TL;DR: Pfeiffer grapples with the impersonal nature of Darwinian evolution by personifying it: this contradictory endeavour yields confusion and paradox.
The discovery of “deep time” by the geologists of the 17th and 18th centuries had unsettled Christians with the vista of millions of years of unpeopled prehistory. But by the mid-19th century the findings of geology and paleontology had largely been domesticated into the body of mainsteam Christianity through the ideas of “natural theology” (living things were designed by the creator); the teleological “great chain of being” (the history of life represents progress towards a goal); and the special status of humans within creation.
But the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) shattered the first two of these coping mechanisms, and The Descent of Man (1871) the third. Variation and natural selection explain how living things can be complex and well-adapted to their environments without the need for a designer; the process is directionless and purposeless; and humans share so many characteristics with the other great apes that we must be closely related.
These were much harder pills to swallow than deep time, and the struggle to incorporate the discoveries of science into the Victorian worldview is evident in Pfeiffer’s deployment of contradiction and double meaning throughout this sonnet: evolution’s impersonal nature is figurated using personification; its purposelessness is described in purposeful language; and the question posed in the octave is answered by paradox in the sestet.
These contradictions are embodied in the sonnet’s addressee, “Hunger”. This is used with multiple meanings: craving for food; dearth or famine, one of the mechanisms of the Darwinian “struggle for existence”; and lust, desire or ambition, that drives a purposeful process.
Pfeiffer was a serious student of evolution and had exchanged letters with Darwin, suggesting an improvement to his discussion of sexual selection. Darwin had written:
When we behold a male bird elaborately displaying his graceful plumes or splendid colours before the female, whilst other birds, not thus decorated, make no such display, it is impossible to doubt that she admires the beauty of her male partner.
Charles Darwin (1871). The Descent of Man, volume I, page 63. London: John Murray.
Pfeiffer pointed out, and Darwin agreed, that it would be simpler if the causation went the other way, namely if the sense of appreciation of beauty were a consequence of sexual admiration, rather than its cause.
Both times “Hunger” appears (here and in line 4) it is a metrical inversion (a trochee substituting for an iamb), emphasizing the importance of the word. Other inversions are on “Sacred” (line 9) and “Maker” (line 10).
“Of the sea-flower”: a double iamb, emphasizing both “sea” and “flower”.
A “sea-flower” is a sea anemone. Anemones were familiar to the Victorians due to the new hobby of building home marine aquaria, popularized by Philip Henry Gosse.
Philip Henry Gosse (1860). Plate V in Actinologia Britannica: A History of the British Sea-Anemones and Corals. London: Van Voorst.
Anemones are sessile, but some species are not “rooted” to the spot in the manner of a coral: they can move slowly on their muscular pedal disk “somewhat in the manner of a snail” (Gosse, p. 9).
The choice of anemones as Pfeiffer’s first example was perhaps suggested by their reputation as mindless eaters:
A sensual Christian resembles a sea anemone […] It squats on a tenacious base, gulps all acquisitions into a capacious chasm, and harmonises with the weeds it dwells amongst.
Christina Rossetti (1902). Time Flies: A Reading Diary, p. 198. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
“Driveth rooted things to break their moorings” has a double meaning, In the struggle for life, even sessile animals like anemones may sometimes have to break free in order to survive, for example to escape from a predator; and on longer timescales, sessile species can evolve into free-swimming species, for example jellyfish are thought to have evolved from sessile ancestors similar to anemones or corals.
Note that “driveth” here is purposeful language for a purposeless process, and that evolution is not directional in the manner suggested: many sessile species (sea lilies, tube worms, barnacles, oysters, mussels, etc.) had mobile ancestors.
“Unfoldest wings in creatures” is ambiguous in the same way as “break their moorings”. The struggle for life can drive a winged creature to take flight; and on longer timescales winged species can evolve from wingless.
“Rapt” too has a double meaning: “carried up and transported into heaven” as metaphorically an animal is by its wings or a species by the evolution of flight; and also “transported with joy” as an animal might be on escaping a predator.
