19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 11 (2010)

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'The Lay of the Trilobite': Rereading May Kendall

John Robert Holmes


The impact of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection on the culture of late Victorian England and on the development of Western thought at large is at once widely acknowledged and hotly contested. In this essay, I revisit the question of what difference an understanding of Darwin's ideas, their reception and their afterlife within evolutionary biology makes to how we read Victorian poetry. I suggest that there are three distinct ways of approaching poetry after Darwin. The first is to examine poems in their own cultural context, considering how they respond to the scientific discourses of their time in the light of internal and external evidence as to the specific sources of each poet's knowledge of those discourses. The second is to ground an interpretative framework in Darwinism's insights into human biology itself. The third is to explore how a given poem's responses to the philosophical issues raised by Darwin's thinking, including questions of ethics and theology, give its readers a possible model for their own responses to the same concerns today. I suggest too that the limitations of each approach may be best overcome by bringing them together. I go on to explore the potential of the first and third approaches through a reading of May Kendall's poem 'The Lay of the Trilobite' in a series of different contexts, from its first appearance in 'Punch', through her first collection Dreams to Sell, to her essays on Christian ethics from the 1880s and 1890s.

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