There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
      O earth, what changes hast thou seen!
      There where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.

The hills are shadows, and they flow
      From form to form, and nothing stands;
      They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

But in my spirit will I dwell,
      And dream my dream, and hold it true;
      For tho' my lips may breathe adieu,
I cannot think the thing farewell. — Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, Section 123

Daily it is forced home on the mind of the geologist that nothing, not even the wind that blows, is so unstable as the level of the crust of this earth. — Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle

Where on the face of the earth can we find a spot on which close investigation will not discover signs of that endless cycle of change, to which this earth has been, is, and will be subjected?— Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle

Several main points recur throughout The Voyage of the Beagle, the first of which is that everything on earth — animals, plants, and the land- and seascapes in which they live — is continuously changing however fixed and solid they might at first appear to the human observer. Things usually change slowly, at least from our point of view, but they change. Second, everything around us has taken shape over many, many eons, far longer than Europeans ever conceived before geologists began their work in the late eighteenth-century. Looking at our apparently solid, fixed world, we find difficult either believing that such change occurs or understanding how it happens. “It is not possible,” Darwin tells us,

for the mind to comprehend, except by a slow process, any effect which is produced by a cause repeated so often that the multiplier itself conveys an idea not more definite than the savage implies when he points to the hairs of his head. As often as I have seen beds of mud, sand, and shingle, accumulated to the thickness of many thousand feet, I have felt inclined to exclaim that causes, such as the present rivers and the present beaches, could never have ground down and produced such masses. But, on the other hand, when listening to the rattling noise of these torrents, and calling to mind that whole races of animals have passed away from the face of the earth, and that during this whole period, night and day, these stones have gone rattling onwards in their course, I have thought to myself, can any mountains, any continent, withstand such waste? [Entry for March 19, 1835]

Darwin here characteristically employs an essentially autobiographical narrative, one that does not create the usual objective tone and voice of nineteenth-century scientific discourse. Like the Victorian sage, the great naturalist often admits his own weakness or error, which aligns him with the reader and makes him seem more sympathetic. He begins, for example, by pointing out that “it is not possible for the mind to comprehend, except by a slow process, any effect which is produced by a cause repeated so often that the multiplier itself conveys an idea not more definite than the savage implies when he points to the hairs of his head.” Introducing what Claude Lévy-Strauss later termed the savage mind, Darwin associates himself and his readers, however briefly, with primitive peoples. In the process he suggests that without him as guide, his nineteenth-century European readers do not differ all that much from these primitive tribes.

Having introduced a general principle, one that perhaps may be a bit difficult to follow, he provides a clear example of what he means: “As often as I have seen beds of mud, sand, and shingle, accumulated to the thickness of many thousand feet, I have felt inclined to exclaim that causes, such as the present rivers and the present beaches, could never have ground down and produced such masses.” His autobiographical narrative presents not only what he saw but how he saw it -- his thought process, the succession of his ideas. Immediately explaining how difficult it is for us to believe that small repeated actions, such as the fall of rain drops or repeated collisions with tiny bits of matter, can effect great change, he changes direction, offering first an explanation and then a broad conclusion or sententia. “But, on the other hand,” he explains, “when listening to the rattling noise of these torrents, and calling to mind that during this whole period, night and day, these stones have gone rattling onwards in their course, I have thought to myself, can any mountains, any continent, withstand such waste?”

In two ways this brief paragraph exemplifies a Darwinian analogue to In Memoriam's literature of experience. First, like the individual sections of Tennyson's great poem, it functions as a mechanism to permit us to think and feel along with him, as we observe Darwin, who shows himself at first puzzled, then move step by step, reasoning his way to a proper understanding. In Memoriam does not permit one to take individual sections to represent Tennyson's beliefs; they are but stages in a long, complex, nonlinear process. Therefore, we must read through the entire poem, experiencing the ebb and flow of the speaker's belief and unbelief, until at last we arrive at his final position, the journey having been as important as the final statement of belief, for without the experience of that journey, we could not grasp why Tennyson's speaker believes what he does. Similarly, like many of Darwin's other paragraphs, this one exemplifies, not a literature of statement but a literature of experience, one of its chief purposes being to makes us think and feel along with Darwin.

