Poetry, metaphor and algebra
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Poetry, metaphor and algebra book
That thought struck Erasmus Darwin, a physician in the little cathedral city of Lichﬁeld and subsequently in Derby. He was a polymath, interested in everything,3 and a prominent member of the informal dining club calling themselves the Lunar Society of Birmingham4 because they met at the full moon, and could thus ﬁnd their way home. Other members of this distinguished group included Josiah Wedgwood, the potter, James Watt of steam-engine fame and Joseph Priestley. Darwin turned to verse to get the new botany across to the public: identifying plants was no longer a matter of connoisseurship, but was systematic, could be readily learned, and might be entertaining. Instead of the multiple and uncertain criteria of older systems, Linnaeus’ names for ﬂowers were based on counting the sexual parts, so that Triandria Digynia would be the group which contained three stamens and two pistils. Within the group, plants would have a double-barrelled name, the ﬁrst word denoting the genus, and the second the species. Hoping, as he put it,5 to ‘inlist Imagination under the banner of science’, Darwin’s couplets abound in classical allusions to nymphs and dryads, playing also with the Latin names. He wrote, for example, about poisonous plants (with an allusion to Hamlet):
If rests the traveller his weary head, Grim MANCINELLA haunts the mossy bed, Brews her black hebenon, and stealing near Pours the curst venom in his tortured ear. – Wide o’er the mad’ning throng URTICA ﬂings Her barbed shafts, and darts her poison’d stings. And fell LOBELIA with contagious breath Infects the light, and wings the gale with death.