Tuesday, December 2, 2008

When you were a tadpole and I was a fish

It seems to be a fact of modern life that however hard you look for all the typos in a thesis, for all the proof-of-principle references that would help bolster a grant proposal or, when writing a book section about evolution and literature, for all the poems influenced by evolution, there is always something that comes to your attention only after you have finished what you were doing! 

In The Rough Guide to Evolution, I survey Darwin's and evolution's influence on poets as diverse as Gerald Manley Hopkins and Thomas Hardy. And I quote from Mathilde Blind's The Ascent of Man and May Kendall's Lay of the Trilobite...

But, until this recent posting by Michael Barton, I had not come across Evolution, A Fantasy by Langdon Smith. And this despite the fact that the opening and closing lines form part of a song from Richard Milner's Charles Darwin Live and in Concert--in fact, it is one of my children's favourites, even though I had no idea as to the provenance of the lyrics.

Anyhow, now on reading the entire poem (which I append), I am impressed. OK, the transmigration of souls interwoven with the progress of evolution makes for decidedly dodgy metaphysics, but for me Langdon Smith's magnum opus works well as whimsical poetry. 

Also worth a look are the beautiful Art Nouveau illustrations that surround the poetry in the 1909 edition that Michael links to (for example, the highly sensual human forms emerging from the tree of life). 

And it is a pleasure to read (but with tongue in cheek) the purple prose in praise of Darwin in the accompanying  essay marking the centenary of Darwin's birth. Here's an excerpt:
Like a meteor, fell "The Origin of Species into this placid pool of thought, on the banks of which Theology, Philosophy and the youngest of the pilgrims, Science, had halted in their march several years before, and where they still lingered dreaming dreams and telling each other tales of folklore. Instantly Science, his young blood and imagination electrified by the message, darted forward on winged feet, his eyes ablaze with the promise of measureless service to mankind. His elder companions paused awhile sniffing the air for brimstone and calling after him to stay his pace, but as in his wake followed first one and then another of their disciples the chill of loneliness fell upon them, and they too set out to overtake, if might be, the leader now far in the distance.

I wonder how much from the bicentenary will be worth looking at in a hundred years time?

Evolution By Langdon Smith (1858-1908)

When you were a tadpole and I was a fish
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side on the ebbing tide
We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
Or skittered with many a caudal flip
Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,
My heart was rife with the joy of life,
For I loved you even then.

Mindless we lived and mindless we loved
And mindless at last we died;
And deep in the rift of the Caradoc drift
We slumbered side by side.
The world turned on in the lathe of time,
The hot lands heaved amain,
Till we caught our breath from the womb of death
And crept into life again.

We were amphibians, scaled and tailed,
And drab as a dead man's hand;
We coiled at ease 'neath the dripping trees
Or trailed through the mud and sand.
Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet
Writing a language dumb,
With never a spark in the empty dark
To hint at a life to come.

Yet happy we lived and happy we loved,
And happy we died once more;
Our forms were rolled in the clinging mold
Of a Neocomian shore.
The eons came and the eons fled
And the sleep that wrapped us fast
Was riven away in a newer day
And the night of death was passed.

Then light and swift through the jungle trees
We swung in our airy flights,
Or breathed in the balms of the fronded palms
In the hush of the moonless nights;
And oh! what beautiful years were there
When our hearts clung each to each;
When life was filled and our senses thrilled
In the first faint dawn of speech.

Thus life by life and love by love
We passed through the cycles strange,
And breath by breath and death by death
We followed the chain of change.
Till there came a time in the law of life
When over the nursing sod
The shadows broke and the soul awoke
In a strange, dim dream of God.

I was thewed like an Auroch bull
And tusked like the great cave bear;
And you, my sweet, from head to feet
Were gowned in your glorious hair.
Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,
When the night fell o'er the plain
And the moon hung red o'er the river bed
We mumbled the bones of the slain.

I flaked a flint to a cutting edge
And shaped it with brutish craft;
I broke a shank from the woodland lank
And fitted it, head and haft;
Than I hid me close to the reedy tarn,
Where the mammoth came to drink;
Through the brawn and bone I drove the stone
And slew him upon the brink.

Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,
Loud answered our kith and kin;
From west to east to the crimson feast
The clan came tramping in.
O'er joint and gristle and padded hoof
We fought and clawed and tore,
And cheek by jowl with many a growl
We talked the marvel o'er.

I carved that fight on a reindeer bone
With rude and hairy hand;
I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
That men might understand.
For we lived by blood and the right of might
Ere human laws were drawn,
And the age of sin did not begin
Til our brutal tusks were gone.

And that was a million years ago
In a time that no man knows;
Yet here tonight in the mellow light
We sit at Delmonico's.
Your eyes are deep as the Devon springs,
Your hair is dark as jet,
Your years are few, your life is new,
Your soul untried, and yet --

Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay
And the scarp of the Purbeck flags;
We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones
And deep in the Coralline crags;
Our love is old, our lives are old,
And death shall come amain;
Should it come today, what man may say
We shall not live again?

God wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds
And furnish’d them wings to fly;
He sowed our spawn in the world's dim dawn,
And I know that it shall not die,
Though cities have sprung above the graves
Where the crook-bone men made war
And the ox-wain creaks o'er the buried caves
Where the mummied mammoths are.

Then as we linger at luncheon here
O'er many a dainty dish,
Let us drink anew to the time when you
Were a tadpole and I was a fish.

1 comment:

RBH said...

Many thanks for pointing to this. I used it in my seminar on the history of the controversies surrounding the ToE last week, and the students loved it. :)