The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 93 of 188

Charles Darwin to C. Lyell.

Friday night, September 13th [1838].

My dear Lyell,

I was astonished and delighted at your gloriously long letter, and I am sure I am very much obliged to Mrs. Lyell for having taken the trouble to write so much. (Lyell dictated much of his correspondence.) I mean to have a good hour’s enjoyment and scribble away to you, who have so much geological sympathy that I do not care how egotistically I write…

I have got so much to say about all sorts of trifling things that I hardly know what to begin about. I need not say how pleased I am to hear that Mr. Lyell (Father of the geologist.) likes my Journal. To hear such tidings is a kind of resurrection, for I feel towards my first-born child as if it had long since been dead, buried, and forgotten; but the past is nothing and the future everything to us geologists, as you show in your capital motto to the ‘Elements.’ By the way, have you read the article, in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ on M. Comte, ‘Cours de la Philosophie’ (or some such title)? It is capital; there are some fine sentences about the very essence of science being prediction, which reminded me of “its law being progress.”

I will now begin and go through your letter seriatim. I dare say your plan of putting the Elie de Beaumont’s chapter separately and early will be very good; anyhow, it is showing a bold front in the first edition which is to be translated into French. It will be a curious point to geologists hereafter to note how long a man’s name will support a theory so completely exposed as that of De Beaumont’s has been by you; you say you “begin to hope that the great principles there insisted on will stand the test of time.” Begin to hope: why, the possibility of a doubt has never crossed my mind for many a day. This may be very unphilosophical, but my geological salvation is staked on it. After having just come back from Glen Roy, and found how difficulties smooth away under your principles, it makes me quite indignant that you should talk of hoping. With respect to the question, how far my coral theory bears on De Beaumont’s theory, I think it would be prudent to quote me with great caution until my whole account is published, and then you (and others) can judge how far there is foundation for such generalisation. Mind, I do not doubt its truth; but the extension of any view over such large spaces, from comparatively few facts, must be received with much caution. I do not myself the least doubt that within the recent (or as you, much to my annoyment, would call it, “New Pliocene”) period, tortuous bands–not all the bands parallel to each other–have been elevated and corresponding ones subsided, though within the same period some parts probably remained for a time stationary, or even subsided. I do not believe a more utterly false view could have been invented than great straight lines being suddenly thrown up.

When my book on Volcanoes and Coral Reefs will be published I hardly know; I fear it will be at least four or five months; though, mind, the greater part is written. I find so much time is lost in correcting details and ascertaining their accuracy. The Government Zoological work is a millstone round my neck, and the Glen Roy paper has lost me six weeks. I will not, however, say lost; for, supposing I can prove to others’ satisfaction what I have convinced myself is the case, the inference I think you will allow to be important. I cannot doubt that the molten matter beneath the earth’s crust possesses a high degree of fluidity, almost like the sea beneath the block ice. By the way, I hope you will give me some Swedish case to quote, of shells being preserved on the surface, but not in contemporaneous beds of gravel…

Remember what I have often heard you say: the country is very bad for the intellects; the Scotch mists will put out some volcanic speculations. You see I am affecting to become very Cockneyfied, and to despise the poor country-folk, who breath fresh air instead of smoke, and see the goodly fields instead of the brick houses in Marlborough Street, the very sight of which I confess I abhor. I am glad to hear what a favourable report you give of the British Association. I am the more pleased because I have been fighting its battles with Basil Hall, Stokes, and several others, having made up my mind, from the report in the “Athenaeum”, that it must have been an excellent meeting. I have been much amused with an account I have received of the wars of Don Roderick (Murchison.) and Babbage. What a grievous pity it is that the latter should be so implacable…This is a most rigmarole letter, for after each sentence I take breath, and you will have need of it in reading it…

I wish with all my heart that my Geological book was out. I have every motive to work hard, and will, following your steps, work just that degree of hardness to keep well. I should like my volume to be out before your new edition of ‘Principles’ appears. Besides the Coral theory, the volcanic chapters will, I think, contain some new facts. I have lately been sadly tempted to be idle–that is, as far as pure geology is concerned–by the delightful number of new views which have been coming in thickly and steadily,–on the classification and affinities and instincts of animals–bearing on the question of species. Note-book after note-book has been filled with facts which begin to group themselves clearly under sub-laws.

Good night, my dear Lyell. I have filled my letter and enjoyed my talk to you as much as I can without having you in propria persona. Think of the bad effects of the country–so once more good night.

Ever yours, Chas. Darwin.

Pray again give my best thanks to Mrs. Lyell.

[The record of what he wrote during the year does not give a true index of the most important work that was in progress,–the laying of the foundation-stones of what was to be the achievement of his life. This is shown in the foregoing letter to Lyell, where he speaks of being “idle,” and the following extract from a letter to Fox, written in June, is of interest in this point of view:

“I am delighted to hear you are such a good man as not to have forgotten my questions about the crossing of animals. It is my prime hobby, and I really think some day I shall be able to do something in that most intricate subject, species and varieties.”]

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