Chatto & Windus £12.99 (141pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897
Darwin: A Life in Poems, By Ruth Padel
Friday 27 February 2009
Of all the outpourings of Darwiniana that mark his double anniversary, Ruth Padel's stand out. For one, she is a Darwin: a great great grand-daughter. And this a biography told in poetry. The condensation of poetry is fitting for Darwin because his life sprawls like the nature he studied: the 2,000 correspondents; the 15,000 letters; the dozen or so major books. So Padel offers a life diced and filleted: gleaming cameos like specimens under the microscope, significant moments burnished like a new zoological find.
I'm not sure you could recount Darwin's life in verse vignettes like this to someone who knew nothing about him other than the billboard words, Evolution by Natural Selection: much of the pleasure of the book is allusive. But Padel knows this and provides comments in the margin. This reinforces the impression of a Victorian facsimile, which helps to sustain the mood.
Darwin was a byword for curiosity. Every day he asked questions of nature and badgered his vast worldwide network of correspondents for answers. Padel conjures the delirium of trying to make sense of nature's abundance. "How contain all this," Darwin exclaims. When he learned that his fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had reached the same conclusions concerning Natural Selection, he abandoned the "Big Species Book" he'd been writing for 10 years to tell the story afresh, in as simple language he could, for every reader. That book is The Origin of Species.
After the book on the mystery of mysteries, Darwin hunted down nature into its most intriguing corners: how are orchids fertilised; how do the tendrils of plants twine up a stem; what is happening when we recognise human expressions on the faces of animals? Padel captures perfectly his innocently bold manner of enquiry.
Padel brings the 19th century to life, telescoping the gap between our eras. Yes, there is Victorian piety in Darwin's wife, and the quintessentially Victorian tragedy of the death of children permeates the book, but largely Darwin sounds resolutely modern. And the poem on the publication of the Origin will bring a wry smile to the face of all writers. This is a 19th-century publisher's reader: "Make it a manual on pigeon-breeding! Forget the rest./ Everyone loves pigeons – it'd be reviewed/ by every journal in the land".
In publishing terms, this book may not be a pigeon-fancier's delight but it is 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. Since 1990, she has written a zoological quest book, one on the mythic roots of priapism in rock music, and two highly valued books about poetry, besides eight collections.
And the long poem is back in fashion: The Broken Word, a verse narrative of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya won the Costa Poetry Award; the late Mick Imlah's The Lost Leader, a chronicle of Scotland from 500AD, won the Forward Prize. But Padel's Darwin may have more in common with Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters: a legend explored in urgent short nuggets of verse.
Darwin's voyage allows free rein to Padel's sensuous descriptions – "Gelatinous ingots, rainbows of wet flinching amethyst/ and flubbed, iridescent cream". The family dramas, and Darwin's grave conclusions on the nature of human destiny, are plangent: "the animal in us has the loudest tunes".
Perhaps because he was such a prolific correspondent, Darwin expressed himself so naturally that in several places Padel can make poems by quoting some passages verbatim. Her tone chimes seamlessly with his. That Darwin was a writer of great clarity and no little literary skill makes it fitting that one of the best books celebrating his enormous stature, 200 years on, should be by a poet.
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