Giving to a blind man eyesDarwin's descendant has evolved a new species of biography, says Richard Holmes
Richard Holmes The Guardian, Saturday 14 March 2009
Great apes - it's Charles Darwin's bicentenary. Among a number of remarkable tribute books (notably Darwin's Sacred Cause by Adrian Desmond and James Moore) and a fine Darwin exhibition currently running at the British Library, it is quite a surprise to find his great-great-granddaughter, the poet Ruth Padel, stepping forward to crown him with the bays. No wonder at a recent Royal Society meeting, she was admiringly if somewhat confusingly introduced as "Darwin's poetic ancestor".
Darwin: A Life in Poems
by Ruth Padel
Chatto & Windus
Buy Darwin: A Life in Poems at the Guardian bookshop
Padel's 160-page sequence of poems may be the most remarkable tribute of all. Previously renowned for her sexy love poetry - Rembrandt Would have Loved You (1998) - and her haunting modern bestiaries, such as The Soho Leopard (2004), Padel has been stealthily creeping up on great-great-grandpa for some time now.
Though a fellow of the Zoological Society, she was perhaps an unusual choice to write the introduction to the Vintage Classic edition of On the Origin of Species. Yet Padel shrewdly picked out the controversial issues with which Darwin still provokes us - the revived belief in "creationism", the continuing extinction of species, the problem of pain in nature, the history of black slavery, the public understanding of science and the apparent conflict between scientific objectivity and human feelings. We should not forget that Darwin had 10 children and was a doting paterfamilias.
In Tigers in Red Weather (2005), her much admired eco-travel book, Padel had already isolated a key moment during the Beagle voyage. Seeing the South American jungle for the first time, Darwin exclaimed that it was "like giving to a blind man eyes". This becomes the title of one of the best poems in her new collection, and provides a unifying theme. "Vegetation he's never seen, and every step a new surprise. / New insects, fluttering about still newer flowers. It has been / for me a glorious day, like giving to a blind man eyes." Both scientist and poet must learn to see in an utterly new way.
With impressive ambition, Padel sets out to orchestrate all these elements. This is not a mere collection, but a complete miniature biography of the great man (1809-1882), told through some 100 linked but highly individual poems. For biographers like me, who like to luxuriate in 600 pages of good plain prose, this itself is a challenging revelation of economy and selection. Though it is not without its problems.
Even the contents pages are striking. The poems, with their odd, often surreal titles ("The Free Will of an Oyster", "The Devil as Baboon"), are grouped in clusters like tropical fruit bats gathered along a branch. This tree of life is organised as five chronological chapters - "Boy", "Journey", "City", "Emma", "The Coat of Fur" - with particular attention paid to Darwin's developing family affections. It is not a continuous narrative, as in a prose biography, but rather a selection of visionary moments: snapshots, epiphanies, symbolic fragments, or what the 17th-century poets might have called "emblems".
Memorable images immediately leap out. The jungle: "Bristle of orchid leaves on every branch / like green flames over Bibles". The sea creatures: "Gelatinous ingots, rainbows of wet flinching amethyst / and flubbed, iridescent cream". A grieving household: "like an ostrich on its nest: a belljar of black feathers".
The poems are presented mostly from Darwin's point of view, in a cunning form of ventriloquism, drawing his "voice" from direct but carefully adjusted quotations from letters, journals and notebooks. Padel's vision also includes Darwin's father, his sisters, his beloved and anxious wife Emma, his children, his fellow evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace, and even (of course) an orangutan in London Zoo: "She took bread from a visitor, tilting her brow / at the keeper, to see whether this was allowed."
The emotional centre of the book is the Darwins' stoic marriage, shaken by the divisive problem of Emma's religious belief, and torn by the terrible death of their 10-year-old daughter Annie. This is dramatised in a series of bleak and painful poems, most notably "The Devil's Chaplain", in which hopes of a Christian heaven are set against relentless phrases from chapter four of The Origin - "no purpose, no design ... blind, pitiless / indifference". This makes an immensely powerful and disturbing sequence.
Anyone who knows Padel's brilliant analytical anthology of contemporary poetry, 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem (2004), will approach her technical verse-skills with respect. Indeed she displays a bewildering variety of stanza forms to tell Darwin's story: terza rima, quatrains, syllabics, alexandrines, free verse and some marvellous sonnets. These include "Tropical Forest" ("kingdoms of his life rearranged themselves like cloud") and a strange, beautiful love-making poem with a typically disconcerting title, "She Thinks the Hairs Under his Arm Grow Like a Crescent Moon".
