On February 12th, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, the British poet Ruth Padel, his great great grand-daughter, published Darwin: A Life in Poems. Enthusiastically received in the U.K. as an essential life of the great man, the book now appears here, and Padel is visiting our shores, to read at the New York Botanical Gardens this weekend, and New York University in the coming week (links below). Her sparkling poems tell the story: Darwin’s early loss of his mother, his precocious collector’s instinct and passion for animals (click the audio link below to hear Padel reading a poem of Darwin’s boyhood), the five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle which set him on his path as a scientist, the tensions and joys of his marriage to his cousin Emma and their rearing of ten children, several of whom did not survive. Hard to reproduce in this email format are the informative marginal notes that run alongside Padel’s verses, which supply some basic chronology and factual background for each poem. For example, in the top left margin of the poem reproduced below, we are given the following setup: “January, 1832, Cape Verde Islands. Darwin’s first glimpse of tropical vegetation”; and, a bit further down, “One of Darwin’s great inspirations was the work on South America by Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equatorial Regions of the New Continent.”
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 –
alone with his enchantment. So much and so unknown.
Like taking a newborn baby in your arms. ‘Not only the grace
of forms and rich new colours: it’s the numberless –
& confusing – associations rushing on the mind!’
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 him. 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 tropical 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 on the sea-floor here,
baking shells to white hard rock. Then a subterranean force
pushed everything up to make an island.
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.’
Listen to Ruth Padel reading a poem of Darwin’s boyhood, “Stealing the Affection of Dogs.”
Meet Ruth Padel in New York City April 5 and/or April 9.