Department of History
University of California, Irvine
Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Week 8.  Living Machines

The Temple of Nature or, The Origin of Society (1803)
by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)

  1. By firm immutable immortal laws
    Impress'd in Nature by the GREAT FIRST CAUSE,
    Say, Muse! How rose from elemental strife
    Organic forms, and kindled into life;
    How Love and Sympathy with potent charm
    Warm the cold heart, and lifted hand disarm;
    Allure with pleasures, and alarm with pains,
    And bind Society in golden chains....
  1. ..."FIRST, if you can, celestial Guide! disclose
    From what fair fountain mortal life arose,
    Whence the fine nerve to move and feel assign'd,
    Contractile fibre, and ethereal mind:"....

    "GOD THE FIRST CAUSE!--in this terrene abode
    Young Nature lisps, she is the child of GOD.
    From embryon births her changeful forms improve,
    Grow, as they live, and strengthen as they move.

    "Ere Time began, from flaming Chaos hurl'd
    Rose the bright spheres, which form the circling world;
    Earths from each sun with quick explosions burst,
    And second planets issued from the first.
    Then, whilst the sea at their coeval birth,
    Surge over surge, involv'd the shoreless earth;
    Nurs'd by warm sun-beams in primeval caves
    Organic Life began beneath the waves.

    "First HEAT from chemic dissolution springs,
    And gives to matter its eccentric wings;
    With strong REPULSION parts the exploding mass,
    Melts into lymph, or kindles into gas.
    ATTRACTION next, as earth or air subsides,
    The ponderous atoms from the light divides,
    Approaching parts with quick embrace combines,
    Swells into spheres, and lengthens into lines.
    Last, as fine goads the gluten-threads excite,
    Cords grapple cords, and webs with webs unite;
    And quick CONTRACTION with ethereal flame
    Lights into life the fibre-woven frame.--
    Hence without parent by spontaneous birth
    Rise the first specks of animated earth;
    From Nature's womb the plant or insect swims,
    And buds or breathes, with microscopic limbs.
    "IN earth, sea, air, around, below, above,

    Life's subtle woof in Nature's loom is wove;
    Points glued to points a living line extends,
    Touch'd by some goad approach the bending ends;
    Rings join to rings, and irritated tubes
    Clasp with young lips the nutrient globes or cubes;
    And urged by appetencies new select,
    Imbibe, retain, digest, secrete, eject.
    In branching cones the living web expands,
    Lymphatic ducts, and convoluted glands;
    Aortal tubes propel the nascent blood,
    And lengthening veins absorb the refluent flood,
    Leaves, lungs, and gills, the vital ether breathe
    On earth's green surface, or the waves beneath.
    So Life's first powers arrest the winds and floods,
    To bones convert them, or to shells, or woods;
    Stretch the vast beds of argil, lime, and sand,
    And from diminish'd oceans form the land!

    "Next the long nerves unite their silver train,
    And young SENSATION permeates the brain;
    Through each new sense the keen emotions dart,
    Flush the young cheek, and swell the throbbing heart.
    From pain and pleasure quick VOLITIONS rise,
    Lift the strong arm, or point the inquiring eyes;
    With Reason's light bewilder'd Man direct,
    And right and wrong with balance nice detect.
    Last in thick swarms ASSOCIATIONS spring,
    Thoughts join to thoughts, to motions motions cling;
    Whence in long trains of catenation flow
    Imagined joy, and voluntary woe.

    "So, view'd through crystal spheres in drops saline,
    Quick-shooting salts in chemic forms combine;
    Or Mucor-stems, a vegetative tribe,
    Spread their fine roots, the tremulous wave imbibe.
    Nest to our wondering eyes the focus brings
    Self-moving lines, and animated rings;
    First Monas moves, an unconnected point,
    Plays round the drop without a limb or joint;
    Then Vibrio waves, with capillary eels,
    And Vorticella whirls her living wheels;
    While insect Proteus sports with changeful form
    Through the bright tide, a globe, a cube, a worm.
    Last o'er the field the Mite enormous swims,
    Swells his red heart, and writhes his giant limbs.
  1. "ORGANIC LIFE beneath the shoreless waves
    Was born and nurs'd in ocean's pearly caves;
    First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
    Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
    These, as successive generations bloom,
    New powers acquire and larger limbs assume;
    Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
    And breathing realms of fin and feet and wing.