Yet these forms are not easy to spot. They rarely depend on regular metres or traditional end-stop rhymes. Instead Padel deploys two specialities - the enjambment, or run-over line (what an amorous fellow bard once memorably called "her famous leg-over line"); and the lurking internal rhyme or half-rhyme. Sometimes these produce immediate, beautiful song-like effects. "Down there in Dodinga lagoon / the dory he came in on, like the new moon / at anchorage". Sometimes they are hidden to the eye, but become apparent on reading aloud. Here is the pious Emma expecting their first child: "She's walking a dark shoreline, trusting / the Saviour's suffering and comfort; / but it's hard. Behind the accoucheur, / a midwife with towels, hot water, lard." At least three rhymes here - on shoreline, Saviour, and hard - all cleverly serve to highlight the contrast between the sacred and secular trials of childbirth, and the whole metaphysical clash between Emma and Charles, religion and science.
Yet sometimes - and here's the problem - they lapse into a kind of flattened, jittery, edited prose. One long poem seems little more than a précis of Darwin's April 1832 letter to his sister from Rio Harbour. Another appears merely to transcribe Wallace's laboured explorations up the Sadong river in Borneo. In "The Balance Sheet" Padel plays around tricksily with Darwin's notorious list pro and contra marriage, which is surely stronger in his Notebook original ("better than a dog", and so on). It can be found currently displayed poster-size at the British Library, to satisfactory gasps of visitor outrage.
These all raise the question of the fashionable "found poem". Padel certainly has a matchless treasure trove among Darwin's papers and his Autobiography, and she properly credits the "astonishing" resource of the Darwinproject website. So perhaps we should not mind that on occasion Sappho nods, leaving us with skilful collages and paste-ups rather than true poems.
After all, what more, she might ask, do most dulldog prose biographers do. It's an interesting question. Here, at least, we have a daring and genuinely innovative piece of work. At best Padel reveals a unique sense of drama, speed and poetic intensity in what was otherwise a long, sedate and ruminative scientific life. With her gleaming tropical imagery and her ingenious inner "voice", resonant with wondrous and tragic overtones, Padel has certainly given us a renewed and intimate Darwin. Indeed, she may have done more than that. She may have evolved a new species of biography - by poetic selection. Great-great-grandpapa would surely approve.
• Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science is published by HarperPress. To order Darwin for £11.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop
EARNING TO MAKE AN ‘OUD IN NAZARETH
Published in The New Yorker, 27th October 2008
The first day he cut rosewood for the back,
bent sycamore into ribs and made a belly
of mahogany. Let us go early to the vineyards
and see if the vines have budded.
The sky was blue over the Jezreel valley
and the gilt dove shone
above the Church of the Annunciation.
The second day, he carved a camelbone base
for the fingerboard.
I sat down under his shadow with delight.
The third day, he made a nut of sandalwood,
and a pickguard of black cherry.
He damascened a rose of horn
as lustrous as under-leaves of olive beside the sea.
I have found him whom my soul loves.
He inlaid the soundhole with ivory swans,
each pair a Valentine of entangled necks,
and fitted tuning pegs of apricot
to give a good smell when rubbed.
The fourth was a day for cutting
high strings of camel-gut. His left hand
shall be under my head.
For the lower course, he twisted copper strings
pale as tarmac under frost.
He shall lie all night between my breasts.
The fifth day he laid down varnish.
Our couch is green and the beams of our house
are cedar and pine. Behind the neck
he put a sign to keep off the Evil Eye.
My beloved is a cluster of camphire
in the vineyards of Engedi
and I watched him whittle an eagle-feather, a plectrum
to celebrate the angel of improvisation
who dwells in clefts on the Nazareth ridge
where love waits. And grows, if you give it time.
Set me as a seal upon your heart.
On the sixth day the soldiers came
for his genetic code.
We have no record of what happened.
I was queueing at the checkpoint to Galilee.
I sought him and found him not.
He’d have been in his open-air workshop -
I called but he gave me no answer -
the selfsame spot
where Jesus stood when He came from Capernaum
to teach in synagogue, and townsfolk tried
to throw Him from the rocks. Until the day break
and shadows flee away
I will get me to the mountain of myrrh.
The seventh day we set his wounded hands
around the splinters. Come with me from Lebanon
my spouse, look from the top
of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions' dens.
On the eighth there were no more days.
I took a class in carpentry and put away the bridal rug.
We started over
with a child’s ‘oud bought on eBay.
He was a virtuoso of the ‘oud
and his banner over me was love.
published in the New Yorker 2008 for more poems