The Temple of Flora: Stunning Illustrations of Flowers Inspired by Erasmus Darwin’s Radical Scientific Poem About the Sexual Reproduction of Plants
By Maria Popova
A century before Emily Dickinson wrote that “to be a Flower is profound Responsibility,” Erasmus Darwin (December 12, 1731–18 April 18, 1802) — Charles’s grandfather and his great influence on evolutionary ideas — set out “to inlist Imagination under the banner of Science, and to lead her votaries from the looser analogies, which dress out the imagery of poetry, to the stricter ones, which form the ratiocination of philosophy.”
Having spent seven years translating Linnaeus’s groundbreaking classification system from Latin into English, coining several common English names for flowers in the process, Darwin was especially thrilled by the new science of the sexual reproduction of plants. In 1791, he published one of the world’s first popular science books — the book-length poem The Botanic Garden, which endeavored to introduce Linnaeus’s sexual system to the common reader.
In the second half of the book, titled The Loves of Plants, Darwin celebrated the lushest part of the living world through the lens of romance and sex, slicing through the era’s corseted propriety with the intimation that human sexuality is just another part of Nature, as beautiful and valid as a flower.
Animating the book is the insistence that all living things are interlinked in a chain of being; it was in a long footnote to The Loves of Plants that he outlined the rudiments of evolutionary theory, which his grandson went on to develop in On the Origin of Species.
Predictably, having made science scintillating and orthogonal to theological dogma, The Botanic Garden became a bestseller deemed too explicit for unwed women to read.
In addition to being a “natural philosopher” (the term for “scientist” before the word was coined for Mary Somerville), inventor, and ardent advocate for women’s education and the abolition of slavery, Erasmus Darwin was celebrated as a supreme English poet before the rise of Coleridge and Wordsworth. A quarter millennium before The Universe in Verse, he channeled its animating spirit, seeing in poetry a powerful portal of feeling into the life of the mind — a portal through which scientific ideas otherwise intimidating or alienating may enter freely, into a temperament of receptivity.
Darwin devoted his life to illuminating how nature works, meeting reality on its own terms and making of those terms a thing of beauty. These ideas came abloom anew in The Temple of Nature — his final and finest poem. He died before he could see its life in the world — it was published a year after his death and went on to influence generations of scientists, poets, naturalists, and philosophers.
Among them was the English physician and botanical writer Robert John Thornton (1768–1837). Between 1807 and 1812, Thornton published The Temple of Flora — a lavishly illustrated, poetry-laced effort to popularize Linnaeus’s sexual system, heavily influenced by The Botanic Garden and The Temple of Nature.
Perhaps because Thornton was not a poet and his attempts at verse were a poor imitation of Darwin’s, the book was not a popular success — the 800 copies printed nearly bankrupted him. But the illustrations from it — scrumptious color engravings of some of Earth’s most magnificent flowers, based on paintings by the eminent artist Philip Reinagle — endure as some of the most breathtaking botanical art of all time.
Complement with the stunning botanical paintings of the artist and poet Clarissa Munger Badger, who inspired Emily Dickinson, then savor the science of “perfect flowers” — the botanical term for nonbinary plants — with a side of Emily Dickinson. (All roads in nature lead back to Emily.)
Published November 7, 2022