I am in a quandary about how to review this. Having recently read Rita Dove's SONATA MULATTICA, a speculative verse biography of the violinist who inspired Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, I was interested in this unusual form. And distinguished British poet Ruth Padel, as a direct descendant of Darwin, has a special perspective to offer. A few days ago, I heard the author present her book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and am now working from a signed copy. Padel is a lively speaker, and her poems flowed in and out of the connecting narrative so smoothly that you often could not distinguish which was which; poetry or prose, it was all her voice. Printed on paper, you see a clear variety of stanzaic forms, but these are mainly visual; any devices of rhythm, rhyme, or assonance that might make these structures audible are subtle indeed. So unlike Rita Dove, whose virtuosity is always in the foreground and whose subject gives plenty of room for imagination and invention, you have to ask why Ruth Padel wrote a verse biography at all? Scarcely as a technical feat, given verse of such reticence. And certainly not to share much new information about a subject whose life, factually speaking, is already so well known.
The answer, I think, lies in the book's smallness: 141 sparsely-filled pages. To write it, Padel had to select. And in doing so, she gives it a personal perspective. It becomes a dialogue between a woman and her several-times-great grandfather, about matters of family life, faith, and obviously shared enthusiasms. Padel may not say much more about the "what" of Darwin, but she certainly tries to address his "why" and perhaps her own.
A major theme of the poems is Darwin's love for his wife Emma, the contrast between her Christianity and his gradual loss of faith, and his concern as the deaths of three of their children bring the theory of survival of the fittest to his own hearth. But the book is not all personal. Padel is also good at describing the discoveries that excited Darwin, and she treats with great sensitivity his relationship with Alfred Russel Wallace, who hit on the idea of natural selection independently to him.
All the same, the book might be better subtitled "NOTES on a Life...". I don't think it would work if you don't already know the main facts. For instance, Padel makes relatively little of the Beagle years, since these are so well served in both memoir (Darwin's own VOYAGE OF THE BEAGLE) and fiction (Roger McDonald's novel MR DARWIN'S SHOOTER is especially good at dealing with Darwin's discoveries and subsequent loss of faith). She does, however, annotate her verse freely with marginal notes, giving facts, dates, and citations. She also switches oddly in the poems themselves between factual exposition and personal imagination. The resultant shifts of tone, so effective when the poet was speaking, can have the effect of deflating the verse, making it seem jerky and short-breathed. Only a few of the poems have the sustained lyricism to get beyond this, so readers wanting an explanation of Padel's skyrocketing reputation in England might be better advised to choose one of her other collections, rather than starting with this peculiar hybrid.