Darwin: A Life in Poems, By Ruth Padel

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The Independent Culture

I love this collection and will happily re-read it several times. What Ruth Padel does so well is to marry her own sharply observed details with the beauty of Darwin's prose – an easily forgotten thing, when the message is so powerful, but what a missed opportunity when there are sentences such as "Man thinks himself, in his arrogance, a great work and worthy a Deity's glance" to treasure.

Padel's intent is to tell the life of her great-great-grandfather, from his unpromising beginning to the infamous Beagle trip, his marriage to Emma, the loss of three of his 10 children, the waning of his belief in God, the publication of On the Origin of Species.

What she does is to make him human: a man who weeps over slavery, who cannot bear to see pain inflicted, who berates himself for beating a puppy when he was a child. And all the time, there is his work, which will not leave him and will change the way we view the world for ever.

It is a grand story told in poetry that never overlooks the small things, from "cinnamon hair" to "dark-hearted poppies".