Monday, July 4, 2011

Darwin's Marginalia

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.
~ From the poem Marginalia by Billy Collins

Marginalia – a word the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge appropriated from the Latin early in the 19th century to describe those marks and comments written by readers in the margins, between lines of text, or wherever blank space appears in a book – offer a glimpse behind the curtain at great and not so great thinkers.  The Biodiversity Heritage Library is bringing Darwin’s marginalia to us in the fascinating Charles Darwin’s Library, a “virtual reconstruction of the surviving books owned by Charles Darwin.”  To the extent possible, BHL will be putting images online of each page of each of the books Darwin actually held in his library.  Darwin’s marginalia attracts intense scrutiny, less I think for their artistry, complexity, or acerbic quality, and more for whatever insight they may provide into the thought processes of the man and in the development of his theory.

Coleridge may well have been the high priest of marginalia which he created with such consummate skill that friends lent him books so he could fill them with his wit and criticism.  In a satirical essay extolling borrowers (“opening, trusting, generous”) and deprecating lenders (“lean and suspicious”), Charles Lamb celebrated the marginalia of his very close friend Coleridge:
Reader, if haply thou art blessed with a moderate collection [of books], be shy of showing it; or if they heart overfloweth to lend them, lend thy books; but let it be to such a one as S.T.C. – he will return them (generally anticipating the time appointed) with usury; enriched with annotations tripling their value. (The Two Races of Men in Essays of Elia, p. 48)
Beyond Coleridge and Darwin, there have been other stellar practitioners of the art of the marginal note, among them, Mark Twain, William Blake, and Herman Melville.  And then there are the rest of us, we pedestrian practitioners who took a crash course in creating marginalia when we hit college.  (Yes, highlighting counts.)  Indeed, we unknown annotators find ourselves included among the well-known as the subject of serious academic study.  In Marginalia:  Readers Writing in Books (2001), University of Toronto professor of English Heather J. Jackson argues that
Given the recent shift of attention from the writer to the reader and to the production, dissemination, and reception of texts, marginalia of all periods would appear to be potentially a goldmine for scholars.  (p. 5)
She adds, “And so they are, but they are a contested goldmine.”  After looking recently at the marginalia with which I decorated (desecrated?) my copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost, some contesting of the goldmine seems warranted.

The value of marginalia may stem from the privacy of their creation.  Edgar Allan Poe posited, “In marginalia, too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly – boldly – originally – with abandonnement – without conceit . . . .” (Marginalia, November 1844)  Marginalia of substance may speak volumes about the reading process.  Kevin J. Hayes nicely described a book of Herman Melville’s marginalia as offering “an excellent way to see how Melville read what he read.”  (The Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville, 2007, p. 132)

With that last thought in mind, I have dipped into Charles Darwin’s Library on several occasions in pursuit of interesting marginalia.  It’s a mixed blessing for the casual visitor because, not unexpectedly, most of what one finds are vertical lines (scores) in the margins which Darwin used to mark specific pieces of text.  That which caught his attention may have great import for the Darwin scholar, but decidedly less so for the tourist.  Less frequently he was moved enough by what he read to elevate his marginalia to words, phrases, even sentences.  For me, these are where the fun resides.  I envision him sitting in his study at Down House, he has a pencil in hand and is reading intently.  (Drawing below is from The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Volume 25 – Nov. 1882 to April 1883.)

Consider his marginalia in Colonel Charles Hamilton Smith’s Dogs (volume ten of the Naturalist’s Library, published in 1840).  Often, as he read Dogs, Darwin marked with pencil certain lines with a wobbly scoring and underlined others.  Sometimes, as he did on page 104, he scored lines in the left margin with a very curious slash and hump (a two-stroke marking or perhaps a single-stroke reverse check).  Consummate creators of marginalia have been known to resort to a shorthand to convey meaning through a quick glance long after the book is finished, or to avoid the tedious repetition of similar comments.  In his copy of Robert Southey’s Joan of Arc, “Coleridge came up with so many objections that he had to abbreviate them, as in ‘L.M.,’ for ‘ludicrous metaphor,’ and ‘N.,’ for ‘nonsense.’”  (Ian Frazier, Marginal, The New Yorker, June 28, 2010.)  Was the reverse check in the left margin such a code?

Frankly, I don’t know when Darwin read Dogs nor what he thought of the book’s overall value, though I suspect his review may not have been favorable.  On a few occasions while reading it, he did dash off a comment.  At a couple of junctures, Hamilton Smith apparently sufficiently tried his patience that Darwin allowed himself to inscribe a cutting remark.  On page 113, he fashioned his own footnote for a half dozen lines which he scored.  Next to the scoring, he scribbled an “a” in a bracket and then at the foot of the page he placed a corresponding “a” and bracket and wrote in legible but apparently hasty script,
a most unclear rigmarole of old names, all these latter pages

Later in the book, on page 162, when Hamilton Smith wrote about the breeding of greyhounds in Ancient Greece and elsewhere, Darwin marked the passage with two exclamation points and then dashed off,
How little he knows of Selection

 I’m certain there’s more to be gleaned from the marginalia in Dogs but it would require a heavy amount of study of a volume that Darwin may well have considered of limited value or worse.  Hamilton Smith actually does appear in On The Origin Of Species for a thesis about stripes in horses, though Darwin summarily dismisses it as “highly improbable.”

Darwin was capable of the truly cutting and dismissive comment.  The naturalist Louis Agassiz believed in the special creation of species, asserting that the geographical distribution of animals was a reflection of the “order of succession” in God’s plan of creation, that animals lived where they had been created.  With the publication of On The Origin Of Species, he became the primary American foe of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  (For more on Agassiz, see Louis Agassiz:  A Life in Science by Edward Lurie (1988))   But before Darwin published his masterpiece, Agassiz’s Contributions to the Natural History of the United States of North America (part 1 of volume 1) appeared, published in the United States in 1857.  In it, Agassiz wrote that the geographical distribution of animals “stands in direct relation to their relative standing in their respective classes, and to the order of succession in past geological ages, and more indirectly, also, to their embryonic growth.”  (p. 120-121).  To which Darwin commented succinctly in the margin
All rubbish

To my mind, one of the most amazing pieces of marginalia in Darwin’s library resides in the left margin of page 442 of volume 2 of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, 5th edition, published in 1837.  Knowing when he wrote it would be fascinating, particularly because it would allow us to map it against what is known about Darwin's development of the theory of evolution.  An article in the Washington Post on BHL’s Charles Darwin’s Library brought it to my attention (Notes that Darwin Made in His Books Reveal How He was Thinking, Elizabeth Pennisi, June 28, 2011, online version of article at this link)

In the passage in question in Principles of Geology, Lyell recapitulated what he had written in the last several chapters regarding “the reality of species in nature.”  For his 4th “inference,” Lyell described an absolute limit on possible variation in individuals within a species.  To which Darwin added a revealing piece of marginalia, in a voice so fresh and alive,
if this were true adios theory


  1. More marginalia on Darwin's study in the Don House:

    I search a high resolution image of Parsons' drawing and of the photo on which he based his drawing. Any hints?

  2. Sorry, the image I used of the drawing was the best I could find. Your search in this print for embedded and hidden images and references to other art work is fascinating.


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