Darwin: A Life in Poems is a gentle collection of lyrics by noted British poetess Ruth Padel, who happens also to be a direct descendant of Charles Darwin himself. Her poems are based on his letters and books, and frequently incorporate these and other original sources, along with helpful explanatory notes in the margins.
Padel has a gift for meter and for original, unexpected descriptions that blend the world of nature and the world of humanity, paralleling the way the Darwinian revolution dissolved the boundary between humans and other animals. This theme is done quite effectively in “The Open Window,” which depicts Emma Darwin’s happiness at the thought that evolution and religion might be compatible, and effectively uses the symbols both of the opening window and what each person sees through it:
He watches her smile
At Lenny and open a window for fresh air.
Religion: the burned heart in its thorns. A rock face
Shot with quartz on which the sun
shines as it rises, lighting the rock to fire.
The poems focus more on Charles and Emma’s lives--and particularly their constant fear for the health of their children--than on scientific matters (although Padel, a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, knows her science and incorporates it very cleverly into the poems). In “A Wave of Scarletina in The Home Countries,” she uses very short sentences to convey a sense of desperation when describing an 1858 epidemic of scarlet fever.
A midsummer epidemic. She trembles for Etty.
For Leonard at school. For them all.
Padel’s writing is therefore powerful, clever and sensitive--and yet, on the whole, I was disappointed. For one thing, she works so hard to incorporate the original sources that many of the poems are taken up almost entirely with (slightly stylized) quotations from Charles, Emma, Alfred Russell Wallace, or others, with only very brief comments by Padel herself, and those comments are often awkwardly shortened to make the meter fit by dropping “the” or “a,” resulting in a choppy and telegraphic feeling.
The tone overall is journalism rather than commemoration or admiration. This feeling comes across most strongly in some poems where details appear to be incorporated solely for chronological reasons, and without a poetic reason.
In my opinion, poetry requires something more than words. As an art form, poetry requires selection--the poet chooses the images or metaphors that best express his overall theme and thereby convey the concept and impression he or she wants to express.
It isn't hard to put your words in meter.
Anyone can do it who can count.
But poetry requires something deeper
Crafting metaphors to draw out
Some underlying feeling or idea.
Okay, that was arrogant, but you see my point. A poem should have a unified theme--that is, all the details and words are united by some common conception, so that the poem itself is an experience of an idea or an emotion rather than just words set in time.
Now, Padel does use these tricks at times, quite effectively, and the poems in this book aren’t really meant to stand on their own. But I think they would have been more effective if they had been written in that way, and if Padel had avoided the more trivial historical references. For example, in “Father Says I May Often Take Calomel,” Darwin is pictured, chronically ill, writing out his original sketch of what would become Origin of Species. Now, this is a moment in Darwin’s life that calls out for a lyric poem: this is one of the great moments in the history of science; a brilliant insight, in the mind of a man so conscientious that he realized its implications and the tremendous amount of work that publishing it would require--but also realized the effect it would have on Emma. He chose to put the manuscript away, postponing the day when it would be given to the waiting world. This is a moment of real scientific and human drama, but Padel clutters up the poem with details that have nothing to do with that conflict, and buries the sharp dramatic moment.
From now on
Being ill will rule his life. The word ‘Dinosaur’ is being coined
for Iguanodon, a fossil from remote geologic past.
Pashtun tribesmen have killed that Afghan Shah;
The British have fallen back to the Khyber Pass. Next year
they’ll be massacred there entirely. Cretans have rebelled
Against Ottoman rule and been repressed.
Why is this relevant? If the theme here is the impossibility of holding back something that demands to be let out, Afghanistan and Crete would seem to be poorly chosen symbols, given that, whatever one’s attitude toward colonization, it was hardly analogous to holding back scientific advancement in the name of religious faith. And Padel incorporates so many other historical tidbits into other poems that the reader can only conclude that they were incorporated, not for an artistic purpose, but simply because these things happened. But that is the realm of the historian, not the poet. To my mind, the poems would have been more effective as works of art if they had been less documentary and more artistic.
Here’s a curious example of how distracting the journalistic interpolations can be. In “A Desperate Way to Avoid Paying Your Tailor,” we see Darwin, in 1831, about to leave for the Beagle voyage, and we’re told
With Uncle there, Father OKs it--and Father has to pay.
I was immediately struck by “OKs.” Surely "OK" was not a common locution in England in 1831, was it? I don’t know the answer to that, but because of the level of detail used throughout the book, I was distracted when I read this. But then, to my surprise, several pages later, I discovered “Symptoms,” which begins,
January 1839. The British East India Company
captures Aden. In March ‘OK’, from orl korrect,
appears first time in the Boston Evening Globe.
In this poem, virtually random historical tidbits are stitched together in a way that is metrical and interesting, but has nothing to do with Darwin’s symptoms of illness--purportedly the theme of the poem. And, again, the dropped “for the” in the third line is clumsy. But the bottom line is this: in an artistic work about one of the world's greatest scientific minds, why are we spending time on the history of the term "OK"?
Such flaws are not always present. The best poems of the lot, “Like Giving to A Blind Man Eyes” and “Lavender Light in a Leap Year,” very effectively convey Darwin’s sense of wonder at the Galapogos islands, and Padel very cleverly incorporates “Like Giving to A Blind Man Eyes” into a later poem about Charles’ feelings for Emma. “Lavender Light,” I’m sorry to say, has been a bit preempted by the beautiful scenes in the movie Master And Commander, in which a Darwin-like character explores the Galapagos, just beginning to imagine the possibility of evolution. Anyone who has seen the movie will find it impossible not to think about it while reading this poem, which invokes every image that the movie invoked. It’s as distracting as thinking about the Lone Ranger when listening to Wagner--not Padel’s fault, of course, but a bit irritating.
In the end, this is a nice, light book by a competent poet who knows Darwin well. It would make a nice gift book for a biologist friend. But the poems would have been more effective, I think, if they had been written more to stand on their own, if Padel had asserted her narrative presence more, as opposed to relying on clever use of original sources, and if the poems had been slightly more formal. Although Padel handles meter very well, it’s hard at times to see why she breaks the lines as she dioes. I have no quarrel with poems that don’t rhyme, but I think that one or two old fashioned sonnets might have been more interesting, not to mention more effective at evoking the Victorian age.