Darwin: A Life in Poems, by Ruth Padel (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2009, ISBN 978-0-307-27239-3) 160 pp. Cloth $26.00.
Not only does Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life in Poems hitch its wagon to the star of the 2009 Darwin bicentennial, but its poetry sprouts within the burgeoning field of organics as well. In shaping Charles Darwin’s biography through verse, Padel co-opts the words of Darwin (her great-great-grandfather) and his family and friends as well as the phraseology of religion, sparking in existence—human, animal, vegetable, and mineral—an organic source of wonder that seems beyond the bounds of what nature can hold. This technique of natural aggrandizement, built over the course of Padel’s book, argues not only for a terrestrial base of human awe and, ultimately, morality but hints at how human thinking might have gone astray earlier. There is indeed a glory beyond the reach of the naked eye, Padel’s poems tell us, but it lies within the very building blocks of life itself. What we today can freely explore through science and art, thanks to Darwin, our less-enlightened ancestors, understandably, gave over to God.
Indeed, in exploring and recreating Darwin’s humanity, Padel gives much weight to the scientist’s own ties to religion and his difficulty in divorcing himself from both belief and the community built up around it. In the poem “Bliss Castle,” Padel succinctly blends the inner turmoil of a nineteen-year-old Darwin—his passion for shooting and logging birds interfering with his father’s plans for him to become a parson—with the observation of an older Darwin, vexed by the absurdity of his earlier belief:
He’s got to be a parson, plod through the Classics again
and read Divinity at Cambridge. So it’s God
and Holy Orders? As well that, as anything. He accepts
the truth of Holy Writ. And the Creed, of course.
(‘It never struck me how illogical it was
to say I believed what I could not understand—
and what is, in fact, unintelligible.’)
What matters most is shooting.
Later, in “Christmas at Port Desire,” Padel reveals this synthesis emerging in Darwin’s own work. Writing at age thirty-six on “the varied productions of the God of Nature,” he observed, in a journal passage Padel quotes to lead off her poem, that “No one can stand unmoved in these solitudes [the primeval forests of Brazil and Tierra del Fuego] without feeling there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.” While there is a sense in Darwin that the glory lies within life itself, he is unable at this point to loose himself from that powerful, capitalized, three-letter word God (even if he places nature on equal footing). Three pages later, in “Giant Bugs of the Pampas,” Padel shows us the solitudes Darwin will never see but, owing to Chagas disease, be infected and tormented by till the end of his days:
life-forms as occult as Kabbalah
or that other
secret scripture DNA: a hidden
invisible as a string of fireflies
sleeping on a leaf-edge in the
predusk blue of day.
Life, as Padel has it, is a nearly inexhaustible slope of reductionism, the whole apparent on each more-diminutive rung, if only you know how to look. Into this web she brings Darwin, and after his personal and professional struggles no one will ever look at existence the same way again.
But it is more the human in Darwin than the scientist that Padel means to awaken. And what better way to do this than through poetry—“tinkering,” as Padel calls it, with Darwin’s own words to mesh them in rhythm and style with her own poetic voice. While Padel regularly augments her work with margin notes to make a poem’s time, place, and character clear, Darwin is not a labored, exhaustive, academic tome that sucks away the very life Padel wants to spark. Rather, she is free to dangle symbols (“He packs Paradise Lost, the only book he’ll slip / in his pocket wherever he goes”; “The red ants battle black”), rhythm, and innuendo before the reader, stoking a thumping heart or turned stomach at the very moment she torments her subject with the same. As such, this book is not only a fine work of poetry but perhaps a powerful weapon as well. For who in the Intelligent Design crowd will bother to plod through On the Origin of Species or any scientific analysis of Darwin’s work? But give them a life teeming with belief and doubt; love scuttled, longed for, found, and in a bargain maintained (“Many moments in this marriage / have been saved—by both of them—with laughs”); a morality divined not from perfect, heavenly dictates but from nature itself? Could this book change minds by entering through the pulse of blood?
Well, probably not. Still, Padel has given the world a very human and very alive portrait of a man heretofore consigned to scientific silhouette. In Padel’s hands, Darwin becomes as much a creature of nature as the revealer of the nature of creatures. Hers is not a stodgy, egotistical naturalist slashing at all things divine with gleeful disregard for what his fellows hold sacred. He is a diligent yet mindful student of life who writes in Padel’s “The Confession” to botanist J.D. Hooker in 1844:
I am almost convinced
that species are not (it is like
to a murder) immutable.
Padel’s Darwin knows the risks he is taking, the toes he will step on, the hurt he will cause, and if there were a way to publish his findings and theories and avoid the turmoil, he’d surely go for it. We find him in “Confinement” responding to his wife’s fears over his rejection of Christian revelation with the light touch of a lover’s hand: “When I am dead, know / I have kissed and cried over this many times.” But he is a determined, if gentle, warrior for the truth. And truth must out. Darwin, plagued as any of us by the pains and insecurities of being human, becomes through Padel’s poetry the tender rebel.
“‘What grandeur in this view of world!’” he writes of evolution in the poem “Notebook B.”
‘Far better than the thought
from a cramped imagination) that
warring against the laws He set up, in organic nature,
created the rhinoceros of Java and Sumatra!’
What grandeur for lovers of poetry, science, and life in having a titan like Darwin given back to his flesh!