I mentioned previously that Ruth Padel’s grandmother’s grandfather was Charles Darwin, and shared a poem from The Soho Leopard which shows that heritage of interest and passion about biology and evolution. She’s actually written a biography of Darwin – one written solely in verse. Darwin: A Life in Poems is quite an incredible achievement – it’s rich in history, affection and detail. The book cover, in its dull green, doesn’t really do the book justice. Yes, it’s a history, but it’s a colourful one – especially around the Beagle voyage. I read a book about Darwin once which looked fantastic. Yet despite the frills, the content was a bit stale and dry. Not very interesting. I was mostly expecting more of the same here – but I was so very pleasantly surprised. I found the book compelling because I started to care about the characters – and they really do become properly characterised, real, interesting people. It’s rich in quotes – epigraphs, margin notes, and a large portion of the poems themselves – from letters, notebooks, published books and papers, yet this doesn’t make it seen like the tired rehashing you could imagine. It remains vivid and fresh.
The story of Darwin’s faith is interesting – how he moves from his studies in theology (and intended career as a parson) to start doubting his faith. The effect this had on his relationship with his father and moreso his wife is clear. One of my favourite poems in the book, ‘He Finds His Own Definition of Grandeur’ is at a mid-point – before he rejects the Christian Revelation and is pondering what his discoveries about the origin of species might mean:
Far better than the thought (proceeding, surely,
from a cramped imagination) that God,
warring against the laws He set up, in organic nature,
created the rhinoceros of Java and Sumatra!’
He’s in a rush – audacious – dangerous.
Boundaries drop away. If living beings change!
‘And man – from monkeys?’
His hairdresser in Great Marlborough Street
takes an interest in pedigree hounds! Ask him about
the principles of breeding. ‘Is it polite
to say that ever since Silurian times, God’s made
a succession of vile molluscous animals
in infinite variation? How beneath the dignity
of Him who said, Let there be light!’
This is more like what I feel – I don’t see why evolution has to deny the existence of something else. That it isn’t intelligent design. I don’t see why they have to be mutually exclusive things. There’s the most horrifying birth poem I’ve ever read (‘Hog’s Lard‘) and a saddening series about his, and his children’s, illnesses.
There is much about Darwin’s work, and his thoughts about it. A lovely piece on salting the seeds (where Darwin was investigating whether and what seeds could survive a journey across the sea to populate another island), and intriguingly, Padel wrote a piece about how individual creatures recognise those from their own species. The margin notes here say that this is actually not a concept that Darwin ever mentioned himself – she’s clearly just riffing on his theme!
There are several mentions of slavery – Darwin was passionately against the practice, and horrified when he saw evidence of it on his voyage. A detailed description of one of his favourite paintings (a nude Venus by Titian or Padovanino or Giorgione) and so much of his early education in Classics, Medicine and then Theology. He was a renegade Natural Scientist, much to his father’s disappointment and occasional anger.
The poem below is about one of his sons. He wrote a lot about his children, and they inspired a lot of his work.
The Human Form Divine
He walks up and down with Baby, holding jittery
bird-bone scapulae to his shoulder. ‘Backward
in walking and talking – but so elegant
crawling naked across the floor! A remarkable,
sweet, joyful disposition. Not high spirits, though.’
They know this Baby’s different. This is Down’s Syndrome
four years before John Langdon Haydon Down
discovers it. ‘Strange grimaces. Small for his age.
He shivers when excited. But will lie calm
a long time, on my lap, looking at my face
with a steady, pleased expression, making nice
little bubbling noises when I move his chin.’