 'Heredity', 'The Pedigree' and other poems. Hardy describes a universe which seems (as the Second Law of Thermodynamics stated) to be running down, radiating its energies outwards.

Robert Frost's Darwinism is gentler than Hardy's in its stress on the flow of existence (the metaphors of the stream and the forking path recur in his poetry) rather than the painful anomaly of human consciousness. It is apparent not only in such overtly Darwinian poems as 'Accidentally on Purpose', 'Design' and the late satire 'Etherializing', but also in poems like 'The Most of It', in which the poet confronts the blank unresponsiveness of the natural world, an unresponsiveness which pauses between the mythic and the merely natural. Frost's aesthetic flourishes on the particular; in an interview he insisted that 'Life has lost none of its mystery and romance', despite science's incursions into the unknown, adding 'The more we know the less we know' (cited in Faggen, 1997, p. 39).

Later examples of Darwinian thinking can be seen in Charles Olson's geological planes and layerings, exploring the effect of the encounter with the new landscape on the making of Americans and tracing continental origins back to Gondwanaland (though subsuming this narrative to the mythical figure of Maximus), and using the American geographer Carl Sauer and the biologist Edgar Anderson. The nineteenth-century life sciences continue to foster an observational poetics. Writing of her favourite naturalists in the 1950s, Lorine Niedecker lists 'Audubon, Gilbert White, Agassiz, Crevecoeur', adding 'I will look into Humboldt'. Niedecker's late sequence of five poems entitled 'Darwin' explores the Victorian naturalist's apprehension of a world of disorder and cataclysm, resolved in the 'Paradise Puzzle' of the Galapagos Islands into his 'carcass- / conclusions':

the universe not built by brute force but designed by laws The details left to the working of chance 'Let each man hope and believe what he can'

This sounds like a programme for Niedecker's own tentative poetics in the Thoreau-vian ramble of 'Wintergreen Ridge' (1968) and other poems of landscape, botany and geology: the future and the landscape are open, even within the constraints of scientific understanding; the fragilities of human time are defended. Similar explorations of landscape can be found in such poems as A. R. Ammons's 'Corson's Inlet' (1965), with its description of the ebb and flow of life, 'pulsations of order / in the bellies of minnows', corresponding in turn to the poet's own 'eddies of meaning . . . running / like a stream through the geography of my work'. A more radical example is Lyn Hejinian's The Cell (1992), which cannot be directly related to biology, but which exists in close relation to ideas of growth, ageing, randomness, even selection:

There is a sentence and therefore a sensation, an incorporation The body, but it cannot hold

Blueness holds the sky and the sea is bound Discontinuity without certainty of end This is society, not science Where are your polarities, your transitions Only gerunds, during a seduction, it being a selection

In a way which is never fully explicit, this is an aleatory poetry which in its terms and arguably in its method could not exist without modern science; without field theory and the critique of Newtonian physics (and if Hejinian seems to recall Tyndall's famous demonstrations of the scattering of light to create the blueness of the sky, that too was a demonstration of the 'poetry' of science).

If the first inheritance of Darwinian science is thus in notions of disorder and order in the natural world, the second consequence of evolutionary thinking as promulgated by Spencer, Lamarck and others (and as reinforced by Nietzsche) is Vitalism: the idea that a unique (often sexual) energy impels all life. The result is a stress on the individual's need, as Bruce Clarke puts it, to 'clear out the dead wood of instrumental thought and fill itself with nature's "rhythmic urge" towards higher forms' (Clarke, 1996, p. 159). A vitalist egoism underpins accounts of creativity in the work of Pound (influenced by the French essayist Remy de Gourmont), Lawrence, Stein, Mina Loy and other modernists. For these writers, creation is sexual; for the male writers, a result of masculine sexuality acting on the 'passive' and 'conservative' world of social life. Williams shared this vitalist stress on sexual energy, developed from Dora Marsden's version of the ideas of the sexologist Otto Weininger. Spring and All (1923) includes 'Sometimes I speak of imagination as a force, an electricity or a medium, a place. It is immaterial which: for whether it is the condition of a place or a dynamiza-tion its effect is the same: to free the world of fact from the impositions of "art" . . . and to liberate the man to act in whatever direction his disposition leads.' 'The true procreative process', Williams wrote, 'is at the back of all genius.' In such accounts of creativity — which find postwar echoes in any number of poets — the body becomes fundamental to writing, and bodily interventions (like W. B. Yeats's Steinach Operation, designed to rejuvenate the failing poet) might have effects on poetry. Charles Olson, who was in many ways Pound's most significant inheritor as an appropriator of science, insisted in a 1962 essay that 'the soul is proprioceptive', that 'total experience' goes as deep as the cell (Olson, 1989, p. 183).

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