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4.3 out of 5 stars
Darwin: A Life in Poems (Vintage Classics)
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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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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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on 10 April 2013
A fascinating treatment of a really interesting subject matter.. Meticulous , detailed writing which brings the central character fully to life.
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on 21 December 2014
Lovely contribution to thinking about complexity. My favourite, A Crunch on the Gravel, Chris
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on 3 April 2009
A memorable (1) tribute to a very great man. Both author and subject are creative, original, and loving.

(1) Auden once described poetry as 'memorable speech'.
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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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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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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 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 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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