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4.6 out of 5 stars
Darwin: A Life in Poems (Vintage Classics)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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?)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 April 2009
This book is so exciting! I am a scientist with a strong appreciation of Darwin's work. However, prior to reading this, I had no real interest in Darwin the man. All the recent anniversary hype had left me with a feeling there was something dry and Victorian about him.
Not so. Once I overcame my fear of the poetic form, and started reading this book, I found myself drawn into a real world, Darwin's world, which was fascinating, beautiful and, sometimes, terrible. (This was not an age in which to be sick, or be a child-bearing woman.) I felt I was living through Darwin's experiences, understanding him in his world, and really liking and approving of him as a person.
I know the poetry must be expertly crafted, because at no time did the form stand in the way of the information. It enhanced it, without even being very noticeable. This is such a fluid read, and, unbelievably, it's poetry, a form I usually find requires too much work for me, the reader!
This book is a brilliant and addictive, hard to put down. There must be some inherited Genius at work. Congratulations to Darwin's great-great-grand-daughter, Ruth Padel!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 26 May 2009
I reckon this little book is pretty extraordinary - beautiful and concise, it functions as both an informative biography and a loving tribute to a great man. It's easy to read, moving and vivid - if you're sick of all the Darwin hype, but nonetheless intrigued to know what all the fuss is about, read this.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 9 August 2009
There are excellent biographies of Darwin and there are many science poems, yet on both counts Ruth Padel breaks new ground. Not only you get a warm view of Darwin the man but also of his rigorous struggle to gather and interpret evidence with many insights that you will not find in current biographies. As regards science poetry this is the first time that I see poetry so well used in conveying what science research entails and that presents this in a way that it is sure to stimulate the young to be interested in natural science. And all this set in clear fluid verses that are a delight to read. I read this book twice during my summer holiday and it was by far the best read I had.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 11 February 2009
Emma Darwin can rest happy. She and Charles indeed "belong to each other for eternity" (her worried note to him about salvation - he kept it until the day he died), through this touching tribute from their great-great grand-daughter, Ruth Padel. One can imagine the interplay of their emotions reading it together - delight in memories of their ten children, but muscles contracting in sorrow at the three who died young. She will remember with relief the pains of childbirth and Charles be gladly free of his unwelcome daily companion since South America, Chagas disease.

This "life in poems" is a strange but compelling hybrid genre: if it were a segmented worm with iridescent wings it would undoubtedly be named as a new species. Some of the language is that of a writer already known for her naturalist' s eye and poet's ear, used here to recreate 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."

Yet many of the poems are partially "found" ones, full of phrases straight from Darwin or others. A light but reassuring narrative thread is provided by notes running down the side of many 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. It is no surprise that Charles' and Emma's genes should have helped shape such a well-crafted and affectionate bicentennial portrait. I read it at one sitting.
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on 7 May 2013
Ruth Padel's grandmother's grandfather was Charles Darwin, and her interest in this heritage shows in several poems from her previous collections. This, however, is 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 and attention to design detail, 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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 18 April 2009
These poems are beautiful: intelligent, moving and - as a biography - original. I also found the whole book a gripping read and sense that I have learnt a lot about Darwin.
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on 21 October 2014
As part of the two anniversary events in 2009 – 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin and 150 after the publication of The Origin of Species, Ruth Padel has written an absorbing verse-novel of the life of the scientist, his work and his family life. The structure is chronological, with extracts from correspondence interspersed some conventional verse constructs, and there is a marginal commentary running alongside the poems to identify sources and times, and to fill in the background for those not immediately familiar with Darwin’s life and times.
This approach succeeds. Not only does the author provide an intelligent, if necessarily brief, analysis of the key elements of Darwin’s thought, but there is a beautifully portrayed ad imaginative, though firmly based upon sources, picture of Darwin’s private life and the loving relationship with his wife Emma and their children.
There is an occasional rather clunky modern phrase such as “OK”, but I enjoyed this new way of retelling this story and understanding through art such a secularly miraculous tale of one man’s intellectual enlightenment.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 5 April 2009
The Darwins are a talented bunch. When not engaged in the production of distinguished scientists, they do a not half bad job of turning out gifted wordsmiths. At the last count there were at least four Darwinian poets*, whilst, in the prose section, the great Charles penned the odd best seller. No surprise, then, that Ruth Padel, a direct descendent of Charles Darwin, has produced a collection of new poems themed around the life of her famous forebear.

"Darwin - A Life in Poems" aims explore the emotional dimension of Darwin's life. It begins with his boyhood and the start of his passion for collecting (vividly imagined in "The Miser") and follows him through his travels, family life and intellectual journey.

A line from "Giant Bugs of the Pampas", which describes the great naturalist being infected with the bacteria that probably caused his lifelong bouts of illness, gives a feel for the crispness of Padel's poetry. The bacteria (a life form unknown to Darwin) are, she says

"... life-forms occult as Kabbalah or that other secret scripture DNA: ..."

Anyone who has spent this anniversary year immersing themselves in all things Darwinian should add "Darwin - A Life in Poems" to their reading list. This is a fascinating and eminently readable collection which should appeal to a wide audience, including people who don't normally indulge in modern poetry.

* Other Darwin family poets are:
Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)
Frances Cornford (1886-1960)
John Cornford (1915-1936)
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on 23 May 2012
I chanced on this remarkable book whilst searching for books on Darwin on Amazon. To find a descendent with such a deep understanding of the personality of an ancestor and expressing it so lucidly in poetry is rare. Some poems particular those regarding his religious feelings and the fear of hurting his wife ring so true it makes this great man even more human than some full length biographic tomes. If you admire Darwin buy it.
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