Books and Arts

Nature 457, 794-795 (12 February 2009) | doi:10.1038/457794a; Published online 11 February 2009

Darwin 200: Poems from Darwin's descendant

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Amid the many analyses of Darwin's life and work, a more intimate literary portrait emerges from the poetry of his great-great-granddaughter, Ruth Padel. Her series of poems on his life — six of which are reproduced here — evokes the emotion and drama of the naturalist's discoveries.

BOOK REVIEWEDDarwin: A Life in Poems

by Ruth Padel

Chatto & Windus: 2009. 160 pp. £12.99

Darwin 200Poems from Darwin's descendant

PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY

'The Miser'

Cross the Welsh Bridge out of town, go up the hill
  on Frankwell Street and you'll see, above the Severn,
  brick pillars with the sandy bloom of an ageing dog.
Around the back, Father's surgery and waiting-room.

Outside, the Stable Yard: hay chutes, a piggery and toolshed.
  Lower down, a bothy on the river bank
  where plates of jagged ice, harvested in winter from the river,
lean one against the other. A dairy where these blocks are dragged

to cool the milk and cream. The Quarry Pool
  where he fishes for newts and tadpoles.
  Collecting: to assert control
over what's unbearable. To gather and to list.

"Stones, coins, franks, insects, minerals and shells."
  Collect yourself: to smother what you feel,
  recall to order, summon in one place.
Make a system, like Orpheus, in the face of loss.

Darwin 200Poems from Darwin's descendant

BARNACLES: ENGLISH HERITAGE PHOTO LIBRARY

'Plankton'

The deck is dazzle, fish-stink, gauze-covered buckets.
  Gelatinous ingots, rainbows of wet flinching amethyst
  and flubbed, iridescent cream. All this
means he's better; and working on a haul of lumpen light:

polyps, plankton, jellyfish and sea butterflies, the pteropods.
  "So low in the scale of nature, so exquisite in their forms!
  You wonder at so much beauty — created,
apparently, for such little purpose!" They lower his creel

to blue pores of subtropical ocean. Wave-flicker, white
  like a gun-flash over the blown heart of sapphire.
  Peacock eyes, beaten and swollen,
tossing on lazuline steel.


'Like Giving to a Blind Man Eyes'

He's standing in Elysium. Palm feathers, a green
  dream of fountain against blue sky. Banana fronds,
slack rubber rivulets, a canopy of waterproof tearstain
  over his head. Pods and racemes of tamarind.
Follicle, pinnacle; whorl, bole and thorn.

"I expected a good deal. I had read Humboldt
  and was afraid of disappointment."
What if he'd stayed at home? "How utterly vain
  such fear is, none can tell but those who have seen
what I have today." A small rock off Africa —

and alone with his enchantment. So much and so unknown.
  Like taking a new-born baby in your arms. "Not only the grace
of forms and rich new colours: it's the numberless —
  & confusing — associations rushing on the mind
that produce the effect." He walks through hot damp air

and tastes it like the breath of earth; like blood.
  He is possessed by chlorophyll. By the calls of unknown birds.
He wades into sea and scares an octopus. It puffs black hair
  at him, turns red — as hyacinth — and darts for cover.
He sees it watching. He's discovered

something wonderful! He tests it against coloured card
  and the sailors laugh. They know that girly blush!
He feels a fool — but look, he's touched Volcanic rock
  for the first time. And Coral on its native stone.
"Often at Edinburgh have I gazed at little pools

of water left by tide. From tiny Corals of our shores
  I pictured larger ones. Little did I know how exquisite,
still less expect my hope of seeing them to come true.
  Never, in my wildest castles of the air, did I imagine this."
Lava must once have streamed over the sea-floor here,

baking shells to white hard rock. Then a subterranean force
  pushed everything up to make an island. His first evidence
of Volcano! Vegetation he's never seen, 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."


'Algae from the Arctic'

On high trails, the mules leave scarlet dints in snow
  as if their feet had bled. He scoops up the wet red
and rubs it. It isn't claret dust of porphyry, blown
  from peaks of the Peuquenes. Nor granite
from the blue-roan Portillo ridge. No —

none of this heart-sweeping geology, the Cordillera —
  ashy wind, guanaco flocks
and level-soaring condors
  which have bewitched him on this jaunt
to the interior. (He's done so many, now.)

"I felt glad I was by myself. Bright-coloured rocks,
  profound valleys, heaped ruins
and wild broken forms — like watching
  a thunderstorm or hearing in full Orchestra
a chorus from The Messiah."

