Darwin – A Life in Poems


Buy on Amazon UK

A highly acclaimed intimate portrait of the life and work of Charles Darwin by his great-great- grand-daughter

This inspired 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 ground-breaking theories about the development of animal species, including human beings. Watching the newly arrived orang-utang 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.

From reviews

‘This 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.’ Biographer 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 Darwin’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. This is 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, Padel has given us a renewed and intimate Darwin.’    Biographer 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

‘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.’  Economist 

Read a review in American Scientist