Darwin takes a similar approach in our second example, telling his readers, “it required little geological practice to interpret the marvellous story which this scene at once unfolded; though I confess I was at first so much astonished that I could scarcely believe the plainest evidence.” Darwin, who presents himself as a visionary sage much in the manner of Tennyson in In Memoriam Section 123, presents his geological example as a “marvelous story,” which he must retell after analyzing its traces, and in narrating it for us he presents himself in the manner of the Victorian sages as a man of vision, one who can see.

I saw the spot where a cluster of fine trees once waved their branches on the shores of the Atlantic, when that ocean (now driven back 700 miles) came to the foot of the Andes. I saw that they had sprung from a volcanic soil which had been raised above the level of the sea, and that subsequently this dry land, with its upright trees, had been let down into the depths of the ocean. In these depths, the formerly dry land was covered by sedimentary beds, and these again by enormous streams of submarine lava--one such mass attaining the thickness of a thousand feet; and these deluges of molten stone and aqueous deposits five times alternately had been spread out. The ocean which received such thick masses must have been profoundly deep; but again the subterranean forces exerted themselves, and I now beheld the bed of that ocean, forming a chain of mountains more than seven thousand feet in height. Nor had those antagonistic forces been dormant, which are always at work wearing down the surface of the land; the great piles of strata had been intersected by many wide valleys, and the trees, now changed into silex, were exposed projecting from the volcanic soil, now changed into rock, whence formerly, in a green and budding state, they had raised their lofty heads. Now, all is utterly irreclaimable and desert; even the lichen cannot adhere to the stony casts of former trees. [April 1, 1835]

Darwin similarly emphasizes time and amazing change when discussing the mountains that separate the “republics of Chile and Mendoza.” Shells in the Peuquenes, the oldest ridge in these mountains, prove “it has been upraised 14,000 feet” fairly recently in geological terms, “but since these shells lived in a moderately deep sea, it can be shown that the area now occupied by the Cordillera [previously] must have subsided several thousand feet--in northern Chile as much as 6000 feet--so as to have allowed that amount of submarine strata to have been heaped on the bed on which the shells lived.” After narrating these history of these he concludes: “ Daily it is forced home on the mind of the geologist that nothing, not even the wind that blows, is so unstable as the level of the crust of this earth ” (March 20, 1835; my emphasis).

He punctuates another interpretation of a landscape's geological history with a similar conclusion when he arrives at Ascension Island. There he encounters "saucer-shaped layers [that] crop out on the margin, forming perfect rings of many different colours, giving to the summit a most fantastic appearance; one of these rings is white and broad, and resembles a course round which horses have been exercised; hence the hill has been called the Devil's Riding School.” He takes samples of the site's mineral, later discovering from a colleague's analysis the “most extraordinary fact” these stone saucers consist almost entirely of organically produced matter, chiefly by microorganisms and plants, such as grasses. The “appearance of the layers” convinces Darwin that the remains of these organisms “had been deposited under water, though from the extreme dryness of the climate I was forced to imagine that torrents of rain had probably fallen during some great eruption.” Concluding this story, he points out that “at some former epoch the climate and productions of Ascension were very different from what they now are.” And then he draws his moral: “Where on the face of the earth can we find a spot on which close investigation will not discover signs of that endless cycle of change, to which this earth has been, is, and will be subjected?” (April 20, 1835).

Bibliography

Darwin, Charles. A Naturalist's Voyage Round the World The Voyage Of The Beagle. Project Gutenberg EBook #3704 produced by Sue Asscher. August 6, 2008. The e-version is based on the 1890 11th edition. (The book first appeared in 1839.)


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