Darwin’s Greatest Regret and His Deathbed Reflection on What Makes Life Worth Living

“If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.”

An encyclopedia was published a century ago The Natural Wonders Every Child Must Know fell into Alan Turing’s child-hands and seeded the ideas that bloomed into the computing revolution, an encyclopedia titled Wonders of the WorldShe fell in the hands of a child. Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882), seeding in him the passion for travel to remote wonderlands of nature that took him aboard the BeagleTo make the observations which eventually led to his evolutionary revolution.

Charles Darwin, 7 years old. Portrait of Charles Darwin, age 7.

Darwin grew up in the Golden Age of the great nature-poets — the days of Wordsworth’s proclamation that “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge… impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science” — and so the boy’s passion for the science of nature came coupled with a passion for its splendor, channeled in the poetic and aesthetic enchantments of the human arts.

In between Euclid lessons, Darwin sat as a teenager for hours, reading poems by Wordsworth. Coleridge. Shelley. Byron. Shakespeare. Milton. He carried a second book when he was unable to carry one on his travels. Paradise Lost.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

At twenty, after traveling to a “music meeting” in Birmingham, Darwin wrote to his cousin: “[It] was the most glorious thing I ever experienced.” His love of music grew so intense that, as he began formulating his ideas about evolutionary descent, he timed his thinking-walks to hear the choir at Kings College Chapel. “It gave me intense pleasure, so that my backbone would sometimes shiver,” he recalled in his old age, baffled that music could move him so deeply despite his own exceptionally bad ear for pitch. (Here Darwin falls victim to his time and training, looking for a physiological explanation before the birth of psychology and neuroscience, before we understood how music moves us not by sense-organ mechanics but by the lever of feeling — that supreme interpretive art of higher consciousness, so that “matter delights in music, and became Bach.”)

Darwin was guided by the feeling-tones of beauty, the joy in native poetry, the music of aliveness as he delved deeper into science, to discover a whole new order for understanding the natural world. The final months of finalizing The Origin of SpeciesDarwin was 39 years old and wrote this letter in ecstatic love to Emma.

I strolled a little beyond the glade for an hour and a half… the fresh yet dark green of the grand old Scotch firs, the brown of the catkins of the old birches, with their white stems, and a fringe of distant green from the larches, made an excessively pretty view… a chorus of birds singing around me, and squirrels running up the trees, and some woodpeckers laughing… it was as pleasant and rural a scene as ever I saw and did not care one penny how the beasts or birds had been formed.

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Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane — a twenty-first-century act of poetic resistance to the erasure of nature from the human repertoire of ecstatic imagination.

The following are the BeagleDarwin was in his mid-20s when he went to Brazil. He kept his diary and marveled at the beauty of the rainforest.

You cannot adequately describe the feelings of amazement, admiration and devotion that fill the heart and lift the mind.

These “higher feelings” shaped his notion of divinity — he observed that the devotional experience people cite as their proof of God is based on the same “sense of sublimity” that nature’s grandeur stirs in the spirit, the same “powerful though vague and similar feelings excited by music.” (Two centuries later, the poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman would echo and harmonize this idea in her lovely notion of the Earth ecstatic as a personal religion.)

But then, as Darwin grew old, something happened — something he himself struggled to understand, something that caused him great sorrow: This radiant delight in aliveness through the transcendent experience of beauty — be it in spring’s symphony of songbirds or in a Bach sonata, in a Whitman poem or in the slant of sunlight on a centuries-old oak — grew dim, then was altogether extinguished. Darwin was mentally active and alert, but blinded, deaf, and dead to the beauty that inspires us.

It was his deepest regret, but also his most profound insight about the purpose of living.

Charles Darwin during his last years. Julia Margaret Cameron, a pioneering photographer.

Darwin dedicated an hour every afternoon in his last years to reflecting on his life, and sharing the personal cosmogony that he discovered over his seventy-years. In a set of autobiographical sketches he wrote for his children, bearing the heading “Recollections of the Development of My Mind and Character,” he considered what makes us human, what makes us happy, and what makes life worth living. These notes were of great insight and value to his family, who published them in The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (public librarian) after his death.

One of the recollections is that Darwin, an elderly man writes:

My mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years… Poetry of many kinds… gave me great pleasure… Pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight… But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry…Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. Although I still enjoy fine scenery, it doesn’t give me as much pleasure.

In a sentiment of extraordinary lucidity and humility, and of immense foresight given what we have since learned about the brain, Darwin bends his mind into examining its own inner workings, illuminating the most essential nature of the human animal — a beast of feeling, wired not for brutality but for beauty:

My brain seems to be a sort of machine which can make general laws of large amounts of facts. However, it is hard for me to understand why my higher senses have been affected. If a man had a more organized or well-constructed mind than mine, then I don’t think they would suffer. I believe if I could live again I would make it a point to listen to music and read poetry every day. Perhaps the brain parts that are now damaged would be kept alive by regular use. These tastes are a sign of sadness and can be detrimental to our intellect and morality.

Complement with Mary Shelley, writing in Darwin’s epoch about a twenty-first-century world savaged by a deadly pandemic, on what makes life worth living and Walt Whitman, writing shortly after his paralytic stroke, on how an appetite for nature’s beauty restores vitality, then revisit the story of how Darwin’s greatest loss shaped his view of life.

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