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Darwin Correspondence Project

From M. D. Conway   24 December 1872

51, Notting Hill Square, | Bayswater. W.

Dec. 24 ’72

Dear Sir,

Some years ago Dr Erasmus Darwin whom I met at the house of Hensleigh Wedgwood Esq. promised me an introduction to you when I should ask it; but I have never asked it, much as I desired to see you, because I heard that your working-time (so important to the world) was limited by ill health.1

It has been my desire, and it has been increased by reading your latest work, to lay before you certain observations which I have carefully made upon the noises uttered by my children before they learned to talk.2 My first child was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1859, and I have had three born since.3 Of these the first noise made has invariably been hissing (that is, of course, next to crying). They cried when suffering, but satisfaction was expressed by continued hissing, with a kind of moist sputter. Then they all had a kind of whimper or whining, like an anxious puppy. Two of them after this had a kind of bray, made by vigorous inspiration and expiration, accompanied by movements up and down of the upper body. The braying stage was in the other two cases preceded by cooing, though all brayed at one time or another, and all cooed. Each of them also bleated. I was struck also with the great ease with which they could be taught to imitate with exactness animal sounds, as crowing and ‘mooing’.

—One or two other things came to my memory on reading your book. The closing of the eyes when thinking or listening deeply, which gave the Greeks their μύεσις (our mystic), I have often seen represented.4 I was once a critic writing on Dwight’s Journal of Music (Boston, N. E.),5 and remember that most of the art-critics and lovers of instrumental music were in the habit of listening to the severer music, such as symphonies &c., with eyes shut. In conversation on theological and metaphysical subjects with eminent German scholars, I have observed them shut their eyes,—and rub them hard sometimes. The late Horace Greeley, when listening to a speech or sermon in which he was much interested, was often laughed at for at once going to sleep, and even nodding: yet he was always prepared to write ably in the Tribune about what had been said.6

—This has struck me as curious: I was never very fond of dogs, but have actually (no doubt, unreasonably) disliked them since near 14 years ago I was bitten by a strange dog, and suffered some mental apprehension for a year afterward. A son of mine born nearly seven years afterward screams and weeps if a dog comes near. I am not conscious of having taught him at any time to avoid dogs; at any rate I have tried to educate him out of his horror—vainly. His fear is excited by the smallest lap-dog.

—I suppose you aware that a strong pressure by the finger midway between the upper lip & nose (in centre) will generally stop a sneeze which is coming on.7

—(p. 220.) I have observed that Mahommedans in praying generally fix their eyes on the mosque-floor: which is accordance with Islam (submission.)8

—(p. 230.) I used to observe that when my dear master R. W. Emerson was trying hard to recollect or solve he would put his forefinger on his Wellingtonian,9 and have observed the same since in one or two other great men. One, an eloquent preacher, if perplexed would take hold of the bridge of his nose & cover the rest with his hand.

—(p. 251) You give the derivation of sneer:10 have you also noticed that sarcasm is from σαρκάζω, defined in Liddell & Scott as ‘to tear flesh like dogs’?11

p 74 * With regard to expressions of rage blended with vindictive excitement,—I was, during the late Franco-Prussian War, travelling with the Prussian King’s Headquarters for the purpose of writing the history of what I saw in English and American Magazines.12 One day on straying beyond the protection of the German soldiery to take a view from Chateau Mousson, I was in the old ruin encountered by two French peasants, who held small sickles, and were evidently determined to make way with me in that lonely spot, as they often did with Germans whom they found unprotected. I could at once detect the rising of their resolution to attack by the increasing hardness and shortness of their breathing. I took out my American passport, and spent twenty minutes in explaining to them what they were slow to believe, that I was an American and a neutral, as ready to Chronicle a French as a German victory. They did not for a long time believe my story. But I had taken along a luncheon wrapped in an English newspaper. One of them, who was an Alsacian & spoke German, asked to see it: instead of opening it he closely inspected the paper wrapping; as he did so his breathing diminished in intensity, and its quickness diminished, until his murderous purpose passed with a long drawn breath away. I recognised that I was safe (I was unarmed) a minute before I heard him say to his companion “Pas allemand”.13

