Poetry and evolution – some poems by Thomas Hardy

The poet and novelist Thomas Hardy was, in his own words, ‘among the earliest acclaimers of The Origin of Species’. Yet Darwinian biology posed him what he called in the title of one poem ‘The Problem’:

Shall we conceal the Case, or tell it—

We who believe the evidence?

Here and there the watch-towers knell it

With a sullen significance,

Heard of the few who hearken intently and carry an eagerly upstrained sense.


Hearts that are happiest hold not by it;

Better we let, then, the old view reign:

Since there is peace in that, why decry it?

Since there is comfort, why disdain?

Note not the pigment so long as the painting determines humanity’s joy and pain.

In this poem, published in 1901, Hardy gets to the crux of an issue that is debated every time a new book explaining evolution to the wider public is reviewed. To what extent should evolutionary biologists make public their wider conclusions about the ‘significance’ of the ‘evidence’? For Hardy, as for many (though by no means all) evolutionists, it is impossible to reconcile modern biology with Christian views of the natural universe as designed by a benevolent God. If a biologist believes that the only coherent interpretation of Darwin’s world is that it is a world without God, should he or she say so publicly and boldly like Richard Dawkins, or politely decline to intrude on other people’s beliefs like Stephen Jay Gould? In Hardy’s poem it is not church-towers but watch-towers which ring out the discoveries learnt by the more far-sighted scientists and other observers, including writers like Hardy himself. Their ringing is not a peal but a ‘knell’, however, showing that Hardy well knows that to be disillusioned of ‘the old view’ would be a grave bereavement for many people, as well as a distressing reminder of their own mortality. In the end Hardy decides against making the ‘Case’ for this disillusionment. Yet by the time he draws that conclusion it is too late. In allowing himself to speak candidly to a reader who he imagines is in agreement with him, he has already made it clear that in his view this case is conclusive. He refuses to ‘disdain’ the comforts of religious faith, but his poem makes that faith harder to sustain all the same. By the end of this poem we must admit that for many at least the colour has faded from the old world-picture even if its lines and forms appear to others still to be in place.

‘The Problem’ offers two competing solutions to the problem it raises—to keep silent or to speak. Hardy himself is unsure which is the right answer in principle, but in practice, in this poem and across his other poems and novels, he is persistently driven to speak out. But he finds other thoughts and feelings besides just disillusionment in Darwin. This is his poem on the subject of ‘Heredity’, from his book Moments of Vision, published in 1917:

I am the family face;

Flesh perishes, I live on,

Projecting trait and trace

Through time to time anon,

And leaping from place to place

Over oblivion.


The years-heired feature that can

In curve and voice and eye

Despise the human span

Of durance—that is I;

The eternal thing in man,

That heeds no call to die.

If ‘The Problem’ anticipates current debates over science and religion, the ‘family face’ in ‘Heredity’ bears a striking resemblance to the selfish gene. What survives is not the individual but the ‘trait’. Hardy is not concerned with the mechanism of heredity here, so much as the fact of it. Neither natural nor sexual selection come into the poem. But in giving the observable hereditary trait a voice Hardy personifies it in the same way that Dawkins personifies the gene, which in Dawkins’s population genetics translates to whatever components of a genome determine or increase the likelihood of a given trait. The characters of these two personifications are similar too. Hardy’s poem invites us to imagine him walking along a corridor or down a staircase, perhaps in an old baronial hall, lined with portraits going back through the generations. As he moves from one portrait to another, the strong impression forms in his mind that these several people going back through time bear a strong family resemblance to one another. Soon it is that resemblance, not the individuals themselves, that seems to stare from each portrait. In its very persistence, the family face defies death, but equally it shows contempt for individual life. Like the selfish gene, all that concerns it is its own survival; like the selfish gene, it comes across as a sinister deterministic force undercutting our attempts to assert our own independence from our heredity. In both cases, the malignity of heredity is a product of the personification—neither the gene nor the face has any consciousness or even real agency. At the same time, the personification gives us a new perspective on ourselves less as discrete individuals and more as part of a biological continuum which reaches back through time and over which each of us individually has very little control.

