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Lovingly realised biography
on 1 June 2009
Ruth Padel gives us a most enjoyable (and concise) guided tour through her illustrious ancestor's life. This beautifully fashioned little book is very well-researched, and Darwin's story most sympathetically related. Padels's great sensitivity to words is constantly on display. Every poem reads aloud beautifully. There are some fabulous images. ("Bristle of orchid leaves on every black branch/ Like green flames over Bibles.")
Some of the poems are of the "found" variety, being subtly modifiied extracts from letters and journals. Evidence of expert editorship, rather than pure poetic skills? Once I was caught up in Darwin's emotional and intellectual journey, I minded not at all. It was necessary to let us hear Charles' own voice (and others too, like his wife, and his contemporary, Wallace.) Many of the poems are accompanied by helpful explanatory notes, discreetly placed in the margins.
The book really soars (for me) in the final third - their life at Down House. Emma's pregnancies, Darwin's illness, and their rich family life are beautifully imagined. The tragic loss of daughter Annie is very moving. Well realised too is the reason we care about the man in the first place: his brilliant, patient researches and discoveries, which are brought to life succinctly and vividly. The final poems are terrifically poignant.
A life in poems is exactly what it promises, and I for one would be happy to see more lives celebrated in this unusual way. (The origin of a species perhaps?)