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Darwin's Descendant, on Origin of Poetry

Apr 20, 2009 By CHARLES McGRATH
The British poet Ruth Padel, a favorite to be named the Oxford Professor of Poetry this spring, is Charles Darwin's great-great-granddaughter, though for much of her life she has preferred not to dwell on the connection.

"A feature of Darwins is that they're quite reticent," she said last week during a visit to New York that included a stop at the American Museum of Natural History.
The poet Ruth Padel, Darwin's great-great-grandaughter, with models of hominids at the American Museum of Natural History. Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Her new book, however, just out in the United States, is called "Darwin: A Life in Poems" (Alfred A. Knopf), timed to coincide with his bicentenary this year, and it's a verse biography of her celebrated ancestor that reads at times like a family album. Many of the poems embed Darwin's own words, taken from his books, letters and notebooks and annotated with marginal commentary resembling that in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

A poem about bleakness and depression occasioned by the death of Darwin's favorite daughter, Anne, from scarlet fever, for example, incorporates some famous lines from Chapter 4 of "On the Origin of Species":

He sees a parade of huge black dinosaurs with smoky breath.

"Nature is prodigal with time. She scrutinizes every muscle,

vessel, nerve. Every habit, instinct, shade

of constitution. There will be no caprice, no favouring."

In other poems Ms. Padel (pronounced puh-DELL) puts herself inside the naturalist's head to imagine the Brazilian jungle, where

he leans on slippery roots like fins veloured

in moss, stippled pink where the moss has rubbed.

Like tubers - or a tree-gland - hard as mumps.

In still others she imagines the young Darwin gazing at an erotic nude painting or writes from the point of view of his wife, Emma, lying in bed and thinking about the hairs growing, "like a crescent moon," under her husband's arm. And there is even a poem giving a publisher's verdict on the "Origin" manuscript:

"'Make it a manual on pigeon-breeding! Forget the rest.

Everyone loves pigeons - it'd be reviewed

by every journal in the land."

Ms. Padel's grandmother Nora Barlow was one of the earliest Darwin scholars; she edited her grandfather's letters and notebooks and restored to his autobiography some controversial lines, dropped at Emma's request by Darwin's son Francis, in which Darwin called Christianity a "damnable doctrine" and said, "I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true."

Ms. Barlow lived to be 104, Ms. Padel said, and her granddaughter grew up visiting the Barlow house, which had a big garden and was filled with books about plants and animals. And it was her grandmother who gave Ms. Padel one of the key themes in "Darwin: A Life in Poems": the sorrow that Darwin's theories gave his wife, who remained a religious believer.

"I was looking after her one rainy Cambridge summer when she was pushing 100," Ms. Padel said of her grandmother. "She had lost her short-term memory, but her long-term memory was very keen. She politely asked me what I was working on, which at the time was my Ph.D. thesis at Oxford, about images of emotion in Greek poetry. 'That's very interesting,' she said, and then started talking about Darwin's book about the expression of emotion in man and animals. Five minutes later she'd ask me again and she'd have a completely different association with Darwin. It was like talking to a highly intelligent drunken ghost. She talked a lot about Charles and Emma and how it gave them both such pain that his ideas were leading him away from belief, and I thought, 'My God, I'd like to write that story someday.' "

Last spring the Natural History Museum in London asked Ms. Padel to write a few poems about her grandfather for a Darwin exhibition, and a few weeks later the Festival of Ideas in Bristol invited her to try a few more. To publish a whole book of them, which was her editor's idea, she had to finish by August, so copies could be ready by Darwin's bicentennial this past February.

That Darwin's notebooks and correspondence are now available online made the task much easier, Ms. Padel said, and so did a coincidental stint as writer in residence at Somerset House, a London palace that is now an arts center but once housed government offices. Her great-great-grandfather worked there in 1838 and 1839 as secretary to the Geological Society.

"This was really the key moment in his life, when he was writing the thoughts that would become the theory of natural selection," Ms. Padel said. "His mind was so busy he called it mental rioting, and being there I strenuously identified with that part of his life, that habit of passionate thinking."

She also came to identify with her great-great-grandmother. "There is something of Emma in my grandmother and my mother, and maybe even in me," she explained. "She was untidy, hated pretense and humbug, and was very acute. She can come across as quite acerbic."

A poem about Darwin peeking at the sexy painting was one of the few things she made up, Ms. Padel said. "I invented that because it's what's missing. He certainly had an eye for the ladies and flirted with them. I think he probably had that Victorian, middle-class gentleman's morality that sublimates sexuality into art or into nature."

The marriage of Charles and Emma, she added, was "wonderful, passionate, affectionate, and it sustained itself across this great gulf of belief and unbelief."

The biggest crisis in the marriage came in 1851, with the death of Anne, their second child and eldest daughter, Ms. Padel went on. "Darwin saw the bleakness of his ideas acting in his own family," she explained. "The survival of the fittest."

She added that though scarlet fever is not genetically transmitted, Darwin always felt that Annie had somehow inherited her illness because he had married his first cousin. "He carried that burden with him." Or, as Ms. Padel writes, contrasting Darwin with his wife:

He does believe in a Divine Creator still

but not hers, not wise and kind. A ruthless shadowy thing

eternally going in for cruelty, elimination, waste.

On the other hand, it would probably encourage Darwin, who took a copy of "Paradise Lost" with him on the Beagle, to learn that one of his progeny had been nominated to be the Oxford Professor of Poetry, the profession's second-best job in Britain (after the laureate).

The post is not filled according to the principles of natural selection. It's elective, according to some old-fashioned rules, and invariably leads to factions and occasionally to electioneering. Ms. Padel tried to make light of the whole process, but did admit that since in the entire history of the poetry professorship a woman has never held the chair, her being in the running this time is probably proof of evolution.

[From The New York Times]
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