Hardy was acutely aware that this biological continuum,Darwin’s tree of life, had other profound implications too. In a letter he wrote in 1910, he noted that ‘Few people seem to perceive fully as yet that the most far-reaching consequence of the establishment of the common origin of all species is ethical’. He captures this ethical imperative through a highly original reworking of Darwin’s own image in another poem from the same collection as ‘Heredity’:

The wind blew words along the skies,

And these it blew to me

Through the wide dusk: ‘Lift up your eyes,

Behold this troubled tree,

Complaining as it sways and plies:

It is a limb of thee.


Yea, too, the creatures sheltering round—

Dumb figures, wild and tame,

Yea, too, thy fellows who abound—

Either of speech the same

Or far and strange—black, dwarfed, and browned,

They are stuff of thy own frame.’


I moved on in a surging awe

Of inarticulateness

At the pathetic Me I saw

In all his huge distress,

Making self-slaughter of the law

To kill, break, or suppress.

For many Victorian and twentieth-century ideologues, Darwinism seemed to authorise an ethic of vigorous, even violent, competition. If the natural order was one of struggle, who were men to countermand it? Better to enter into the spirit of it and battle to assert our own claims to the right to survive. Better, in Hardy’s words, ‘To kill, break, or suppress’. This kind of erroneous Social Darwinism involves the false step of taking what is as a guide to what ought to be. But it also latches on to one half ofDarwin’s vision—natural selection—while disregarding the other half—the tree of life. In ‘The Wind Blew Words’  Hardy uses the image of a wind-battered tree to introduce the principle that Darwin’s tree of life implies the kinship of all living things. As a human being, Hardy is a twig on the tree of life, as is the tree itself. They are both part of the same whole. But by identifying with the whole of life, Hardy is able invertDarwin’s image so that the tree—the literal tree, and by extension every other branch of the tree of life—becomes part of his own body. Once Hardy has identified himself with the tree of life, other animals and other people, whatever their nationality or race, all become part of one immense self that he does not hesitate to call ‘Me’. Hardy’s poem was published at the height of both the First World War and the age of empire. In it he exposes war and imperialism, both of which claimed to be licensed by Darwinism, as acts of ‘self-slaughter’ on precisely Darwinian grounds. For all that his poem claims to record an inarticulate realisation, it is itself a masterful example of how poetry can articulate a subtle idea vividly, economically and powerfully. Reading this poem, we too can feel the ‘huge distress’ of the rest of the living world as our own.

The biological sciences—evolutionary biology, genetics, ecology—define our place within the natural world. But to understand fully what it means to live in this Darwinian condition we need the imaginative resources of literature as well. Novels like George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Ian McEwan’s Saturday can explore in depth our life as social and psychological organisms in a secular world. Prehistoric fiction like William Golding’s The Inheritors can open imaginative windows onto our evolutionary past; science fiction like H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine or Olav Stapledon’s Last and First Men can play out the possibilities of our evolutionary future. But for me it is poetry more than any other literary form that can help us to grasp for ourselves what it is to be a human being living consciously in a Darwinian universe. Where novels transport us into fictional worlds, poems transport us into new states of mind. We read novels silently, but poems demand to be read aloud, so the experience of reading a poem is a physical one as well as a mental one. Since the news of Darwin’s theories began to break in the 1860s, poets like Hardy have explored their implications for human beings and for nature as a whole. For some,Darwin’s ideas spell something close to an existential disaster, undermining and even overturning their deepest beliefs and values. For others, the Darwinian world is not so hostile, more beautiful, even hopeful in its own way. Through reading the poems of these different poets we can retrace the paths their explorations have taken, building up our own ever richer and more complex mental maps of our Darwinian condition.

For more on poetry and evolution, read an interview about my book Darwin’s Bards (http://www.cupblog.org/?p=1246) or listen to a podcast of a talk I gave at the Royal Society (http://downloads.royalsociety.org/rss/audio.xml).

Dr John Holmes

Senior Lecturer in English Literature

Chair, British Society for Literture and Science (http://www.bsls.ac.uk/)