Darwin – A Life in Poems
An intimate, highly original interpretation of the life and work of Charles Darwin by his great great grand-daughter
Read a review in American Scientist
“This highly acclaimed sequence of poems uses multiple viewpoints to follow the development of Darwin’s thought, the drama of the discovery of evolution, and the fluctuating emotions developing within the tender husband and father.”
Charles Darwin lost his mother at the age of eight; repressed all memory of her, and poured his passion into solitary walks, newt collecting and shooting. His five year voyage on the Beagle, in his twenties changed his life. Afterwards, in London in
1838, he began publishing his findings and working privately on groundbreaking theories about the development of animal species, including human beings. Watching the newly arrived orangutang at London Zoo, he realized that the way in which animals express emotion might provide a proof of kinship between human and animal, while privately he questioned his own emotions. He made a nervous proposal to his cousin Emma. They had a very happy marriage and his emotions were no longer frozen, but from the first both were painfully aware of the gulf between her devout Christian faith and his increasing religious doubt. The death of three of his ten children accentuated this gulf. For him, death and extinction were part of the survival of the fittest, nature’s way of developing new species. For her, it was a prelude to an afterlife.
“Her remarkable sequence of exquisite, precise and moving poems covers Darwin’s science, travels, marriage and family life. Once I started reading I could not put it down till I reached the end; then I turned back for the pleasure of reading again.” Claire Tomalin
“A publishing triumph: a book of poems with a theme and nothing to throw a reader off the scent. Even before this, Padel was a poet who looked beyond the slim volume. Like Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters, this is a legend explored in urgent short nuggets of verse. Darwin’s voyage allows free rein to Padel’s sensuous descriptions; the family dramas, and Darwin’s conclusions on the nature of human destiny, are plangent; her tone chimes seamlessly with his. She captures perfectly Darwn’s innocently bold manner of enquiry and brings the 19th century to life.” Peter Forbes, Independent
“Darwin’s descendent has evolved a new species of biography. “This is no mere collection, but a complete miniature biography, told through linked but highly individual poems, a selection of visionary moments: snapshots, epiphanies, symbolic fragments. For biographers, this itself is a challenging revelation of economy and selection.
“The emotional centre is the Darwins’ marriage, shaken by Emma’s religious belief, torn by the death of their daughter dramatised in a series of bleak and painful poems: an immensely powerful, disturbing sequence.
“A daring and genuinely innovative piece of work: a unique sense of drama, speed and poetic intensity in a long, sedate and ruminative scientific life. With her gleaming tropical imagery and her ingenious inner “voice”, resonant with wondrous and tragic overtones, Padel has given us a renewed and intimate Darwin. ” Richard Holmes, Guardian
“Her delightful marginalia secure the poems in historical context, but the freedom of the form allows her to explore Darwin’s emotional and intellectual development. Poetry is very good on doubt, on stasis, silence, ambivalence and loss. In Padel’s hands, it is also superb at moving from domestic minutiae to the broadest sweeps of 19th-century life and thought.” Financial Times
‘Padel’s register is versatile and ventriloquial, drawing on scientific reports, journal entries, personal letters… By adapting these sources she achieves surprising effects and exemplifies the qualities of intelligence that Eliot and others celebrated in the work of the metaphysical poets. The book as a whole is a landmark achievement.’ Irish Times
“Inspired. She takes a shrewd delight in finding words to capture Darwin’s relish for collecting, naming and puzzling. An intrepid traveller herself, she shares his passion for the natural world. Her poems are delicate, but have an unusual density too. Her subtle account of his exemplary decency, as he imagines his life’s work overtaken, is worthy of a fine novelist.” The Times
“Darwin’s life captured with an economy and fluency prosaic biographers might envy”. Spectator
‘A daring and wholly original book, and an impressive number of really superb poems. Ruth Padel has done her great-great-grandfather proud’. Scotland on Sunday
“Intimate, arresting, marvellously moving.” Evening Standard
Reviews in Full
FINANCIAL TIMES, Review by Elizabeth Speller, 31/1/09
Ruth Padel’s stunning sequence of poems is infinitely more than an anniversary keepsake or a tribute to her great-great grandfather, Charles Darwin. It is a unique biography. Teeming with facts and creatures, it builds into an imaginative and dynamic response to a man who changed the way we understand ourselves.
