skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Lyell   6 and 8 September 1838


September 6, 1838.

My dear Darwin,—

I must first read your letter1 again which I answered in a great hurry at Newcastle. I should like to have a talk over Salisbury Craigs with you, especially on the spot. I do hope some day that we shall be able to examine together some of the volcanic rocks on the coast near the Red Head, within a day’s ride of this place. It is a splendid exhibition, and I think we should make out several points of eruption and sections of the feeders of the old volcanic islands of the Old Red Sandstone period. The variety of porphyries and amygdaloids is quite splendid. I assure you my father is quite enthusiastic about your journal, which he is reading, and he agrees with me that it would have had a great sale if separately published. The other day he told me that he wished to get a copy bound the moment it was out, and send it as a present to Sir William Hooker, who more than any one would be delighted with yours. He was disappointed at hearing that it was to be fettered by the other volumes, for although he should equally buy it, he feared so many of the public would be checked from doing so. I hope you mean to sell a portion of those copies which I think you told me you were to have separate, as I think it was a large number.

When do you think the book on Coral Reefs and Volcanos will be out? In recasting the ‘Principles,’ I have thrown the chapter on De Beaumont’s contemporaneous elevation of parallel mountain chains into one of the Preliminary Essays, where I am arguing against the supposition that nature was formerly parsimonious of time and prodigal of violence.2 You will, I am sure, find the discussion of that question much more naturally placed by this new arrangement. I should like to know, when you next write to me, how far you consider your gradual risings and sinkings of the spaces occupied by coralline and volcanic islands in the Pacific as leaning in favour of the doctrine that many parallel lines of upheaval or depression are formed contemporaneously.3 If I remember right, some of your lines are by no means parallel to others, although many are so. In one point of view, your grand discovery proves, I think, in the most striking manner, the weight of my principal objection to the argument of De Beaumont. You remember that I denied that he had proved that the Pyrenees were elevated after the cretaceous period, although it is true that the chalk has been carried up to their summits, and lies in inclined beds upon their flanks; for who shall say that the movement was not going on during the cretaceous period?4 Now in your lines of elevation, there will doubtless be coralline limestone carried upwards, belonging to the same period as the present, so far as the species of corals are concerned. Similar reefs are now growing to those which are upraised, or are rising.

September 8.— Many thanks for the ‘Spectator’5 which came this morning. I really find, when bringing up my Preliminary Essays in ‘Principles’ to the science of the present day, as far as I know it, that the great outline, and even most of the details, stand so uninjured, and in many cases they are so much strengthened by new discoveries, especially by yours, that we may begin to hope that the great principles there insisted on will stand the test of new discoveries. I am pleased to think of the improved form in which this part of the work will come before the French for the first time. You hope that the ‘Elements’ may send many to the ‘Principles,’ but I am not yet so sanguine as to be free from apprehension lest they should stand in the way of the ‘Principles.’ This, however, cannot be known yet.

I am very glad to hear you like the Athenæum. I used to make one mistake when first I went there. When anxious to push on with my book, after a ‘two hours’ spell,‘ I went there by way of a lounge, and instead of that, worked my head very hard, being excited by meeting with clever people, who would often talk to me, very much to my profit, on the very subject on which I was writing, or I fell in with a Review or Magazine relating to geology. Now this was all very well, but I used to forget that this ought to count for work although nothing had been written, and that I ought consequently to give up my second ’two hours‘ spell.’ By not doing so I was often brought to a dead stop, so that at last, for fear even of meeting with anybody in the streets who would also talk geology, I was sometimes driven for a walk into Gray’s Inn Gardens. But then you will say comes the difficulty, how to avoid theorising, for nothing substantial is gained by dwelling on the subject when there is no pen, ink, or paper before one. After lying two hours fallow the mind is refreshed, and then in five minutes your fancy will frame speculations which it will take you the two hours to realise on paper. As your eyes are strong, you can afford to read the light articles and newspaper gossip, which I could never indulge in much with impunity.

My father has been more and more taken up and delighted with your journal, and begged me this morning to invite you to come here any day this or the next month, when we shall be here, for as long or short a time as you like. Steamboats every Wednesday to Dundee, passage from thirty-six to forty hours; railroad four times a day from Dundee to Glamis, where the carriage meets you, and brings you in half an hour to Kinnordy—an easy trip for one who was never sea-sick except in sailing vessels. Do come, if you want some fresh air, and if you choose to bring MS. here and write, as I do whenever I choose, four or five hours quietly every day, I promise you the means of doing so; or if you prefer a geological excursion, remember that an autumn on this East coast may be almost always reckoned upon for fine weather.

