Mimosa branch, German print (1745)

Percy Shelley’s poem “The Sensitive Plant” is based on a natural history specimen, a member of the mimosa family.  In Shelley’s poem the plant is personified in a powerfully anthropomorphic way:

A Sensitive Plant in a garden grew,
And the young winds fed it with silver dew,
And it opened its fan-like leaves to the light.
And closed them beneath the kisses of Night.

And the Spring arose on the garden fair,                          5
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth’s dark breast
Rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.

But none ever trembled and panted with bliss
In the garden, the field, or the wilderness,                        10
Like a doe in the noontide with love’s sweet want,
As the companionless Sensitive Plant.                       (Part I)

Shelley concludes by claiming that the naturalsitic beauties of nature (like the products of the imagination) produce a more likely and more satisfying version of immortality (“a modest creed”) than the Judeo-Christian idea of heaven:

It is a modest creed, and yet
Pleasant if one considers it,
To own that death itself must be,
Like all the rest, a mockery.

That garden sweet, that lady fair,                       130
And all sweet shapes and odours there,
In truth have never passed away:
’Tis we, ’tis ours, are changed; not they.

For love, and beauty, and delight,
There is no death nor change: their might             135
Exceeds our organs, which endure
No light, being themselves obscure.     (“Conclusion”)

Here are Charles Darwin’s grandfather and others commenting on these strangely sensitve plants, which close their leaves when darkness falls, when they are blown about by the wind, or when they are touched by a flying insect or human hand:

“Mimosa. The Sensitive Plant”: “Of the class Polygamy, one house. Naturalists have not explained the immediate cause of the collapsing of the sensitive plant” (E. Darwin, Botanic Garden, “Loves of the Plants,” note I, 29). <>

“Of Vegetable Animation”: “The fibres of the vegetable world, as well as those of the animal, are excitable into a variety of motions by irritations of external objects. This appears particularly in the mimosa or sensitive plant, whose leaves contract on the slightest injury” (E. Darwin, Zoonomia I, 73)

John Lindsay, “An Inquiry into the Nature of the motions of the Sensitive, Sleeping, and Moving Plants, Jamaica, July 1790, Letters and Papers of the Royal Society, 89. “An Inquiry into the nature of the motions of the Mimosa Pudica or Sensitive Plant,” Jamaica July 1788, ibid., 85.

John Ellis, “A botanical description of the Dionaea muscipula, or Venus’s fly trap. A newly discovered sensitive plant: in a letter to Sir Charles Linnaeus” (London, 1770)

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