Gwybodaeth Modiwlau

Module Identifier
Module Title
Poetry After Darwin
Academic Year
Semester 2
Other Staff

Course Delivery

Delivery Type Delivery length / details
Seminar 10 x 2 Hour Seminars


Assessment Type Assessment length / details Proportion
Semester Assessment Essay Assignment  1 x 5000 word essay  100%
Supplementary Assessment Resubmit Essay Assignment  Resubmit failed or missing 5000 word essay  100%

Learning Outcomes

On successful completion of this module students should be able to:

1. Demonstrate a thorough understanding of both the formal features and the thematic concerns of nineteenth- and twentieth-century evolutionary poetry.

2. Locate the poetic texts studied in their relevant historical, social, and cultural contexts.

3. Display a critical awareness of the ways in which poets have responded to the broader cultural and theoretical issues explored in the module.

4. Write about nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry in a coherent, well-organised, and critically-informed manner.


This module responds to recent critical debates on the impact of evolution on nineteenth-century culture and the role of poetry in responses to Darwin’s work. It address these issues through the examination of a range of canonical and non-canonical texts. It will include explorations of visual culture, particularly in the form of cartoons, to contextualise the poetic responses to Darwin’s work.

Brief description

For many people the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 was a profoundly unsettling event that called into question previously accepted notions of humanity’s role and purpose and challenged preconceptions about religion, nature, and the relationship between men and women. For some the acceptance of a Darwinian worldview was a painful transition that involved a loss of faith, whereas for others, particularly feminists and socialists, Darwin’s theories offered a sense of possibility and hope for a more progressive future. It is unsurprising that such a momentous event had an impact on the literature produced in the decades following the publication of the Origin. This module will examine the theme of evolution in Victorian poetry to explore the cultural impact of evolutionary theories and the ways in which poets’ responses to these theories differed from the responses that were possible in other literary forms. As well as examining the content of these poems and the aspects of evolution that poets were responding to, we will explore the role of meter, rhyme and poetic form in allowing poets to put forward their own perspectives on the meaning and consequences of evolutionary theory.


Week 1: Introduction. This is an introductory session focusing on selected chapters from the Origin and including some discussion of non-Darwinian evolutionary theories. The session will examine cultural responses to evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century and the social and religious questions that were raised by Darwin’s work.

Week 2: Poetry Before Darwin. This session will explore responses to pre-Darwinian evolutionary theories in poems from the 1850s and earlier. The poems under consideration will include works by Alfred Lord Tennyson and Arthur Hugh Clough.

Week 3: Faith and Doubt 1. This session will examine how poetry from the 1860s onwards responded to the Darwinian challenge to a Christian worldview. We will read a selection of shorter poems including Robert Browning’s ‘Caliban Upon Setebos’ and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection’.

Week 4: Faith and Doubt 2. We will continue to explore the religious implications of Darwin’s work as we discuss James Thomson’s long poem ‘The City of Dreadful Night’.

Week 5: Change and Progress 1. This session will explore the appeal of evolutionary theory to progressive writers. We will examine the presence of pre-Darwinian evolutionary theories in ostensibly Darwinian poetry and the tension between the representation of random variation in Darwin’s work and the depictions of purposeful, progressive change in the work of poets who responded to his theories. We will focus on selected poems by poets including Algernon Charles Swinburne, L.S. Bevington, Emily Pfeiffer and A. Mary F. Robinson.

Week 6: Change and Progress 2. We will continue our exploration of Darwinian and non-Darwinian theories of change and of the implications of Darwin’s works for religion through our reading of Mathilde Blind’s 1889 volume The Ascent of Man.

Week 7: Evolution and the Position of Women. We will examine feminist responses to evolution in poems including ‘She Who is to Come’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and ‘Woman’s Future’ by May Kendall. We will also look at less overt allusions to the position of women in evolutionary poems including Gilman’s ‘Similar Cases’ and Kendall’s ‘The Lower Life’. Contextual material will include extracts from non-fiction works by Olive Schreiner, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Antoinette Brown Blackwell.

Week 8: Comedy and Nonsense. This session will examine comic responses to the evolutionary blurring of species boundaries and will explore the role of humour in cultural responses to evolution. Poems will include May Kendall’s ‘Lay of the Trilobite’ and nonsense poetry by Edward Lear. Contextual material will include illustrations and cartoons from Punch Magazine.

Week 9: Sexual Selection. We will examine the use of the imagery of Darwinian sexual selection in late-Victorian love poetry including George Meredith’s Modern Love sequence, Constance Naden’s ‘Evolutional Erotics’ sequence and Mathilde Blind’s ‘Song of the Willi’.

Week 10: Evolutionary Poetry in the Twentieth Century. This session will explore a selection of twentieth-century poems by poets including H.D., Edna St Vincent Millay and Amy Clampitt to examine the aspects of Darwinism that have continued to resonate with poets beyond Darwin’s own era. Through this focus on the persistence of some themes and the divergence of others we will sum up the module and draw larger conclusions about the nature and purpose of Darwinian poetry.

Module Skills

Skills Type Skills details
Application of Number N/A
Communication Written communication in the form of essays, oral communication in seminar discussion and presentations (not assessed).
Improving own Learning and Performance Developing research skills and time management.
Information Technology Use of Aberlearn Blackboard; use of electronic resources (JSTOR, websites); use of databases of digitized newspapers and periodicals; use of word processing packages.
Personal Development and Career planning By critical reflection and the development of transferable communication skills.
Problem solving By evaluative analysis and the use of critical skills.
Research skills Through independent research, by relating literary texts to historical contexts and scientific texts, and by synthesizing various perspectives in an evaluative argument.
Subject Specific Skills Through detailed critical and contextual analysis of literary texts; through the reading, writing and research skills required in completing an assignment; through the analysis of poems in relation to scientific and other non-literary texts.
Team work Through group work in seminars.


This module is at CQFW Level 7