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A First Year in Canterbury Settlement With Other Early Essays

Prefatory Note

Prefatory Note

As the following dialogue embodies the earliest fruits of Butler’s study of the works of Charles Darwin, with whose name his own was destined in later years to be so closely connected, and thus possesses an interest apart from its intrinsic merit, a few words as to the circumstances in which it was published will not be out of place.

Butler arrived in New Zealand in October, 1859, and about the same time Charles Darwin’sOrigin of Specieswas published. Shortly afterwards the book came into Butler’s hands. He seems to have read it carefully, and meditated upon it. The result of his meditations took the shape of the following dialogue, which was published on 20 December, 1862, in the PRESS which had been started in the town of Christ Church in May, 1861. The dialogue did not by any means pass unnoticed. On the 17th of January, 1863, a leading article (of course unsigned) appeared in the PRESS, under the title “Barrel-Organs,” discussing Darwin’s theories, and incidentally referring to Butler’s dialogue. A reply to this article, signed A .M., appeared on the 21st of February, and the correspondence was continued until the 22nd of June, 1863. The dialogue itself, which was unearthed from the early files of the page 150 PRESS, mainly owing to the exertions of Mr. Henry Festing Jones, was reprinted, together with the correspondence that followed its publication, in the PRESS of June 8 and 15, 1912. Soon after the original appearance of Butler’s dialogue a copy of it fell into the hands of Charles Darwin, possibly sent to him by a friend in New Zealand. Darwin was sufficiently struck by it to forward it to the editor of some magazine, which has not been identified, with the following letter:—

Mr. Darwin takes the liberty to send by this post to the Editor a New Zealand newspaper for the very improbable chance of the Editor having some spare space to reprint a Dialogue on Species. This Dialogue, written by some [sic] quite unknown to Mr. Darwin, is remarkable from its spirit and from giving so clear and accurate a view of Mr. D. [sic] theory. It is also remarkable from being published in a colony exactly 12 years old, in which it might have [sic] thought only material interests would have been regarded.

The autograph of this letter was purchased from Mr. Tregaskis by Mr. Festing Jones, and subsequently presented by him to the Museum at Christ Church. The letter cannot be dated with certainty, but since Butler’s dialogue was published in December, 1862, and it is at least probable that the copy of the PRESS which contained it was sent to Darwin shortly after it appeared, we may conclude with tolerable certainty that page 151 the letter was written in March, 1863. Further light is thrown on the controversy by a correspondence which took place between Butler and Darwin in 1865, shortly after Butler’s return to England. During that year Butler had published a pamphlet entitled The Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as given by the Four Evangelists critically examined, of which he afterwards incorporated the substance into The Fair Haven. Butler sent a copy of this pamphlet to Darwin, and in due course received the following reply:-

My dear Sir,—I am much obliged to you for so kindly sending me your Evidences, etc. We have read it with much interest. It seems to me written with much force, vigour, and clearness; and the main argument to me is quite new. I particularly agree with all you say in your preface.

I do not know whether you intend to return to New Zealand, and, if you are inclined to write, I should much like to know what your future plans are.

My health has been so bad during the last five months that I have been confined to my bedroom. Had it been otherwise I would have asked you if you could have spared the time to have paid us a visit; but this at present is impossible, and I fear will be so for some time.

With my best thanks for your present,
  I remain,
    My dear Sir,
      Yours very faithfully,

        Charles Darwin.

page 152

To this letter Butler replied as follows:—

Dear Sir,—I knew you were ill and I never meant to give you the fatigue of writing to me. Please do not trouble yourself to do so again. As you kindly ask my plans I may say that, though I very probably may return to New Zealand in three or four years, I have no intention of doing so before that time. My study is art, and anything else I may indulge in is only by-play; it may cause you some little wonder that at my age I should have started as an art student, and I may perhaps be permitted to explain that this was always my wish for years, that I had begun six years ago, as soon as ever I found that I could not conscientiously take orders; my father so strongly disapproved of the idea that I gave it up and went out to New Zealand, stayed there for five years, worked like a common servant, though on a run of my own, and sold out little more than a year ago, thinking that prices were going to fall—which they have since done. Being then rather at a loss what to do and my capital being all locked up, I took the opportunity to return to my old plan, and have been studying for the last ten years unremittingly. I hope that in three or four years more I shall be able to go on very well by myself, and then I may go back to New Zealand or no as circumstances shall seem to render advisable. I must apologise for so much detail, but hardly knew how to explain myself without it.

