Miss Seward wrote a little poem of about fifty lines, addressed to Dr. Darwin, under the character of the genius of the place; in praise of which, it is enough to say, that, with some alterations, it was afterwards adopted, without acknowledgement, as the introduction to the first canto of “the Botanic Garden.” . . . The correctness of the statement is placed beyond a doubt, by the appearance of her verses as such in the periodical publications of the year in which they were written. According to Miss Seward's account, it was the perusal of her lines that suggested the idea of a great poem “on the Linnean system.” The composition of it was begun very soon afterwards, but advanced so slowly, that ten years elapsed before the date of publication. — 1804 Edinburgh Review

Decorated initial A

ccording to the Edinburgh Review’s explanation of this accurate claim, around 1777 Erasmus Darwin, Anna Seward’s mentor, purchased wetlands outside Litchfield, which he turned into a botanic garden: “This little dell was wet and swampy from springs, which encouraged a multitude of aquatic plants. The Doctor took steps to improve this sequestered place, widening the lake, and guiding the brook into curved channels. He planted many botanical specimens, partly for their beauty and partly for their use in making experiments in embryonic development and pollination” (66). Seward wrote a poem of some fifty lines praising the results, and “Dr. Darwin approved the poem, as its author had approved his garden. ‘I shall send it to the periodical publications,’ said he; ‘but it ought to form the exordium of a great work.’ He outlined then and there this visionary great work, which was to propound, in magnificent detail, the complete Linnaean system.” When Seward “blushingly remarked that the projected poem was not ‘strictly proper for a female pen,’” presumably because it concerned matters of reproduction and sexuality in plants, Darwin wrote The Botanic Garden, using her verses as the introduction without either acknowledging that she wrote them or obtaining permission to use them. According to her biographer, “someone (probably Mr. Stevens of Repton) sent Miss Seward's poem to the Gentleman's Magazine, and it appeared in print long before Darwin’s long poem” (68).

STAY YOUR RUDE STEPS! whose throbbing breasts infold
The legion-fiends of Glory, or of Gold!
Stay! whose false lips seductive simpers part,
While Cunning nestles in the harlot-heart!—
For you no Dryads dress the roseate bower,
For you no Nymphs their sparkling vases pour;
Unmark'd by you, light Graces swim the green,
And hovering Cupids aim their shafts, unseen.
"But THOU! whose mind the well-attemper'd ray
Of Taste and Virtue lights with purer day;
Whose finer sense each soft vibration owns
With sweet responsive sympathy of tones;
So the fair flower expands it's lucid form
To meet the sun, and shuts it to the storm;—
For thee my borders nurse the fragrant wreath,
My fountains murmur, and my zephyrs breathe;
Slow slides the painted snail, the gilded fly
Smooths his fine down, to charm thy curious eye;
On twinkling fins my pearly nations play,
Or win with sinuous train their trackless way;
My plumy pairs in gay embroidery dress'd
Form with ingenious bill the pensile nest,
To Love's sweet notes attune the listening dell,
And Echo sounds her soft symphonious shell.
And, if with Thee some hapless Maid should stray,
Disasterous Love companion of her way,
Oh, lead her timid steps to yonder glade,
Whose arching cliffs depending alders shade;
There, as meek Evening wakes her temperate breeze,
And moon-beams glimmer through the trembling trees,
The rills, that gurgle round, shall soothe her ear,
The weeping rocks shall number tear for tear;
There as sad Philomel, alike forlorn,
Sings to the Night from her accustomed thorn;
While at sweet intervals each falling note
Sighs in the gale, and whispers round the grot;
The sister-woe shall calm her aching breast,
And softer slumbers steal her cares to rest.—
"Winds of the North! restrain your icy gales,
Nor chill the bosom of these happy vales!
Hence in dark heaps, ye gathering Clouds, revolve!
Disperse, ye Lightnings! and, ye Mists, dissolve!
—Hither, emerging from yon orient skies,
BOTANIC GODDESS! bend thy radiant eyes;
O'er these soft scenes assume thy gentle reign,
Pomona, Ceres, Flora in thy train;
O'er the still dawn thy placid smile effuse,
And with thy silver sandals print the dews;
In noon's bright blaze thy vermil vest unfold,
And wave thy emerald banner star'd with gold."

Darwin’s contribution to his long poem then begins with the following two lines:

Thus spoke the GENIUS, as He stept along,
And bade these lawns to Peace and Truth belong.

Related material


Ashmun, Margaret. The Singing Swan; an Account of Anna Seward and Her Acquaintance ... . New Haven, Yale University Press, 1931.

“[Review of] Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin, chiefly during his residence at Lichfield; with Anecdotes of his Friends, and Criticisms on his Writings. By Anna Seward. London. 1804’ Edinburgh Review. 2 (June 1804): 230-241. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the Unversity of California Library. Web. 22 August 2018.

Seward, Anna. Memoirs of the life of Dr. Darwin, chiefly during his residence in Lichfield, with anecdotes of his friends, and criticisms on his writings. London: Printed for J. Johnson, 1804. Available online from Hathi Trust.

Last modified 27 August 2018