RECORD: W.A.H. 1930. Charles Darwin: Some reminiscences [with words attributed to Darwin]. Telegraph, (Brisbane, Queensland), (10 March), p. 20.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by Christine Chua and edited by John van Wyhe 6.2020. RN1.


[page] 20

It was one of these cold wintry evenings, when the warm proximity of the blazing log fire seemed the acme of comfort. We sat talking, age and youth. And as I looked at the kindly, wrinkled face in the changing, flickering light of the great fire, a longing seized upon me, a longing almost envious in its intensity, for the gift of that patient restfulness and happiness that seemed to emanate from the personality of my age-worn companion (writes W.A.H. in the Edinburgh "Weekly Scotsman").

A half-read volume of Charles Darwin's "The Movements of Plants" lay cover upwards on his knees, and, seeing the direction of my gaze, he smiled in that quizzical and tantalising manner so naively and unconsciously adopted by the journey of life's far travelled towards those whose virgin years demand a little condescension.

"Would you like me to tell you about my visit to the author of this little book?" he asked, his eyes lighting up with the spirit of pleasant recollection.

Pleased by my ready acquiescence, he dipped into the pigeon-holes of youthful memories, and retailed to me the following reminiscences of Charles Darwin: —

"Darwin's noble, and life-long devotion to scientific research has left an everlasting impression on scientific thought. To-day his works are placed within the reach of all, books which up till a few years ago could only be acquired by people of means. His ideas may be said to have now been universally accepted — some with but slight modification.

It was a lovely April morning in 1875, two of us — mere youths, students of science in Edinburgh — set out from Greenwich to walk to Down. I scarcely think that a band of pilgrims, setting out for Mecca's sacred shrine, could have felt more enthusiasm than we did.

A WALK THROUGH KENT.

There is probably no season in the year more delightful than early spring-time, "when what is green and hawthorn buds appear," to walk through Kent. In this walk from Greenwich to Down we passed through bits of quiet, picturesque country; where the wood and meadows are charmingly inter-mingled, the landscape presenting a series of gentle undulations so characteristic of its geological character, belonging as it does to the cretaceous series (consisting of chalk).

On the way one passes through the lovely vale of Keston. Here is a spot which can lay claim to something of more than passing interest, that is "Wilberforce Oak," a fine specimen of its kind, overlooking the valley. It was here that Wilberforce, in a conversation with Pitt, resolved to give notice in the House of Commons of his intention to bring forward the Bill for the abolition of the slave trade. The beautiful surroundings seemed to be in complete harmony with the lofty sentiment.

Continuing our journey, we crossed Hays Common and reached Down, a peaceful little hamlet that might verbally be styled "Sleeping Hollow."

Arriving at Mr. Darwin's house, we were ushered into a spacious room, furnished with an unostentatious display of taste, which at once denoted that aesthetic and artistic love of the beautiful in nature, which found expression throughout all his works.

On a table lay the "Life of Dean Swift," by Foster, the works of Dickens, and other popular and well known authors. Vases of primroses stood on various places, and here and there in orderly profusion were stands filled with a large variety of flowering plants.

On my entrance, Mr. George Darwin intimated that his father was very busy, but that he would be pleased to see us. Immediately afterwards Mr. Darwin entered, and cordially extended his hand, greeted us warmly.

UNCONSCIOUS OF HIS GREATNESS.

It is scarcely necessary to speak of his quiet and loving disposition; we had not the slightest claim upon his precious time, robbed as it was by so much ill-health. Shy and reserved towards any public demonstration to pay homage to his marvellous talents, he at once put one at ease by his gentle manners and homely, genial smile, that one instinctively felt himself in the presence of a mind that seemed unconscious of its own greatness.

At this time he was about 68 years of age, and had a very striking and impressive appearance; tall, slightly stooping, his hair and beard of snowy whiteness. His face could not be adequately described in words, and this is hardly to be wondered at when one knows that few, if any, of the numerous paintings and etchings do justice to it.