I always delighted in your ORIGIN OF SPECIES as soon as I saw it out in New Zealand—not as knowing anything whatsoever of natural history, but it enters into page 153 so many deeply interesting questions, or rather it suggests so many, that it thoroughly fascinated me. I therefore feel all the greater pleasure that my pamphlet should please you, however full of errors.

The first dialogue on the ORIGIN which I wrote in the PRESS called forth a contemptuous rejoinder from (I believe) the Bishop of Wellington—(please do not mention the name, though I think that at this distance of space and time I might mention it to yourself) I answered it with the enclosed, which may amuse you. I assumed another character because my dialogue was in my hearing very severely criticised by two or three whose opinion I thought worth having, and I deferred to their judgment in my next. I do not think I should do so now. I fear you will be shocked at an appeal to the periodicals mentioned in my letter, but they form a very staple article of bush diet, and we used to get a good deal of superficial knowledge out of them. I feared to go in too heavy on the side of the ORIGIN, because I thought that, having said my say as well as I could, I had better now take a less impassioned tone; but I was really exceedingly angry.

Please do not trouble yourself to answer this, and believe me,

  Yours most sincerely,

    S. Butler.

This elicited a second letter from Darwin:-

My dear Sir,—I thank you sincerely for your kind and frank letter, which has interested me greatly. What page 154 a singular and varied career you have already run. Did you keep any journal or notes in New Zealand? For it strikes me that with your rare powers of writing you might make a very interesting work descriptive of a colonist’s life in New Zealand.

I return your printed letter, which you might like to keep. It has amused me, especially the part in which you criticise yourself. To appreciate the letter fully I ought to have read the bishop’s letter, which seems to have been very rich.

You tell me not to answer your note, but I could not resist the wish to thank you for your letter.

With every good wish, believe me, my dear Sir,

  Yours sincerely,

    Ch. Darwin.

It is curious that in this correspondence Darwin makes no reference to the fact that he had already had in his possession a copy of Butler’s dialogue and had endeavoured to induce the editor of an English periodical to reprint it. It is possible that we have not here the whole of the correspondence which passed between Darwin and Butler at this period, and this theory is supported by the fact that Butler seems to take for granted that Darwin knew all about the appearance of the original dialogue on the ORIGIN OF SPECIES in the PRESS. Enough, however, has been given to explain the correspondence which the publication of the dialogue occasioned. I do not know what authority Butler had for supposing that Charles John Abraham, Bishop of Wellington, was the author of the article entitled “Barrel-Organs,” and the “Savoyard” of the subsequent controversy. However, at that time Butler was deep in the page 155 counsels of the PRESS, and he may have received private information on the subject. Butler’s own reappearance over the initials A. M. is sufficiently explained in his letter to Darwin.

It is worth observing that Butler appears in the dialogue and ensuing correspondence in a character very different from that which he was later to assume. Here we have him as an ardent supporter of Charles Darwin, and adopting a contemptuous tone with regard to the claims of Erasmus Darwin to have sown the seed which was afterwards raised to maturity by his grandson. It would be interesting to know if it was this correspondence that first turned Butler’s attention seriously to the works of the older evolutionists and ultimately led to the production of EVOLUTION, OLD AND NEW, in which the indebtedness of Charles Darwin to Erasmus Darwin, Buffon and Lamarck is demonstrated with such compelling force.