“Above thy harms” can only be a wishful or temporary condition: the struggle for life goes on in the air just as it did in the ocean or on the ground, as Darwin pointed out in his discussion of the beetles of Madeira:
For during thousands of successive generations each individual beetle which
flew least, either from its wings having been ever so little less perfectly
developed or from indolent habit, will have had the best chance of
surviving from not being blown out to sea; and, on the other hand, those
beetles which most readily took to flight will oftenest have been blown to
sea and thus have been destroyed.
Charles Darwin (1859). On the Origin of Species, p. 136. London: John Murray.
Waves are “hungry-seeming” perhaps because of the purposeful way they seem to travel in ranks when there is a prevailing wind (“hungry” in the sense “desirous, eager”). But “hungry” also means “barren”, so perhaps this refers to the appearance of the oceans before the origin of life.
“Were the first ministers”: a double iamb, emphasizing both “first” and “ministers”.
The waves are Hunger’s “first ministers” because the earliest fossils are of marine creatures. “Minister” means “one who carries out executive duties as the agent or representative of a superior” (OED): that is, the waves, and hence, by metonymy, the ocean, are imposing the struggle of life upon their living inhabitants.
“Universe” is probably intended in the sense “the world, the earth”. A “park” is “any large enclosed piece of ground, usually comprising woodland and pasture, attached to or surrounding a manor, castle, country house, etc., and used for recreation” and a “grange” is “a country house with farm buildings attached, usually the residence of a gentleman-farmer” (OED). The image in this line portrays Hunger as a “huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’” type of landowner, filling the whole world with life only to kill it for amusement and sport.
“Sacred disquietude, divine unrest” is schesis onomaton, the repetition of an idea in different words.
The phrases are paradoxical since “sacred” has the sense “solemn, reverent” which is opposed to “disquiet”.
These phrases have a double meaning. “Sacred/divine” characterizes Hunger (compare “Unknown God” in line 13) and “disquietude/unrest” its effects on living things (compare “restless arms” in line 1). But we can also interpret these phrases as meaning “disquietude about the sacred”, thus referring to the anxiety of Victorians like Pfeiffer grappling with the consequences of evolution for their Christian beliefs.
“Breathes the breath of life” is a reference to Genesis 2:7, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Pfeiffer’s substitution of the impersonal force of Hunger for the “Lord God” here is daring, as it rejects the special creation and status of humans.
It is not the case that Hunger (taken as a metaphor for the struggle for life) is by itself the “maker” of all living things. Evolution requires variation as well as selection. The causes of variation were not understood until the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics in the early 20th century, so it is not surprising that Pfeiffer omits it from this poetic account. In On the Origin of Species Darwin can only speculate about the “complex and little known laws of variation”.
“Unthrift” means “prodigal, spendthrift”, so that “unthrift greed” is a vast outpouring of greed. But “unthrift” is paradoxical when applied to “greed” which would conventionally be characterized as “miserly”.
“Lust” is “self-slaying” (self-defeating) because it can achieve its end and thus satiate itself, whereas Hunger in its role as the personification of evolution is “insatiate” (line 8).
“Unknown God” is a reference to Acts 17:23, in which Paul preaches to the Athenians: “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” Paul’s message is that the Athenians have been worshipping the Christian god all along, but did not know they were doing so. So by analogy the poem says that we have been worshipping “Hunger” (that is, evolution) all along, without knowing it.
This line accepts that humans have evolved, and that evolution is still ongoing, contrary to the idea of species being perfect and unchanging. Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, had objected to Darwin on this ground:
How can we account for all this? [that is, for the classifiability of living things into nested groups] By the simplest and yet the most comprehensive answer. By declaring the stupendous fact that all creation is the transcript in matter of ideas eternally existing in the mind of the Most High—that order in the utmost perfectness of its relation pervades His works, because it exists as in its centre and highest fountain-head in Him the Lord of all.
Samuel Wilberforce (1860). ‘Darwin’s Origin of Species’. In Wilberforce (1874). Essays Contributed to the “Quarterly Review”, volume I, p. 96. London: John Murray
- “Unfolded” refers back to “thou unfoldest wings” in line 2, suggesting that the future of human evolution might metaphorically resemble the flight of birds, “rapt above thy harms”. An optimistic point to end the sonnet on.