A journey to the heart


POETRY: Darwin: A Life in Poems, by Ruth Padel, Chatto and Windus, 141pp. £12.99

IT MIGHT at first glance seem surprising that Darwin’s life should be the topic of an extended suite of poems: Darwin’s own idiom was objective, concerned with structural variation and adaptation; he was famously reticent about the impact of his work on religion and ethics and his publications were directed in the first instance at that Victorian freemasonry of learned societies and naturalists’ clubs where religious and personal issues were left outside the door.

On the other hand, we know from the vast biographical record that Darwin’s scientific work was wrested from a turbulent family life overshadowed by illness, the death of his second child, Annie, in 1851, and his wife, Emma’s pain at his drift away from revealed religion.

In a note she wrote to her husband early in their marriage she declared, “I should be most unhappy if I thought we would not belong to each other for eternity”.

It is from this intense, claustrophobic atmosphere of Victorian family life that Ruth Padel builds a narrative of her great-great-grandfather’s world. Her poems follow the key moments in the scientific career and also witness the miseries of Darwin’s lifetime illness, as well as his wife’s 16 years spent “pregnant, in labour or recovering”. The writing is unsparing in its account of domestic life and of Emma’s miserable situation. In a sonnet on their lovemaking written from her perspective, she wonders “what it is, to love – to lie, not moving,/ staring at city light half-hidden by a curtain./ Every morning he vomits in the basin./ His illness lives with them like another child”.

Whereas sections such as this are replete with a woman’s anger at the fate of women in an age bristling with scientific discovery, many others are a triumph of appropriation of the natural world and science for imaginative literature. Padel is an accomplished naturalist in her own right, so her accounts of nature in South America, the Pacific and Indonesia are empirically reliable.

As HMS Beaglecrosses the Atlantic on its way to the Cape Verde Islands, where Darwin first encountered tropical vegetation, she describes the sea: “Wave-flicker, white/ as a gun flash, over the blown heart of sapphire”.

Darwin finally explores the ground for himself when the ship reaches Brazil, and Padel’s writing thrives in her descriptions of the forest: “Tree ferns! Jade wagon wheels/ eighty feet up like jugglers’ saucers on a pole”.

Darwin’s amazement at this startling treasure is captured as he thinks that, “Somewhere in this dreamtangle are tree frog,/ rattlesnake, toucan, fer de lance”.

Accuracy never slackens to wonderment: “he leans on slippery roots like fins veloured/ in moss, stippled pink where the moss has rubbed”.

The closing declaration of this section is from Darwin’s own journal: “It has been for me a glorious day, like giving a blind man eyes”. With the profusion of television images of the planet’s environment in our own day, it can be easy to forget the impact the tropics had on naturalists such as Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace; it is intriguing that Padel’s basic means, the poetic word, should be so effective in restoring this sense of discovery.

Because she holds in view the personal and intimate side of Darwin’s life, there is a very effective counterpoint here between the domestic English scenes and the theatres of discovery overseas.

This is still the case later in Darwin’s life when Wallace takes up the mantle and explores the Malay archipelago, with Darwin himself deeply embroiled in family life and his experimental enquiries.

The influence of Derek Walcott’s Caribbean epic, Omeros, is very strong in these sections. Padel follows Wallace to a cabin in the Moluccas, where he worked out the concept of natural selection:

Down there in Dodinga lagoon

the dory he came in on, like the new moon

at anchorage. Palm silhouettes

wave their black swords against a stretch

of sea like sooty peacocks at a mirror.

The rich texture of exotic place names, the enjambement delivering surprising rhymes and the addiction to simile are all vintage Walcott and operate here to excellent effect. Walcott’s long narrative line in Omeros is enlisted, meandering like a liana through a variety of stanza forms, some of them small-format three- and four-liners that act like cramped pots for a style that luxuriates with its subject.

Padel’s description of scenes from Darwin’s emotional life is also coloured by this style. Here’s Darwin proposing to his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, in 1838: “He stands at the end of his shadow, thinking what to say next,/ looking at nature foaming between them// in the pool of his question”.

Padel’s register is versatile and ventriloquial, drawing on scientific reports, journal entries, personal letters and the language of biographical prose. A series of marginal notes operates as signposts through the biography and pays tribute to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an early example of the influence of travel writing on poetry. By adapting these sources she achieves surprising effects and exemplifies the qualities of intelligence that Eliot and others celebrated in the work of the metaphysical poets.

The book as a whole is a landmark achievement and goes way beyond what the literary academy has been promoting under the “Science and Literature” rubric.

  • Seán Lysaght has published a biography of the naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger and six collections of poetry, including a translation of Goethe’s Venetian Epigrams