In the microscope, ruby specks glow
  in ice the mules have squashed. "Like eggs
of small molluscous animals." Or midget ticks
  full of blood. With Covington, he posts them off
to Cambridge — to be identified as algae, from the Arctic.

Darwin 200Poems from Darwin's descendant

'On Not Thinking About Variation in Tortoise-Shell'

Pure volcano. A mantle of hot bare rock. "Nothing could be less
  inviting. A broken field of black basaltic lava
  thrown into most rugged waves and crossed
by fissures." Lava tubes, tuff cones and bright,
  red-orange crabs. A land iguana! One saffron
  leathery elbow, powdery as lichen, sticking out

like a man doing press-ups while leering at the sand.
  And the marine iguana ... "Hideous! An imp of darkness.
  On Albermarle they seem to grow to a larger size."
Young sea lions nip their tails for fun and fling them in the air
  like cats with mice. To eat them? No — nothing here,
except one hawk, is carnivore; and none afraid of Man.

Look — giant tortoises! "Travelling eagerly, their necks
  outstretched, to springs. I tried riding on their backs
  but found it hard to balance! The colony's Vice-Governor
told us he knew which island any shell came from
  because they differ. I did not for some time
  pay this enough attention. I never dreamed

that islands sixty miles apart, made of the same stone,
  of nearly equal height in the same climate,
  could have different tenants." Fast forward twenty years
and you see him write of this scatter-burst of rock in open sea,
  "We seem brought near that mystery of mysteries,
  the first appearance of new beings on the earth."


'Painting the Bees'

Darwin 200Poems from Darwin's descendant

The questions buzz at him like birds. They cling
  like burrs, delight him like the children, paw like dogs.
They scratch, torment and swarm; they pollinate
like wasps. It's got to be vast — proof, evidence,
minutiae. Orchids, fertilizing in the greenhouse.
  Birdskins from India, the horse-markings of Norway, finch
beaks from Galapagos, a parcel of flora from Kew.

How contain all this? Vomit. Panic. Vomit. Nerves
  in his neck. That wagtail on the lawn —
what muscles make it flick like that; what purpose
does it serve? Flatulence. Bad headache. Halfway through.
He steps out through the garden to his thinking path,
  the Sandwalk. Remembering the trail at Maer
around the lake, they have designed a circuit round a copse.

Chasing each question through the undergrowth
  with his fox terrier, he leaves a pebble at the start
of every lap. Into The Dark Side (so the children call it
and the little ones are scared). Ivy, tall trees, bushes,
lords and lady berries, evergreens. Out past
  the sandpit to the Light Side's open view: of sun
and cloudshadow over Great Pucklands Meadow.

He loves that children play here. A bugle and boy-laughter —
  that's Frank and Georgy in Crimea. He's drilled them with toy rifles,
taught them parts of a gun. Since Beagle, he hasn't used one.
  ("Shooting is cruel.") They're warming their campfire
milk. "Whatever my father did with us," they will say after,
  "had over it a glamour of delight." His Fool's Experiments!
"I shan't be easy till I've tried ..." — as if some outside force

were at him with a truncheon. He sets the girls to search
  for wormcasts. "Damp evenings are best."
Horace finds him snake and lizard eggs, Frank plays bassoon
  to worms (are they really deaf?) and even flowers
to see how they like vibration. He strings all seven children over
  long grass and scabious in a chain, to paint
and track the bumblebees who pollinate red clover.

Darwin 200Poems from Darwin's descendant

CARPENTER-TURNER


Prizewinning poet Ruth Padel is Charles Darwin's great-great-granddaughter. Stories told to her by her grandmother, who edited several of Darwin's books, inspired her to compose a series of poems for the bicentenary of the naturalist's birth, a selection of which are reproduced here.

Padel's vivid poetry offers an intimate portrait of Darwin through his life — as a young man marvelling at nature in his own backyard; as an explorer exclaiming on seeing a tropical rainforest for the first time; as a researcher puzzling over his collections in his home office at Down House in Kent, being interrupted by his children playing. Her insight exposes Darwin's thoughts as he pieced together his ideas on evolution, and reflects on how his changing views affected his relationships with his family, the church and society.

To hear Ruth Padel reading her poetry, download the Nature Podcast at http://tinyurl.com/faze2. For more on Darwin, see http://www.nature.com/darwin.