Kindly pressing us to have some refreshments after our long walk, he conversed on various topics, local and otherwise. Speaking of Professor Huxley, who had been occupying Sir Wyville Thompson's Chair, for a session during the Challenger expedition, he shook, his head sadly and thought Professor Huxley was working too hard and that his past labours had been long and arduous. Of his own great work, "The Origin of Species," he remarked that it would be dry reading to people uninterested in the subject. When it was mentioned that this book was becoming rapidly and widely known, and that his theory had been taken up so enthusiastically in Germany, and that it would be ultimately universally accepted, he replied, "That is my belief," but with a quiet smile added, "I may be prejudiced." The naivete of the remark was amusing, spoken so earnestly, yet accompanied by a quiet humour. Of his friend and neighbour, Sir John Lubbock, he spoke very lovingly and expressed his pleasure in seeing Sir John's interesting works becoming so popular and so widely read. On taking leave of Mr. Darwin we were invited to see the greenhouses where his father carried on many of those patient, wonderful and far-reaching investigations into plant life,

which have revolutionised the Science of Botany.

DARWIN'S GREENHOUSE.

The greenhouse was a small and unpretentious structures about 30 feet by 12 feet. Here we saw the Fly-trap (Dioea Muscipula), basins of water containing Upricularia, Sun-dews (Drosera Rotundefolia), all of which were just recovering from the series of experiments to which they had been subjected, and which resulted in the publications of 1881, namely "Insectivorous Plants" and "The Movement of Plants."

These, like all his previous books, opening up new channels of research, and revealing many intricate and hitherto undreamt of workings of nature, when it is known (as he himself told us) that he never knew what it was to feel really well after his attack of fever, in Chili 30 years previously, while on the memorable expedition of the Beagle, make it difficult for one to realise how he managed to accomplish such a vast amount of work.

It is no exaggeration to say that these books alone were sufficient to place Darwin among the foremost of scientific men, but when we look backward to the interval between 1862 and 1878, during which time were produced the works "On the Fertilisation of Orchids," on "Cross and Self-fertilisation of Plants," and that on the "Forms of Flowers," the latter dealing with the agency of insects in the fertilisation of plants, we are more than struck by the amount of patient and laborious work performed.

The influence of those books acted like an inspiration, new vistas were opened up, and men were stimulated to adopt other methods of investigation. The appearance of these works was welcomed by all scientific workers and by the general public who took only a superficial interest in such subjects. No one could find in the conclusions Darwin came to any ground for antagonisms or for the irritating and too often ignorant denunciations which so frequently assailed his greater works. Men had already recognised in their author the indefatigable observer of Nature in many of her manifold and intricate workings, steadfast to truth irrespective of the consequences, and one who was extending the range of human thought in nearly every branch of science.

"THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES."

The publication in 1859 of "The Origin of Species" met with a warm reception in more sense than one. Many people were seized with consternation and horror. According to them, religion and mortality would be obliterated from human conduct if such ideas were entertained. Upon the head of its gentle author were hurled bitter and caustic anathemas which might well have annihilated any ordinary mortal: one has only to recall the very brilliant gathering of intellect at Oxford in 1860, and the scene where the Bishop of Oxford and the young London doctor, Huxley, met as opponents in the famous debate on the origin of species. It was an open secret that the good bishop was smitten hip and thigh, and happily for young Huxley, the "Zeit Geist" forbade the use of the faggot and stake, and he escaped the fate which too often fell to men of science in days gone by. The appearance of this work was by many regarded as epoch-making, which posterity seems to have confirmed. It gave a new trend to men's thoughts, it recreated the various sciences of botany, zoology, embryology, etc., on entirely new bases, and all this it accomplishes then after its production. The ideas set forth were accepted by many of the clearest-minded and most eminent scientific men in Europe. Since then it has gone on permeating nearly every branch of human thought.

And here my companion closed his eyes and was silent for a time, lost in the reverie of bygone days, brought to life again for my innocent pleasure.

"A wonderful man and a wonderful memory," he said softly, and dropped once more into the abyss of abstraction, while I tip-toed out of the room for fear of disturbing the recreated tenure of his youthful memories.

 


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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)

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