In a poem of Nizami (Persian) A.D. 1157, a very keen observer, I find the wrath of a King, a cruel tyrant against a sage who had spoken plainly of him, described in the following verse. When he beheld the sage, “the dark-minded monarch clapped his hands together; and from a desire of revenge, his eye was bent back towards the heel of his foot.”14

I remember Emerson describing in a conversation the anger of the late Secretary Seward which he witnessed, by saying, “His voice became corvine, and his nose fairly twisted.”15

—(p. 269) I have noticed shrugging among among the (lately) negro slaves of the United States, and have fancied that it might have been a natural development among any people fond of talking &c., but whose freedom of speech is restrained by fear or the habit of deference.16

—With regard to dare manus,17— Prince Bismark told me before the battle of Gravelotte that I must “bear no arms whatever, and if overtaken by the French must throw up my hands, holding them open. Everybody understands that.”18

Having thus brought my little budget of coals to Newcastle, I beg to subscribe myself as one of your admirers, and a disciple of many years. | Moncure D. Conway


Conway had asked Erasmus Alvey Darwin for an introduction to CD in 1863, but was unable to visit Down because of CD’s ill health (see Correspondence vol. 11, letter from E. A. Darwin, 9 November 1863, and letters from E. A. Darwin to M. D. Conway, 9 November 1863 and 11 November 1863).
In Expression, p. 86, CD had discussed the modulation of sounds made by babies before they could talk.
Conway had been a preacher in Ohio before settling in London in 1863. His eldest child was 12 years old in 1872; his two other surviving children were aged 6 and 3 (Census returns of England and Wales 1871 (The National Archives: Public Record Office RG10/34/27/47)). Conway’s second child had died in Brighton in 1864 at the age of 3 (Conway 1904, pp. 10–11).
The movement of eyelids during reflection or meditation was described by CD in Expression, pp. 228–9. μύω (ancient Greek): close, be shut. From this is derived the word μύησις, initiation into the mysteries, that is, the things about which one keeps one’s mouth shut.
Dwight’s Journal of Music was edited by John Sullivan Dwight, who had founded the journal in Boston in 1852.
Horace Greeley had been the editor of the New York Tribune; he died on 29 November 1872 (ANB).
In Expression, pp. 36, 40, CD had described sneezing as a reflex action.
In Expression, p. 220, CD stated that devotion was ‘chiefly expressed by the face being directed towards the heavens, with the eyeballs upturned’.
Conway was a follower of the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. By ‘Wellingtonian’ he probably meant nose, in a reference to Arthur Wellesley, duke of Wellington, who was renowned for the size of his nose.
In Expression, p. 251, CD described the exposure of the canine tooth in a ferocious sneer as similar to the muscular contraction of a snarling dog, and noted that the words sneer and snarl derived from the same root.
See Liddell and Scott comps. 1996; the Greek–English lexicon was first published in 1843.
Conway had been a war correspondent during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to 1871 (see Conway 1904, 2: 198–222).
Conway repeated this story in his autobiography (Conway 1904, 2: 212–13), but omitted any mention of the labourers’ breathing as a measure of their hostile feelings. Pas allemand (French): not German.
The lines come from the poem Makhzan al-asrar (Treasure house of mysteries) written around 1165 by the poet Nizami Ganjavi (see Talattof and Clinton eds. 2000, p. 3). Conway may have read the translation made by William Jones, who had dated the poem 1157 (W. Jones 1807, 4: 383); the quotation occurs in section fourteen of the poem, ‘On truth: the tyrant and the sage’ (ibid., p. 418).
The US secretary of state was William Henry Seward. Conway later altered Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statement about the effect of anger on Seward’s face to ‘his nose appeared twisted and almost corvine’ (Conway 1904, 1: 311).
In Expression, p. 269, CD considered the evidence of shrugging among different peoples and concluded that it was ‘a gesture natural to mankind’.
Dare manus: surrender (Latin). CD had suggested in Expression, p. 221, that the devotional gestures of kneeling while holding up the hands with the palms joined were derived from the action of captives who offered up their hands to be bound.
Otto von Bismarck was present at the battle near Gravelotte, France, on 18 August 1870; it was the largest battle of the Franco-Prussian war (Wawro 2003, pp. 169–86).


Introduces himself as an acquaintance of E. A. Darwin. Offers miscellaneous observations on human expression.

Letter details

Letter no.
Moncure Daniel Conway
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 161: 219
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8694,” accessed on 25 April 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 20