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Darwin Correspondence Project

From James Shaw   7 November 1866

Tynron Parish School | Dumfries

7 Nov/66

Dear Sir,

Allow me to return sincere thanks for receipt of a Copy of the ‘Origin’ by to-days’ post—to be henceforth ranked with the Lares & Penates. 1

The difference between the tastes of cultivated man & that of savages & birds is not so great when we expand your remark on the modern feeling for scenery &c by tracing how gradually it has arisen2

(Cosmos vol II.)3 The Sublime & Beautiful of the heroic ages were accessory to Power & Love. De Quincy somewhere remarks that Shakespeare was the first English poet who has alluded to clouds per se & that in terms far removed from Shelley’s rapturous poem.4

What we call ugliness may sometimes be for an animals’ good as is its stench, repulsive to its enemies as perfume is attractive to its mate; witness the manner of frightening birds by horrid painted screens, depriving them almost of sense for a little (practised in Palestine), & then shooting or catching them.

Keats’s exquisite description of a venomous serpent:— “She was a Gordian shape of dazzling hue, vermilion spotted, golden, green, & blue”5 &c shows that the idea of danger being eliminated as regards the describer something remains pleasing to the eye.

In very ancient Chinese sculpture their method of catching tigers with a box-trap & mirror is represented.

Again thanking you for the handsome present, | I am, Dear Sir, | Yours truly | Jas. Shaw

Ch. Darwin Esqre.

P.S. I can so far verify your remarks on the colour of fruit being a guide to birds as I observed that blackbirds &c preyed quite as much on red geans in my garden as on the ripened black ones, whereas the coloured gooseberries suffered far more from them than even the ripe green ones.6



The reference is to the fourth edition of Origin, which CD’s publisher, John Murray, had recently released for sale (the book was advertised in the 17 October and 1 November 1866 issues of the Publishers’ Circular, pp. 617, 666). The book had been printed by the end of July 1866, but Murray did not release it until November for marketing reasons (see letter from John Murray, 18 July [1866]). Shaw’s name appears on CD’s presentation list for this edition (see Correspondence vol. 14, Appendix IV). Lares and penates: ‘household gods; valued personal or household objects’ (Chambers).
Shaw refers to CD’s comment, ‘The idea also of beauty in natural scenery has arisen only within modern times’ (Origin 4th ed., p. 239).
Shaw refers to volume 2 of Humboldt 1846–58 (Cosmos: sketch of a physical description of the universe); volume 2 has two sections, ‘Incitements to the study of nature’ and ‘History of the physical contemplation of the universe’. CD read this volume in May 1848 (see CD’s reading notebooks, Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV, 119: 21a; see also Correspondence vol. 4, letter to Edward Cresy, [May 1848]). There is a copy of it in the Darwin Library–Down.
Thomas De Quincey wrote in his essay ‘On Wordsworth’s poetry’ that cloud architecture had been little noticed by earlier poets, claiming that there was no distinct sketch of the appearance of clouds before William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (see Masson ed. 1889–90, 11: 317–18). Shaw refers to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘The cloud’ (Shelley 1834, 2: 469–72).
The quotation is from John Keats’s poem ‘Lamia’ (Keats 1820, p. 6).
CD had added a new passage to the fourth edition of Origin criticising the view that organic beings had been created beautiful for the benefit of human beings (Origin 4th ed., pp. 238–41). In it he claimed (ibid., p. 240) that the beauty of fruits served ‘merely as a guide to birds and beasts’, so that the fruit might be eaten and the seeds disseminated.


Chambers: The Chambers dictionary. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap Publishers. 1998.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Humboldt, Alexander von. 1846–58. Cosmos: sketch of a physical description of the universe. Translated [by Elizabeth Juliana Sabine] under the superintendence of Edward Sabine. 4 vols. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans; John Murray.

Keats, John. 1820. Lamia, Isabella, The eve of St. Agnes, and other poems. London: Taylor and Hessey.

Origin 4th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 4th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1866.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. 1834. The works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, with his life. 2 vols. London: John Ascham.


Thanks CD for copy of the Origin [4th ed.]; makes some observations on beauty and ugliness in nature.

Letter details

Letter no.
James Shaw
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Tynron Parish School
Source of text
DAR 177: 151
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5270,” accessed on 24 November 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 14