The poetical Darwin

I read this summer Ruth Padel’s poetic biography of her great-great grandfather, Charles Darwin. What a curious collection of poesy and original source material. It works well. You see Darwin’s childhood, his self-assessment at various points in his life, his family relationships. Many of the poem’s are his writings or letters, or letters to him or about him (none, incidentally, appear to be from his correspondence with Asa Gray, which was made into a pretty good short play, Re:Design).

Padel’s “The Miser” starts with a quote from Darwin’s Autobiography: “The passion for collecting, which leads a man to be a miser, a virtuoso, or a systematic naturalist, was very strong in me.”

Padel writes,

“Collect yourself: to smother what you feel,

recall to order, summon in one place;

making, like Orpheus, a system against loss.”

As a boy, Darwin prays, and gets answers, though they are convenient. He thinks he’s ugly; at 15 “he dwells in the congealing shell of a giant tortoise.”

The poet writes “His father is the largest man he’ll ever know.” Quite possibly also the meanest, given that Dad once wrote to son, “You care for nothing but shooting, rat-catching and dogs! You’ll be a disgrace to yourself and your family.”

We see his youthful passions, and his pre-Victorian interest in Titian’s “Venus,” as well as his encounters with Paley’s natural theology as he trains at Cambridge to become a minister.

One powerful poem against slavery, “The Thumbscrews of Rio,” is almost entirely from a Darwin letter or diary entry.

“Giant Bugs from the Pampas” puts a chilling cast to Darwin’s encounter with Chinches or Benchuga, the wingless insects that may have given him Chagas’ disease, which some think caused Darwin to go from robust youth to often infirm adult. Darwin holds out his finger and lets it gorge itself on his blood. In exchange giving him

…”The bacteria that will afflict this Charles and his unborn children

are life forms as occult as Kabbalah or that other

secret scripture DNA: a hidden barcode

invisible as a string of fireflies

sleeping on a leaf-edge in the pre-dusk blue of day.”

Padel expertly splices the old words and takes us through Darwin’s courtship and marriage, the births of his children, and wrenching deaths of three of them, his encounters with Wallace, and then the race to get his Origin of Species published before Wallace scoops him (including the recommendation that Darwin make the book one about pigeon breeding, and cut the rest, fortunately ignored by Darwin’s publisher).”Edit. Vomit. Edit.” So goes Padel, reminding us of Darwin’s ongoing illness.

The book perhaps falls short of great poetry, but it is a wonderfully concise and moving biography.

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