A short introduction lays out the shape of Darwin’s life and Padel’s delightful marginalia secure the poems in historical context. But the freedom of the form allows her to explore Darwin’s emotional and intellectual development outside the linear conventions of even the best biographies. Poetry is very good on doubt, on stasis, silence, ambivalence and loss. In Padel’s hands, it is also superb at moving from domestic minutiae to the broadest sweeps of 19th-century life and thought. In the poem “Symptoms”, what unfolds is not just Emma Darwin’s first pregnancy but also of the birth of new worlds:
“January 1839. The British East India Company/ captures Aden. In March, ‘OK’ from oll korrect/appears first time in the Boston Evening Globe./Michael Faraday clarifies the nature of electricity./In April, she writes ‘Pregnant’.”
The dark point of Darwin’s life was the death of his 10-year-old daughter. “The pain will never fade,” Charles wrote. Padel recreates the loneliness of a man who had no belief in an after-life. “Reticence descends on the house/ like an ostrich on its nest: a belljar of black feathers./ Etty, missing her sister, terrified of all/the not-talking.”
The poems borrow from family letters and the Bible: “Now we see through a glass darkly. Then face to face.” Here, for a moment, are John Milton, novelist Maria Edgeworth, and obstetrician James Blundell: the voices of Darwin’s world.
Padel works in dialogue that shares the lyricism at the core of Darwin’s writing. She is at her best when observing the natural world that so inspired her forefather.
“The night pitch-dark. The whole sea luminous. Every part of water which by day is seen as foam glowed with pale light,” observed Darwin in 1832.
“The deck is dazzle, fish-stink, gauze-covered buckets”, responds his brilliant descendant in the 200th anniversary of his birth.
As the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth approaches, it is good to welcome a biography that is relatively small, but in no way superficial or scanty. Ruth Padel has achieved this feat by writing her great great grandfather’s life in a sequence of often quite short poems. Through her poems, she seeks to capture the “voice” of Darwin, thus performing a difficult act of literary ventriloquism.
Padel, who often writes about animals, embeds Darwin’s own words – from his books or his letters – in her poems, and the results give the sense of being jointly authored. Sometimes she shapes entire gobbets of quotation into her own poetic passages. If this seems to be a bit of sly plagiarism, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels more like a deft act of collaboration between the living ad the dead.
Why does this book work so well? How does it manage to say so much in so few words? Padel seems to have caught the quintessence of the man’s character as if in a butterfly net. She enters into his cast of mind, bringing across his hypersensitivity, his sense of fragility, his lifelong nerviness, the way in which the canker of doubt about the credibility of religious doctrine ate away at him. The poems are a sequence of snapshots – often small, spasmodic and delicately imagistic – of particularly crucial incidents in his life; of moments of intellectual illumination.
One of the finest poems summarizes his wonder at entering for the first time into pristine rainforest. It is a bit like a photograph album with audio commentary. The poems are wonderfully free of the drag and load of overbearing and useless detail with which so many second rate biographies are stuffed. Most important of all, they seem to distil Darwin to his essence. He was a compulsively inquisitive child. In part, he feared himself and his roving intellect. His inability to believe in the Christian God put him at odds with his beloved wife Emma, and made him feel as if he lived set apart in some cold far galaxy of the mind.
It is not easy to describe a whole life in relatively few words. You need to find some way of filling in the background. Padel has overcome this problem by having paragraphs of notes run, in a single column, beside the text of the poems so they can be read side by side.