Posted by: Rob Viens | August 3, 2012

Shakespeare and the Ill Winds of the Pampas

It’s funny, anyone with a stereotypical image of Darwin would never think of him as an emotional man, yet every indication is that he was.  And although I am not an expert regarding his later years, it seems that even though he was a bit on the reserved side, he felt emotions very deeply. Today, August 3rd, we see a window – both directly and indirectly (through a side trip in his Autobiography) – into some of Darwin’s emotions.

The day started with the Beagle getting stuck in the shallow mud of the Río de la Plata.

“In the morning watch, before it was daylight, the Beagle stood too close in-shore & stuck her stern fast about a foot in the mud.— With a little patience & mæneuvering they got her off, & two whale boats being lowered to sound the bank ahead, we soon gained the channel.—

“The navigation of the Plata is difficult, owing to there being no landmarks, the water generally shoal & running in currents & the number of banks in the whole course.— We saw several old wrecks which now serve as buoys to guide other ships.— “It is an ill wind which blows nobody any good”.” (Aug 3)

Interesting use of a quote here – it took me a couple of readings to see what he was saying and it led me down several paths that I thought I’d write about today.

(1) The quote about an “ill wind” is an old sailors’ idiom.  It is typically used to refer to a situation where someone benefits from the misfortune of others (because it would be a rare case indeed if an “ill wind” blew “nobody any good”).  So what he means here is that the misfortune of those ships that were wrecked benefits the ships that come after – by showing where the dangerous shoals are. (The weather conditions and shallow waters made the Río de la Plata a home to numerous shipwrecks.)

A wreck near Montevideo (From the English Banks Project (pdf file) –  a shipwreck salvage operation in the Río de la Plata. This project notes that there are over a thousand wrecks in the river within one small area known as the English Banks.)

Shipwreck on the La Plata

(2) Ironically, in a few days Darwin would experience a true “ill wind” – one of the “pamperos” mentioned a couple of days ago.  As these are common in the region, there is a good possibility that some of the wrecks were literally caused by this “ill wind”.

(3) Shakespeare used a version of this quote back in the 1500’s in Henry VI, writing, ” Ill blows the wind that profits nobody”. Darwin had almost certainly read that play, and he refers to the Bard a couple of times in his Autobiography.  Interestingly his views change with time.  Writing about his schooling in the years before the Beagle voyage he writes:

“With respect to diversified tastes, independently of science, I was fond of reading various books, and I used to sit for hours reading the historical plays of Shakespeare, generally in an old window in the thick walls of the school. I read also other poetry, such as the recently published poems of Byron, Scott, and Thomson’s Seasons.” (Autobiography, describing his early school years)

William Shakespeare by John Taylor (?) 1610

William Shakespeare

It is probably not atypical that an educated man, such as Darwin, had read and enjoyed Shakespeare and other poets and playwrights. But Darwin, never willing to do (or believe) something just because he was supposed to, has a different view of Shakespeare in later life:

“I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” (Autobiography, describing his later life)

Okay Darwin, now tell us what you really think…

(4) One last thing I find interesting about this quote is that it is often attributed to sailors.  The fact that Darwin uses it here seems to say loads about how he feels like he is part of the crew and that he has adapted to the “culture” of being a sailor.

After returning to Montevideo later in the evening Darwin made his feelings about the aggressive gunboat from the day before quite clear:

“We arrived at M Video after sunset, & the Captain immediately went on board the Druid.— He has returned & brings the news, that the Druid will tomorrow morning sail for Buenos Ayres, & demand an apology for their conduct to us.— Oh I hope the Guard-ship will fire a gun at the Frigate; if she does, it will be her last day above water.” (Aug 3)

Go get ’em Charlie – add another “buoy” to the river to serve as a sign to others.  After all, “It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good”! (RJV)


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