Will you be so good, after reading the enclosed note to Dr. Richardson, to send it post-paid to him? I was glad to see him at Newcastle. Do not let Broderip, or the ‘Times,’ or the ‘Age,’ or ‘John Bull,’ nor any papers, whether of saints or sinners, induce you to join in running down the British Association.6 I do not mean to insinuate that you ever did so, but I have myself often seen its faults in a strong light, and am aware of what may be urged against philosophers turning public orators, &c. But I am convinced, although it is not the way I love to spend my own time, that in this country no importance is attached to any body of men who do not make occasional demonstrations of their strength in public meetings. It is a country where, as Tom Moore justly complained, a most exaggerated importance is attached to the faculty of thinking on your legs, and where, as Dan O’Connell well knows, nothing is to be got in the way of homage or influence, or even a fair share of power, without agitation. The local committee at Newcastle were quite amused at the eager press for tickets, after the meeting began, on the part of those who had most sneered against the whole thing down to a few weeks before its commencement. I can also assure you, as the strongest commendation, that the illiberal party cannot conceal their dislike, and in some degree their fear, of the growing strength of the Association, in which circumstance as geologists we are particularly interested. We must take care not to hint this last argument to the Tories, many of whom are helping forward the cause gallantly at present, and, Heaven be praised, we seemed in no danger of splitting on the rock of politics, which I always fear much more than any occasional squabbles amongst ourselves, which can never come to anything like lasting feuds in a body collected from so many different quarters. The moral of all this is, Go next year to Birmingham if you can, although your adviser has been only to two out of eight meetings. Did you really manage to drink nothing but water at old Jones’?

Pray write and gossip at full when lounging at the Athenæum to me, and never imagine you can say enough.

As to the Glen Roy case, I saw, in Orust in Sweden, great beds of stratified gravel and sand like those which cover our Scotch hypogene rocks entirely destitute of shells; yet there were beds of shells like those of Uddevalla, and sea beaches at still higher levels.7 Mind I tell you about the absence of shells in some of my Norwegian Newer Pliocene beds.

Believe me, my dear Darwin, ever most truly yours, | Charles Lyell.


According to Élie de Beaumont (1829–30, 1831), European mountain ranges could be sorted into twelve groups. He claimed that in each category, the bedding ran in the same direction, and that all the ranges that shared this common direction had been suddenly elevated at the same time. Lyell was then making revisions for the sixth edition of his Principles of geology, in which he criticised Élie de Beaumont’s theory (Wilson 1972, pp. 513–14; C. Lyell 1840, 1: 304–15).
According to CD, coral reefs were associated with subsidence and volcanic activity with elevation. For his theory of alternate bands of subsidence and elevation, see Journal and remarks, pp. 567–8.
Élie de Beaumont assumed that because the slopes of the Pyrenees contained upraised Cretaceous beds which were overlaid in some places by horizontal Tertiary beds, these mountains must have been elevated in a great catastrophe that brought the Cretaceous Period to an end (Élie de Beaumont 1831, p. 254).
The Spectator for the week ending 1 September 1838, pp. 827–9, contained a lengthy review of Lyell’s Elements.
William John Broderip had been a critic of the British Association ever since its founding. See A. Geikie 1875, 1: 187.
A reference to CD’s inability to find any shells on what he supposed to be marine beaches in Glen Roy (see letter to Charles Lyell, [14] September [1838], n. 13).


Geikie, Archibald. 1875. Life of Sir Roderick I. Murchison: based on his journals and letters with notices of his scientific contemporaries and a sketch of the rise and growth of palæozoic geology in Britain. 2 vols. London: John Murray.

Journal and remarks: Journal and remarks. 1832–1836. By Charles Darwin. Vol. 3 of Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle’s circumnavigation of the globe. London: Henry Colburn. 1839. [Separately published as Journal of researches.]

Wilson, Leonard Gilchrist. 1972. Charles Lyell. The years to 1841: the revolution in geology. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Would like to talk over Salisbury Craigs with CD.

CL’s father enthusiastic over Journal of researches.

Comments on Élie de Beaumont’s theory of mountain elevation.

Asks about parallel lines of upheaval and depression in the Pacific.

Glad CD likes Athenaeum Club.

Comments on methods of work.

Invites CD to visit Kinnordy.

Defends BAAS: "in this country no importance is attached to any body of men who do not make occasional demonstrations of their strength in public meetings".

With respect to Glen Roy, notes existence of deposits destitute of shells.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
K. M. Lyell 1881 2: 43

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 425,” accessed on 5 March 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 2