Letter from Charles Darwin to His Sister, Catherine
Simmons B. Buntin
Letter No. 29 June, 1834My Dearest Catherine,
Our course lays due south, a new passage
through the Straight
of Magellan, and I cannot fathom
what strange currents lurk
beneath the iron clouds. Once
I captured the alien
view of Southern glaciers:
inverted domes rimmed with purest
white (oh, how the stars must be jealous!);
but Catherine, it is their blue
which holds me.
these are the frozen flames of Vulcan,
though I questioned the atmosphere
and found other evidence: ice
crystals gathering and refracting
the light. A simple combination
of muted sky and sea.
Yet I fear this voyage
is leaving me too scientific—it is not
some chemical reaction or
ice cones permeated by tropospheric rays.
There is more; and
I can only say, when I see these glaciers,
I am reminded of mother’s eyes.
Beneath heavy skies,
however, we are threatened
by harrowing winds and black
fingers of basalt.
These are unexplored waters,
so I am braced by the cartography, the geology—
yet I must fear
a wooden hull’s limitations.28 July, 1834Valparaiso!
We have anchored
(both our wind-tattered sails
and our restless feet) at the chief
seaport of Chile, the city
whose fragrances recall the intricate
tropical gardens of St. Cruz in Teneriffe.
And if the dense green
forests of Brasil cause your eyes
to ache, then Aconcaqua
and the long chain of Andes
will leave you blind!
I am reminded again
of the numerous species
which make up the grandeur of life:
I have seen, in the high
hills of Patagonia,
a bird larger in wingspan
than a British skiff’s sails, and more
buoyant. I have seen on the uneven
playas of Tierra del Fuego a dumb and
flightless bird six hands higher than my brow.
And I have seen, weaving
the icy Antarctic waters, a slick
bird whose wings
are more efficient
than the finest pair of fins. And I have found
a striking likeness in their thin bones,
in dry feathers...
Every evening I ask the Creator,
How long are the days of the Genesis,
oh Lord? Yet I cannot discuss
such a heresy with Fitzroy, who nearly abandons me
upon a lifeless rock in the Pacific;
but with you, I can leave
these questions, and more...
In loving passage,
31 May 2009
"My Dearest Catherine" (Part II)
by Karen James
Simmons Buntin has kindly agreed to let us reproduce his series of three poems as imagined letters from Darwin to his sister Catherine when he was aboard the Beagle. They are published in his book of poems Riverfall (Salmon Poetry, Ireland, 2005). They also appeared in MIT Press's anthology on evolution and progress. The first one is here, and today we post the second: