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Darwin: A Life in Poems Hardcover – 5 Feb 2009
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"Ruth Padel's remarkable memoir of her great-great-grandfather is a sequence of exquisite, precise and moving poems that cover his science, travels, marriage and family life. Once I started reading I could not put it down until I had reached the end, and then I turned back for the pleasure of reading again." (Claire Tomalin)
"A fascinating, very rich book. It excitingly combines several large tasks and shows that Darwin's science sprang from the same aesthetic impulse as poetry. With sympathy and grace, Padel moves deftly between between science, love and family; between the vast processes of evolution and a personal life." (Sean O'Brien)
"A very bold book, probably unique: a life in verse, even painting parallel lives that influenced Darwin's like that of Alfred Russel Wallace. We all have our own Darwin, but poetry gets under the skin of the subject in a way conventional biography cannot match." (Richard Fortey)
"Ruth Padel's control of cadence and poetic diction is daring and exciting; her rhythm brilliant and subtle; the play with stanza form and technical tricks stunning and deeply impressive. Her handling of details and quotations from Darwin's life, letters and books is a lesson to biographers and poets alike." (Colm Toibin)
`a deft act of collaboration between the living and the dead, one melding easily with the other'.See all Product description
Top customer reviews
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!
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?)
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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Mark Fyffe MA MD DPhil (Oxon)
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