E Conchis Omnia ~ Everything from Shells

Paul Frontiero’s post on Saturday, Going Back from Whence We Came, reminded me of the genius of Erasmus Darwin. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is credited with developing the theory of evolution however, it was his grandfather Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) who first planted the seed of the idea in the Darwin household.

e-darwin-bookplate-with-mottoErasmus Darwin Bookplate

Erasmus changed the motto of the family crest to “e conchis omnia, which translates to “everything from shells,” reflecting his belief that all life descended from one simple form, a concept he put forward in his Zoonomia (1794):

“Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!” 

Unfortunately, Erasmus was immediately vilified by local clergy and Zoonomia was deemed blasphemous to God. In order not to be stripped of his medical license and lose his livelihood, he painted over the motto on the family carriage. Nonetheless he did leave the motto on his bookplate during his lifetime, as did his son, Robert Darwin (1776-1848), the father of Charles Darwin.

When you think about it, the bookplate during that period would have been much like the home page of a website. Information and ideas were primarily gained through books and books were shared by friends and family members. Bookplates were beautifully and thoughtfully designed to reflect the owner’s taste, and often included the family’s crest, coat of arms, ships, landscapes, scientific and musical instruments, trees, flowers, animals, birds, and much, much more. Today, bookplates are highly collectible and some of the most sought after were designed by well-known artists of their day.

rockwellkentBookplate Designed by Rockwell Kent

Quote from Paul’s post: “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came.”  –John F. Kennedy


 Bookplate of Oliver Wendell Holmes, with the words underneath the chambered nautilus shell “per ampliora ad altiora,” which translates as “through breadth to depth.”

The Chambered Nautilus

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main,—
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

Continue reading Holmes’s poem The Chambered Nautilus here ~

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,—
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn!
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:—

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)




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