Darwin on Poetry and Music

From my friend Margaret McIntyre comes this cautionary song:

Letter by Charles Darwin, late in his life, to a friend:

“Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure…But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry;…My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts…and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”

Charles Darwin: His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter & in a Selected Series of his Published Letters, Edited by Francis Darwin. London: William Clowes and Sons, Ltd.1892, p. 51.

12 thoughts on “Darwin on Poetry and Music

  1. Margaret McIntyre

    Hi Chauncey,

    Just wanted to give credit where credit is due. I first heard of this quote while attending a conference at MIT a couple of weeks ago with Peter Senge et al on Leading and Learning for Sustainability. (I’d love to share more on that at some point!)

    I personally am very committed to having more poetry, more music, more dancing, more photography, more connection, etc., in my life. The Darwin quote was a real gem for me so I wanted to share it with people who I thought would appreciate it as well. I was so pleased to see you post it to the blog!

    A big hug,

  2. Tracie

    Just dropping by. Btw, you website have great content!

    (Thanks Tracie. – Chauncey. PS: I deleted the product ad that you left with your message.)

  3. Joe Alberti

    I thought y’all might find this interesting.
    ps: Chauncey, I completed my Ph.D. A section of my chapter on action
    includes speech acts as well as a quote from The Tree of Knowledge…

    JUAN GONZALEZ: You don’t follow a long narrative discourse, but you thread together pieces of a tapestry. How did you develop that style? Why did you decide to write in that style?
    EDUARDO GALEANO: I never decided. It’s something—I’m written by my books. I mean, they write me, so I never decide anything. Well, I was always looking for a language who could integrate everything that has been culturally divorced from, for instance, heart and mind. So I was looking for a feel-thinking language, sentipensante, “feel-thinking.” It’s a word. I didn’t invent the word. It’s a word I heard years ago in the Colombian coast. A fisherman told me, “Hay gigrere en las palabras sentipensantes,” when I told him I was a writer. “Ah, you’re a writer.” “Yes.” “Oh.” And he asked me if I was using a sentipensante language, a feel-thinking language. And so, he was a master. I mean, I learned a lot from this sentence forever. I am a sentipensante.
    I think one of the divorces that has avoided a full integration of human condition is this divorce between our emotions and our ideas. In other divorces, separating journalists, for instance, literary journalists, saying, well, this is an essay. This is a poem. This is a novel. This is an—I don’t know what. And I don’t believe in frontiers. I think that in no—I don’t believe at all in frontiers. And then, how would I practice the aduanas, I would say, the immigration controls between literary journalists? I believe that—
    AMY GOODMAN: You don’t believe in borders.
    EDUARDO GALEANO: No. I think that when the world—perhaps one day the world, the world, our world, won’t be upside down, and then any newborn human being will be welcome. Saying, “Welcome. Come. Come in. Enter. The entire earth will be your kingdom. Your legs will be your passport, valid forever.” And for me, this is true also for words. I mean, the same thing with words, persons, words. I really believe in the universal dimension of human condition, not globalization, which is the universal dimension of money, but the universal dimension of our human passions.

  4. Michele Gazzolo

    Loved your piece on waste. I’d like to send you something I wrote on American cars because I think you’d enjoy it — but how? is your email address buried somewhere in this site? (no need to publish this; it is a query for you)

  5. Joe Alberti

    It’s joealberti@hotmail.com. I am in the middle of a powerful workshop with Andrew Wade, former voice coach for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) for 15 years. I am thinking through the discoveries the work is triggering. I will post discoveries later….

  6. Joe Alberti

    I have a question for anyone interested:
    If we are experiencing an emotion, say, sadness, and we simply express “I am experiencing sadness,” is this an assertion or a declaration? My reason for questioning this is because I did some workshops with Fernando Flores in the late 80’s. I was very young when I did them, younger, I recall, than most of the participants. My understanding from those workshops is that the above statement would be considered a declaration. However, it seems, after reading Chalmer’s Language and the Pursuit of Happiness, the work in the 80’s has evolved quite a bit. From that reading, I wonder now if the statement above is actually an assertion; has shifted because of some new knowledge? (Please forgive me, Chauncey, if this is the wrong place on the blog to ask the question, but I wasn’t quite sure where to put it).

  7. Hi Chauncey,

    This is a beautiful quote, even for someone who has yet to reach the age of 30. While I have continued to perform music, I have done so in a choir, where individual musical inclinations are set aside for the balance and movement of the whole. What creative spaces I had when I was younger have mostly disappeared. And so I am taking up fiction again (both reading and writing) and pulling out my bassoon, folding and shaping some cane, and brushing off my Saint-Saens.

    I don’t have a context to see what I miss without creative outlets, but it feels significant, perhaps because of quotes like this.

    I hope you and your family are well.


  8. To Joe’s post #6 above:

    I say one place to look is in who is it that is making the statement … “I am experiencing sadness” can be a declaration (being a creation of the “thing itself”~ sadness ~ in the speaking of it), and it can also be an assertion (being a report of an observed condition and maybe grounded by your commitment to provide evidence for your opinion should it be requested). Seems to me that the mere construction of the words in sentence in this case, is not what makes the statement either a declaration or assertion.

  9. Margaret McIntyre

    Hi Joe,

    I am relatively certain that there is a category of speech acts called expressives that account for statements about oneself. You might want to check into that to answer your question about statements reporting an emotional state.

    Hope this helps,

  10. My God! This is one of the greatest quotes I’ve ever read. I am so happy to know that Charles Darwin, one of the greatest minds of science, understood the importance of the arts.

  11. Pingback: Darwin on the importance of art | Messer-Art-Design

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