Darwin: A Life in Poems

Darwin: A Life in Poems

by Ruth Padel

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This remarkable book brings us an intimate and moving interpretation of the life and work of Charles Darwin, by Ruth Padel, an acclaimed British poet and a direct descendant of the famous scientist.

Charles Darwin, born in 1809, lost his mother at the age of eight, repressed all memory of her, and poured his passion into solitary walks, newt collecting, and shooting. His five-year voyage on H.M.S. Beagle, when he was in his twenties, changed his life. Afterward, he began publishing his findings and working privately on groundbreaking theories about the development of animal species, including human beings, and he made a nervous proposal to his cousin Emma.

Padel’s poems sparkle with nuance and feeling as she shows us the marriage that ensued, and the rich, creative atmosphere the Darwins provided for their ten children. Charles and Emma were happy in each other, but both were painfully aware of the gulf between her deep Christian faith and his increasing religious doubt. The death of three of their children accentuated this gulf. For Darwin, death and extinction were nature’s way of developing new species: the survival of the fittest; for Emma, death was a prelude to the afterlife.

These marvelous poems—enriched by helpful marginal notes and by Padel’s ability to move among multiple viewpoints, always keeping Darwin at the center—bring to life the great scientist as well as the private man and tender father. This is a biography in rare form, with an unquantifiable depth of family intimacy and warmth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307959522
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/23/2011
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Ruth Padel is a prizewinning poet, a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the Zoological Society of London, and the first Writer in Residence at Somerset House, London. Her poetry collections include Rembrandt Would Have Loved You, Voodoo Shop, and The Soho Leopard, all short-listed for the T. S. Eliot Prize. She has also published two much-loved books on reading contemporary poetry, 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and The Poem and the Journey, and an acclaimed nature book, Tigers in Red Weather, which was short-listed for the Kiriyama Prize

Read an Excerpt







‘He brought a flower to school. He said his mother
taught him to look inside the blossom
and discover the name of the plant.
I inquired how it could be done
but the lesson was not transmissible.’
A walk through the zebra maze, to the Unitarian
chapel on Claremont Hill. What do they say,
the black stripes on white house-walls? He ’s afraid
of the dogs on Baker Street. When boys play
he chews the inside of his mouth. He can never fight.

Darwin grew up in Shrewsbury, a medieval English town on the border of Wales, where his father built a house in 1800. Early in 1817, when he was a timid boy of seven, his mother enrolled him in a small school attached to the Chapel in town. The words quoted here come from the earliest memory of Darwin by anyone other than his family: William Leighton, an older pupil at the school who later
became a botanist.



‘I remember her sewing-table, curiously constructed.
Her black velvet gown. Nothing else
except her death-bed. And my Father, crying.’ No embrace.
‘My older sisters, in their great grief,
did not speak her name.’ Her memory was silence.
No memento of her face.

Darwin’s mother Susanna, daughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, died young in July 1817, when Darwin was eight.


He does not seem to have known half how much our father loved him. --Caroline Wedgwood, née Darwin

Bits of the world blow towards him and come apart
on the wind. He invents. He lies.
‘I had a passion for dogs. They seemed to know.
I was adept in robbing their masters of their love.’
He steals apples from the orchard, gives them to boys
in a cottage and tells them to watch how fast he runs.
He climbs a beech by the wall of the locked kitchen garden
and dreams himself into the inner gloss
of raspberry canes. A forest, glowing in its net.
Emerald coal in a watchman’s brazier.
He straddles the coping, fits a stick in the hole at the foot
of a flower-pot, and pulls. Peaches and plums
fall in. Enough to have begun an orchard of his own.
My father’s. Valuable. The words hang in the trees
when the soft blobs are gone. He hides his loot
in shrubbery and runs to tell:
he has found a hoard of stolen fruit!

The Mount, Shrewsbury, 1817–20.

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