Some of these gifted people have attained a measure of fame, and we can read about them in any encyclopedia or good dictionary; most of them remain unknown, unless we come upon them and their work by accident or acquaintance. One of these, unknown even among biologists, is the British naturalist Langdon W. Smith, who did some excellent biological research and also wrote exquisite poetry. Smith was born in Scotland in 1877 and came to the United States when he was 14. Practically nothing is known about his education, except that in his early 20s he was engaged by the Museum of Natural History in New York to do research and was often invited by scientific societies to lecture. He also wrote articles on scientific subjects for newspapers. He wrote a particularly beautiful poem about evolution titled “A Tadpole and a Fish.” A friend of his found this poem, which Smith had carelessly laid aside, and recognized it as something exceptional. He prevailed upon Smith to submit the poem to some of the best papers for an opinion. The first to examine the poem was the editor of the New York Herald, who gave Smith a check for $500, a considerable sum in those times, for the right to publish it.
Smith became ill and returned to England, where he died some months later of tuberculosis. The poem, which was later published under the title “Evolution” in 1909 and was included in anthologies published by the Haldeman-Julius company of Girard, Kansas, in 1922 and 1924, makes a felicitous conclusion to this essay: like the essay, but in a grand context, it takes us back to our roots.
A Tadpole and a Fish by Langdon Smith
When you were a tadpole and I was a fish,
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side in the ebbing tide
We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
Or skittered with many a caudal flip
Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,
My heart was rife with the joy of life
For I loved you even then.
Mindless we lived and mindless we loved,
And mindless at last we died;
And deep in a rift of the Caradoc drift
We slumbered side by side.
The world turned on in the lathe of time,
The hot land heaved amain,
Till we caught our breath from the womb of death,
And crept into light again.
We were Amphibians, scaled and tailed
And drab as a dead man’s hand;
We coiled at ease ’neath the dripping trees,
Or trailed through the mud and the sand,
Croaking and blind with our three-clawed feet
Writing a language dumb,
With never a spark in the empty dark
To hint at a life to come.
Yet happy we lived, and happy we loved,
And happy we died once more;
Our forms were rolled in the clinging mold
Of a Neocomian shore.
The eons came, and the eons fled,
And the sleep that wrapped us fast
Was riven away in a newer day,
And the night of death was past.
Then light and swift through the jungle trees
We swung in our airy flights,
Or breathed in the balms of the fronded palms,
In the hush of the moonless nights.
And oh! What beautiful years were these,
When our hearts clung each to each;
When life was filled, and our senses thrilled
In the first faint dawn of speech.
Thus life by life, and love by love,
We passed through the cycles strange,
And breath by breath, and death by death,
We followed the chain of change.
Till there came a time in the law of life
When over the nursing sod
The shadows broke, and the soul awoke
In a strange, dim dream of God.
I was thewed like an Auroch bull,
And tusked like the great Cave Bear;
And you, my sweet, from head to feet,
Were gowned in your glorious hair.
Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,
When the night fell o’er the plain,
And the moon hung red o’er the river bed,
We mumbled the bones of the slain.
I flaked a flint to a cutting edge,
And shaped it with brutish craft;
I broke a shank from a woodland dank,
And fitted it, head and haft.
Then I hid me close to the ready tarn,
Where the Mammoth came to drink;—
Through brawn and bone I drave the stone,
And slew him upon the brink.
Loud I howled through the moonlight wastes,
Loud answered our kith and kin;
From west and east to the crimson feast
The clan came trooping in.
O’er joint and gristle and padded hoof,
We fought and clawed and tore,
And cheek by jowl, with many a growl,
We talked the marvel o’er.
I carved that fight on a reindeer bone,
With rude and hairy hand,
I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
That men might understand.
For we lived by blood, and the right of might,
Ere human laws were drawn,
And the Age of Sin did not begin
Till our brutal tusks were gone.
And that was a million years ago,
In a time that no man knows;
Yet here tonight in the mellow light,
We sit in Delmonico’s;
Your eyes are as deep as the Devon springs,
Your hair is as dark as jet,
Your years are few, your life is new,
Your soul untried; and yet—
Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay,
And the scarp of the Purbeck flags,
We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones,
And deep in the Coraline crags;
Our love is old, our lives are old,
And death shall come amain;
Should it come today, what man may say
We shall not live again?
God wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds
And furnished them wings to fly;
He sowed our spawn in the world’s dim dawn,
And I know that it shall not die,
Though cities have sprung above the graves
Where the crook-boned men made war,
And the ox-wain creaks, o’er the buried caves
Where the mummied mammoths are.
Then as we linger at luncheon here,
O’er many a dainty dish,
Let us drink anew to the time when you
Were a Tadpole and I was a Fish.