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Darwin: A Life in Poems [Hardcover]

Ruth Padel


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Hardcover, Feb. 3 2009 --  
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Book by Padel, Ruth

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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why? Aug. 19 2009
By Roger Brunyate - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Darwin's inner and outer weather April 3 2009
By BioDiplomacy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This touching and unusual tribute is to Emma as well as to Charles Darwin. It comes from their great-great granddaughter, Ruth Padel, and shows how Darwin's influence is still evolving in his bicentennial year. He lamented the loss in later life of his taste for poetry, strong when he was younger: Milton's "Paradise Lost" was one of the few books he took with him on HMS Beagle. But his poetic genes have resurfaced in this compelling "life in poems", a hybrid genre that might well catch on.

The family predisposition to natural history has already been seen in Padel's "The Soho Leopard " (2004 - poems) and "Tigers in Red Weather" (2005 - prose), the latter being her "extraordinary quest for the tiger in its forest home and in the human imagination" (Helen Dunmore). Here, poet and naturalist are in harmony as she recreates the effect on Darwin of the tropical rainforest:

"Leaves of all textures that a leaf
could be: palm, fluff, prickle, matte and plume;
bobbled; shaggy plush. A thousand shades
of ochre, silver, emerald, smoky brass.
He's walking into every dream he's ever seen."

Many of the poems are partially "found", full of phrases straight from Darwin or others. An additional narrative thread is provided by notes running down the side of most poems, as well as by evocative titles: "A Quarrel in Bahia Harbour" shows Darwin making his opposition to slavery clear to Captain Fitzroy; "A Spot of Malaria in the Moluccas" leads into the fateful letter showing Darwin that Alfred Russel Wallace had also realised the mechanism by which species could change.

Poetry is often internal, the biogeography of emotions; while "biography is about chaps". Here, the inner Darwin is seen at key moments coming to terms with his external persona as devoted husband and father, local dignitary in Downe village, and the Victorian scientist planting intellectual timebombs. You'll get here to the place even good prose biographers seldom reach - the man through his own eyes.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Darwin: A Life in Poems, by Ruth Padel: An Engaging Read May 5 2010
By Laurel M. Church - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you are knowledgeable about the life of Charles Darwin, if you know just a bit about Darwin, or if you want to learn about Darwin's life in a truly engaging series of linked poems, this is the book for you. Events of Darwin's life are told using a variety of poetic forms. I read and write poetry, but I would recommend this book even to those who generally steer clear of poetry. Ms. Padel, who is a great granddaughter of Charles Darwin, has done herself and her famous relative proud. Read it. You will enjoy the story and the way she presents it.
5.0 out of 5 stars DArwin: A Life in Poems July 16 2009
By William Jorth - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Interesting perspective on this iconic man of science in the last century. The poetic representation on the development of this man's thought through the experiences of his life provides new insights to Darwin, the man. Reality brings this icon down to the level of the common man, giving us all the opportunity for greatness. Good book.
2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A LOVE STORY April 6 2009
By Titus Groan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This excellent book is a delightful contrast to the majority of books written around Darwin.
an original and emotive manner.

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