Darwin: A Life in Poems Hardcover – Feb 3 2009
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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.
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.
an original and emotive manner.