Jake Blanchard's illustration for Ruth Padel's Darwin poemsThe more I read Charles Darwin’s notebooks, the more I feel that it was the problem of pain that particularly turned him against the idea of a benevolent creator. “Disease and pain in the world”, he wrote in 1838, “and they talk of perfection?” A couple of passages in the little Autobiography Darwin wrote for his family turn on the way he gave up his Christian beliefs.

At first, he says, he was reluctant to give these up. His degree was in Divinity, he intended to be a priest, he took the New Testament in Greek with him on the Beagle, but what he cared about was evidence. He wanted the Gospels proved true. Since he had a classical education, he dreamed of new manuscripts that would confirm the Gospels but increasingly he realized this was unlikely; and of course, the evidence he discovered and the insight that came from it on his five-year voyage pointed in the opposite direction. He came gradually, he says, to disbelieve the idea of divine revelation. This disbelief “crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.”

Then he added a second passage much more upsetting for believers: “And I have never doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the texts seem to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”

His son Francis published the Autobiography after Charles’s death but excised this second passage at the request of his mother, Emma, Darwin’s widow. Long afterwards my own grandmother, Nora Barlow, who was Darwin’s great-granddaughter and effectively the first Darwin scholar, re-edited the Autobiography and put this passage back. Later still, when she was 95, when I was looking after her one rainy summer in Cambridge, she talked to me about Charles’s ideas and his sense of how they affected Emma.

Emma always asked Charles never to change his ideas for fear of giving her pain but they both knew that his views did give her grief, particularly at moments of tragic loss, like the death of their ten-year-old daughter. They had a very intimate, honest and tender partnership: they cared about each other deeply, but they had to negotiate this painful division between them all their lives.

For me, listening to my grandmother talk about them that day in Cambridge is a treasured memory of her, but also made me long to write about Charles and Emma, in the context of his whole life and work. Darwin; A Life in Poems, from which these four poems are taken, is the result.

The Efficacy of Prayer

“I often had to run through town between the School
     and home.” Slipping the shuts between one dark street
and the next: Shoplatch, Mardol, Grope Lane,
     Butcher Row. “Being very fleet
I was generally in time but I often prayed
     earnestly to God for aid.” Gullet Passage, Bear Steps,
Portobello, Murivance. “I attributed my success
     to prayer, marvelling how greatly I was helped.”

Bliss Castle

“You care for nothing but shooting, rat-catching and dogs!
You’ll be a disgrace to yourself and your family.”
His father is the largest man he’ll ever know.

He’s got to be a parson – plod through the Classics again
and read Divinity at Cambridge. So it’s God
and Holy Orders? As well that, as anything. He accepts

the truth of Holy Writ. And the Creed, of course.
“It never struck me how illogical it was
to say I believed what I could not understand –

and what is, in fact, unintelligible.”
What matters most is shooting. The worst thing
that could happen would be getting an entry wrong

in his ledger of shot birds. He’s nineteen
and the best fun is Bliss Castle, alias Maer Hall.
Lots of cousins, three girls, and a kind

sporty uncle. In the partridge and pheasant season
he keeps his boots beside the bed
not to lose thirty seconds of shooting-time.

He Finds His Own Definition of Grandeur

“What a magnificent view one can take of the world!”
     He has rooms in Great Marlborough Street. Covington
helps him move in. A Queen has ascended a throne.
He bowls across the city, three notebooks on the go.
“That events in astronomy, modified by others – unknown –
     cause changes in geography and climate. These induce
changes in the organic zone. By changing, they affect

each other too. Their bodies keep perfect
     in themselves by certain laws of harmony.
Instincts alter – reason is born. All living forms
have to adapt.”  What we take on a journey.
What we bring back. “So, from a period just short of eternity
     till now, the world fills like an expanding well with myriads
of different forms. What grandeur in this view of world!

Far better than the thought (proceeding, surely,
     from a cramped imagination) that God,
warring against the laws He set up, in organic nature,
created the rhinoceros of Java and Sumatra!”
He’s in a rush – audacious – dangerous.
    Boundaries drop away. If living beings change!
“And man – from monkeys?”

His hairdresser in Great Marlborough Street
     takes an interest in pedigree hounds! Ask him. Ask about
the principles of breeding. “Is it polite
to say that ever since Silurian times, God’s made
a succession of vile molluscous animals
     in infinite variation? How beneath the dignity
of Him who said, Let there be light!”

The Free Will of an Oyster

Probably some error in the argument here. Should be grateful if pointed out - Charles Darwin, from Notebook M.                                 
Lurcher puppies, brown and gold, playing in the straw
of a farmyard. Ears, teeth and tails. The individual
in society. Tussle, flight, invention, fight.

     “It cannot be doubted that they have free will.
     If they, then all animals – even an oyster:
     whose free will must result from the limits of shell,
     pulp, valve. Free will is to mind what chance

     is to matter, changing the body’s arrangements.
     So may free will make changes, too, in Man.”
     And the mind, belvedere of the body?
     “Beyond doubt, part of the process.”

No deity, no lutes of paradise. Only the smell of tall grass,
tissue adaptive as light from a star
and quick cells vivid to change in the struggle for life.

Extracted from Darwin: A Life in Poems by Ruth Padel published by Chatto & Windus on 12 February. Illustration by Jake Blanchard