Throughout "The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin tries to help us see the landscapes he visited, often, like other Victorian word-painters, such as Ruskin, presenting them by means of narrative. Sometimes he tries to convey the beauty or novelty of what he sees; once, when relating his experience of an earthquake, he tells he will not even try, explaining, “I have not attempted to give any detailed description of the appearance of Concepcion, for I feel that it is quite impossible to convey the mingled feelings which I experienced. Several of the officers visited it before me, but their strongest language failed to give a just idea of the scene of desolation.” Note that in true Romantic and post-Romantic fashion, Darwin emphasizes the need to communicate, not just the appearance of the scene before him but the “feelings” that it prompted.


H.M.S. "Beagle" in Straits of Magellan. Mt. Sarmiento in the distance by R. T. Pritchett. 1913. [Click on image to enlarge it]

Other parts of "The Voyage of the Beagle relate, not the usual beautiful or sublime landscape, but something very different. In his account of Tierra del Fuego, he includes two different kinds of prospects, one in which the spectator looks at a mountain from a distance and the other in which he looks down from the summit. Before narrating in detail his ascent of Mount Tarn when the Beagle “anchored in the fine bay of Port Famine” at the beginning of winter, he uses a distant view of another mountain, Mount Sarmiento, to explain how we tend to judge size and scale. Darwin introduces his first sight of Mount Sarmiento by telling us that at first he couldn't see it all: “I never saw a more cheerless prospect; the dusky woods, piebald with snow, could be only seen indistinctly through a drizzling hazy atmosphere.” After this unpromising beginning, he explains that the explorers did, however, have “two fine days,” and “one of these, Mount Sarmiento, a distant mountain 6800 feet high, presented a very noble spectacle.” Rather than describe the mountain, Darwin proceeds in the manner of Ruskin's Modern Painters to explain the conditions of perception, telling us,

I was frequently surprised, in the scenery of Tierra del Fuego, at the little apparent elevation of mountains really lofty. I suspect it is owing to a cause which would not at first be imagined, namely, that the whole mass, from the summit to the water's edge, is generally in full view. I remember having seen a mountain, first from the Beagle Channel, where the whole sweep from the summit to the base was full in view, and then from Ponsonby Sound across several successive ridges; and it was curious to observe in the latter case, as each fresh ridge afforded fresh means of judging of the distance, how the mountain rose in height. [Chapter 11]

Contrasting two experiences of looking at Mount Sarmiento, Darwin points out that simply blocking off parts of the mountain form our view makes it seem larger.

A few pages later, Darwin takes us closer to a mountain when he relates, “I started one morning at four o'clock to ascend Mount Tarn, which is 2600 feet high, and is the most elevated point in this immediate district.” In this more detailed narrative he conveys his experience of the difficult ascent, and by this means manages both to present himself as the intrepid explorer he was and to communicate the experience of the climb, which the surrounding forest made extremely difficult. The thick forest, which begins at water's edge, blocked all sight of their destination, and Darwin and his companions had to use a compass to find their way through “deep ravines” and “ the death-like scene of desolation.”

In the deep ravines the death-like scene of desolation exceeded all description; outside it was blowing a gale, but in these hollows not even a breath of wind stirred the leaves of the tallest trees. So gloomy, cold, and wet was every part, that not even the fungi, mosses, or ferns could flourish. In the valleys it was scarcely possible to crawl along, they were so completely barricaded by great mouldering trunks, which had fallen down in every direction. When passing over these natural bridges, one's course was often arrested by sinking knee deep into the rotten wood; at other times, when attempting to lean against a firm tree, one was startled by finding a mass of decayed matter ready to fall at the slightest touch.

At last escaping this dead world in which not even “fungi, mosses, or ferns could flourish,” he soon “reached the bare ridge, which conducted us to the summit,” and now he finally has his mountain prospect, which he finds “characteristic of Tierra del Fuego; irregular chains of hills, mottled with patches of snow, deep yellowish-green valleys, and arms of the sea intersecting the land in many directions.” Darwin, we observe, provides a naturalist-explorer's version of the religious ladder of vision and the romantic prospect. In this case, the climb to the top of the mountain turned out to have more interest for Darwin and his reader than the view from the summit. Darwin in fact devotes most of his narration to describing his passage through the “gloomy, cold, and wet” world in which he sank knee deep into dead trees and crawled along the damp, dank ground. The resulting view from the mountain hardly seems worth his efforts to get there, and his party takes a quick look and quickly descends: “The strong wind was piercingly cold, and the atmosphere rather hazy, so that we did not stay long on the top of the mountain.”


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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