Posted by: Rob Viens | October 24, 2012

“Billows of Liquid Phosphorus” and Darwin’s Inspiration

One of Darwin’s favorite books was John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  He refers to it frequently on the voyage and even writes in his autobiography that, “‘Milton’s Paradise Lost had been my chief favorite, and in my excursions during the voyage on the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton”.

Paradise Lost

Today Darwin was almost surely reading Milton, as his diary entry is one of the most literary descriptions I have yet seen (and there has been some real poetry in earlier entries):

“The night was pitch dark, with a fresh breeze.— The sea from its extreme luminousness presented a wonderful & most beautiful appearance; every part of the water, which by day is seen as foam, glowed with a pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, & in her wake was a milky train.— As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright; & from the reflected light, the sky just above the horizon was not so utterly dark as the rest of the Heavens.— It was impossible to behold this plain of matter, as it were melted & consuming by heat, without being reminded of Miltons description of the regions of Chaos & Anarchy.” (Oct 24)

I love the variety writing styles found in Darwin’s diary – from the descriptive to the mundane to the poetic.  Darwin truly was a very good writer.

I’m no scholar of Milton, nor have I read Paradise Lost in its entirety.  However, I do find it interesting that the favorite book of the man who would one day rock the foundation of the church was all about Satan’s rebellion against god, and how Adam and Eve’s choice to eat from the Tree of Knowledge changed the world. Being an intelligent man, I have no doubt the parallels with his own life were not lost on him as he contemplated his thoughts on implications of evolution.

Want to read Darwin’s favorite book?  Here is a copy from the Dartmouth Reading Room. (RJV)

Rationing Countdown (days till the Beagle runs out of “bread”): 3 days


  1. Thanks, Rob. I, too, admire Darwin’s writing. Once again, I am impressed in general but also in particular, given his youth. He truly is wise beyond his years…

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