    "Thus the tall Oak, the giant of the wood,
    Which bears Britannia's thunders on the flood;
    The Whale, unmeasured monster of the main,
    The lordly Lion, monarch of the plain,
    The Eagle soaring in the realms of air,
    Whose eye undazzled drinks the solar glare,
    Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
    Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
    With brow erect who scorns this earthy sod,
    And styles himself the image of his God;
    Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
    An embryon point, or microscopic ens!

    "Now in vast shoals beneath the brineless tide,
    On earth's firm crust testaceous tribes reside;
    Age after age expands the peopled plain,
    The tenants perish, but their cells remain;
    Whence coral walls and sparry hills ascend
    From pole to pole, and round the line extend.

    "Next when imprison'd fires in central caves
    Burst the firm earth, and drank the headlong waves;
    And, as new airs with dread explosion swell,
    Form'd lava-isles, and continents of shell
    Pil'd rocks on rocks, on mountains mountains raised,
    And high in heaven the first volcanoes blazed;
    In countless swarms an insect-myriad moves
    From sea-fan gardens, and from coral groves;
    Leaves the cold caverns of the deep, and creeps
    On shelving shores, or climbs on rocky steeps.
    As dry air the sea-born stranger roves,
    Each muscle quickens, and each sense improves;
    Cold gills aquatic form respiring lungs,
    And sounds aerial flow from slimy tongues.

    "So Trapa rooted in pellucid tides,
    In countless threads her breathing leaves divides,
    Waves her bright tresses in the water mass,
    And drinks with gelid gills the vital gas;
    Then broader leaves in shadowy files advance,
    Spread o'er the crystal flood their green expanse;
    And, as in air the adherent dew exhales,
    Court the warm sun, and breathe ethereal gales.

    "So still the Tadpole cleaves the watery vale
    With balanc'd fins, and undulating tail;
    New lungs and limbs proclaim his second birth,
    Breathe the dry air, and bound upon the earth.
    So from deep lakes the dread Musquito springs,
    Drinks the soft breeze and dries his tender wings,
    In twinkling squadrons cuts his airy way,
    Dips his red trunk in blood, and man his prey.

    "So still the Diodons, amphibious tribe,
    With two-fold lungs the sea or air imbibe;
    Allied to fish, the lizard cleaves the flood
    With one-cell'd heart, and dark frigescent blood;
    Half-reasoning Beavers long-unbreathing dart
    Through Erie's waves with perforated heart;
    With gills and lungs respiring Lampreys steer,
    Kiss the rude rocks, and suck till they adhere;
    The lazy Remora's inhaling lips,
    Hung on the keel, retard the struggling ships;
    With gills pulmonic breathes the enormous Whale,
    And spouts aquatic columns to the gale;
    Sports on the shining wave at noontide hours,
    And shifting rainbows crest the rising showers.

    "So erst, ere rose the science to record
    In letter'd syllables the volant word;
    Whence chemic arts, disclosed in pictured lines,
    Liv'd to mankind by hieroglyphic signs;
    And clustering stars, pourtray'd on mimic spheres,
    Assumed the forms of lions, bulls, and bears;
    --So erst, as Egypt's rude designs explain,
    Rose young DIONE from the shoreless main;
    Type of organic Nature! source of bliss!
    Emerging Beauty from the vast abyss!
    Sublime on Chaos borne, the Goddess stood,
    And smiled enchantment on the troubled flood;
    The warring elements to peace restored,
    And young Reflection wondered and adored."

    Now paused the Nymph,--The Muse responsive cries,
    Sweet admiration sparkling in her eyes,
    "Drawn by your pencil, by your hand unfurl'd,
    Bright shines the tablet of the dawning world;
    Amazed the Sea's prolific depths I view,
    And VENUS rising from the waves in YOU!

    "Still Nature's births enclosed in egg or seed
    From the tall forest to the lowly weed,
    Her beaux and beauties, butterflies and worms,
    Rise from aquatic to aerial forms.
    Thus in the womb the nascent infant laves
    Its natant form in the circumfluent waves;
    With perforated heart unbreathing swims,
    Awakes and stretches all its recent limbs;
    With gills placental seeks the arterial flood,
    And drinks pure ether from its Mother's blood.
    Erewhile the landed Stranger bursts his way,
    From the warm wave emerging into day;
    Feels the chill blast, and piercing light, and tries
    His tender lungs, and rolls his dazzled eyes;
    Gives to the passing gale his curling hair,
    And steps a dry inhabitant of air."....
Go to:
  • The Golem, Legends of the Ghetto of Prague;
  • Zoonomia; or, the laws of organic life (1803) by Erasmus Darwin;
Weekly Readings
Lecture Notes