Brain Pickings

Darwin’s Life, Adapted in Poems by His Great-Great-Granddaughter

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“He is the most transparent man I ever saw and most affectionate.”

“Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science, William Wordsworth wrote in his timeless meditation on poetry. And while he wasn’t necessarily being literal, the relationship between poetry and science — despite Coleridge’s attestation to the opposite — is a fruitful and alluring one, from Diane Ackerman’s verses for the cosmos to this vintage scientific paper published as a 38-stanza poem.

Now comes a fine testament inspired by the life of Charles Darwingraphic novel hero, man of formidable daily routine, scholar of human emotional expression, occasional grump. In Darwin: A Life in Poems (public library), the legendary scientist’s great-great-granddaughter, the poet Ruth Padel, draws on Darwin’s books, journals, autobiography, scientific papers, notebooks, drafts, and letters to summon an affectionate and imaginative memoir of rare poetic elegance.

In the first chapter, titled “Boy” and exploring Darwin’s childhood, Padel adapts the earliest memory of Darwin by anyone other than his family — an 1817 recollection by the botanist William Leighton, at the time an older pupil at the small school seven-year-old Charles attended in the medieval English town of Shrewsbury, where his father had built a house in 1800.

FINDING THE NAME IN THE FLOWER

I

THE CHAPEL SCHOOL

‘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’s mother, Susanna, died at a young age in July of the same year, when Charles was barely eight. Padel captures the chilling memory of the tragedy:

II

THE YEAR MY MOTHER DIED

‘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.

Charles as a child, with his sister Catherine. (Cambridgeshire Collection)

In a chapter dedicated to Emma Darwin, Padel channels the smitten obsessiveness of new love as Emma first encounters her future husband in 1838, only a few months before Darwin famously weighed the pros and cons of marriage.

SHE DIDN’T THINK HE CARED

‘I was glad he was not too sure of being accepted. I went
immediately to the village school but found after an hour
I’d taught the children nothing, was turning into an idiot
and so came away. Every word expressed his real thought.
But he is so fond of us all at Maer, so demonstrative
in his manner, I did not think it meant anything. The week
I spent in London, earlier, I felt sure he did not care
about me. He was very unwell. That was all.’

Charles and Emma went on to marry and have ten children. They remained together for 43 years, until Darwin’s death in 1882.

Darwin: A Life in Poems is a delight in its entirety.

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