Book review: Darwin: A Life in Poems

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By Ruth Padel Chatto & Windus £12.99 Review by Andrew Sclater

A BIOGRAPHY in poems is a rare species, and in a Darwinian world we value rare species. Ruth Padel's Darwin: A Life In Poems is a daring and wholly original book. Instead of adding to the many commentaries and biographies of Darwin in established genres, Padel has innovated. Her book is a mutation in the evolution of Darwinian literature, and it is a mutation that has what it takes to survive. More than that, it deserves to thrive.

Heart and soul distinguishes this from all other books on Charles Darwin. As one of his many great-great-grandchildren, Padel may have a special inclination to feel for the personal development of the mortal man, as opposed to the immortal scientist. But Padel does not eulogise Darwin. She empathises with him as he struggles with science, society, death and disappointment.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin Of Species (as well as the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth on February 12, 1809). And just as his account considered diverse beings as part of a larger connected story, she takes distinct events in Darwin's personal life to tell his story. Her chronological series of 100 or so poems does not dwell on his science; instead, she explores his personal experiences so that a picture of the 'inner Darwin' emerges.

The poems themselves are unusual, in that the poet gives way to the voice of her subject. Many poems contain quotations of Darwin's own words (altered minimally to fit the verse structure). This challenges the notion of what a poem is, or what some might it say should be. But it certainly moves the poems closer to entering the essence of their subject. If some poems seem a little jerky, the jerkiness is actually Darwin's. Anyone familiar with Darwin's notes will immediately recognise their 'shorthand' style within the poems. Elsewhere the quotations are taken from letters or other more finished manuscripts.

The 141-page collection includes an impressive number of really superb poems. I would single out 'Plankton', 'Lavender Light In A Leap Year', 'A Quarrel In Bahia Harbour', 'The Thumbscrews Of Rio', 'On The Propagation Of Mistletoe' and the wonderful 'A Path Around A Lake'. Their diverse themes include: natural wonder, slavery, the progress of evolutionary theory, love and marriage, pregnancy and childhood memories. Many descriptive passages are superbly evocative, whether the scene is the Amazon forest, the family gardens, or the wet and sooty atmosphere of 1830s London.

And this volume is not as unconventional as it at first appears. Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather, expounded advanced scientific views (including a precursor of Charles's theory) in successful volumes of verse. Could it be that Padel derives some of her own talent by inheritance? And if Charles admitted to losing his ability to enjoy poetry and other art forms as he grew older, the admission was tinged by regret.

Despite his apparent loss of interest in poetry, Darwin's works contain occasional poetic passages. The most persuasive passage, which shows the importance of aesthetics in his work, comes at the end of On The Origin Of Species, where we are asked "to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms… have all been produced by laws acting around us". After recapitulating those laws, he asserts: "There is grandeur in this view of life… whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Ruth Padel has done her great-great-grandfather proud, and her composite poetic portrait of Charles Darwin is full of new textures and reflections. Above all, it will give anyone new to Darwin's life story a version that is not biographically 'processed'. And, to the Darwin aficionado, it will give access to the scientist as a 'sentient being'.


Darwin's anniversary has brought a flurry of new studies, including:

Darwin's Sacred Cause Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Allen Lane, 25 How Darwin's science was driven by a desire to disprove the racist theory of white superiority.

Darwin's Island Steve Jones, Little, Brown, 20 England was more important than the Galapagos to Darwin, according to Jones.

Why Evolution Is TrueJerry A Coyne, Oxford University Press, 14.99 The 150 years of biological discovery that Darwin began, from DNA to palaeontology.

Darwin: A Graphic BiographySimon Gurr and Eugene Byrne, BCDP, free from Part of a cross-country initiative that links Darwin with Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World.

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