Erasmus Darwin’s Deistic Dissent and Didactic Epic Poetry: Promoting Science Education to a Mixed Audience Under the Banner of Tolerance
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Erasmus Darwin’s task as a Deistic Dissenter poet who wished to promote science education to a mixed audience was complex. There was mainstream concern over what Deists and Dissenters actually believed about God, their involvement in science, and, especially, how their published works, whatever the subject, might affect public morality and politics. I argue that Darwin’s poetry is primarily in the genre of Lucretian didactic epic but that it also involves elements of other written traditions (literary and non-literary). I focus on English didactic poetry, the theological written traditions of Dissent and Deism, and a particular tradition of erotic satire. The genre of Lucretian didactic epic and the tradition of English didactic poetry are non-identical. In Darwin’s Lucretian didactic epic, resemblances to such poems as Pope’s Essay on Man challenge ideas about what kind of narrative a didactic poem in the English language can deliver. Techniques from the theological written traditions of Dissent and Deism reflect Darwin’s affiliations, signal that science education fits within a larger debate about intellectual freedom, and promote tolerance for differences of opinion about nature. Mimicry of a particular tradition of erotic satire helps to downplay the address to a mixed audience while satirising some common misconceptions about poetry, botany, and women in the period. Darwin’s poetry challenges ideas about what people from his community of belief meant to communicate or transmit by writing for the general public, what the general public was entitled to learn, and what poetry was able to teach. Perhaps Darwin’s biggest modification of Lucretian didactic epic was that he did not tell his readers exactly what to think, but how.