Critics from the eighteenth century to the present have largely agreed in portraying Erasmus Darwin as an apostle of sexual liberation. One of Darwin’s career-long themes, that erotic love unifies the visible universe and the invisible, reaches its apotheosis in The Botanic Garden (1792) with his account of the famous Portland Vase as reproduced by Josiah Wedgwood. According to Darwin, the vase represents the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient fertility ritual where the god Eros presides. Darwin’s interest in this tradition parallels the contemporary antiquarian movement, represented particularly by the Society of Dilettanti, which researched the sacramental character of sexuality in the pagan world. I argue, however, that such work more often perpetuated an ideology of sexual restraint than of freedom. The antiquarians discerned two different myths of Eros: that of the divine progenitor from the esoteric rites, and that of the impish mischief-maker from popular tradition. By valorizing the former at the expense of the latter, they sublimated the socially and ontologically disruptive qualities of sexuality itself into decorous abstractions. Reading Darwin alongside these antiquarians helps bring into relief his own anxieties about the way that raw sexuality, and raw matter in general, challenges a unitary vision of the cosmos. For Darwin, the Portland Vase ultimately becomes a fetish—a mystification of the material realities not only of sexual desire but also of industries like Wedgwood’s.

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