He chose Downe because it was close to the railway,
close enough to London, and the perfect place
to raise a family. All those unutterable thoughts
slowly building up, year after year, as he paced
the Sand Path, or took his billiard cue down
from the rack in the next-door room to play, or
inspected his worm experiment in the back lawn.
He hadn’t meant to see what he’d seen,
the finches, when he was a young man in the Pacific,
or the tangled bank right here in his own garden.
But they were there. He could explain so much.
If only people could come to it gradually, as he had.
He wrote in the mornings. He walked again
before lunch. In the afternoons he read,
answered letters. Another walk. Late in the day
they would read together in her parlour:
Trollope, Dickens, Mrs Gaskell, worse.
Her knitting, chairs with antimacassars;
a cosy domesticity. Sufficient to explain
his famous ‘reluctance to publish’?
He loved her, loved the children tumbling
out of the nursery and into their own lives –
that they should not be harmed. But worms
cannot crawl back to restart the experiment.
We look at everything, the notebooks,
the pictures of the Beagle. Skulls and beetles.
‘Man is but a worm.’ I quarrel with the labels
(‘that’s not what “survival of the fittest” means‘).
As we walk, I explain the Red Queen, the problem
of the Peacock’s Tail, point out the tangled bank.
There is golden yarrow in the kitchen garden,
carnivorous plants in the hot-house.
From the thinking path I pick up a piece of flint.
Afterwards there is only one plant to give you.
Cordyline australis. The garden centre at Keston Mark
can oblige, but only var. Torbay Red. Also
a Pittosporum tenuifolium var. Silver Queen. I know
they were raised here, but I do worry.
How will they manage the winters?
Next spring you will send me photographs,
the pittosporum mobbed by daffodils, the elegant
spiky cabbage tree in its blue pot. Right now
I fear the cold, separation, distance; these
unnatural shapes we twist ourselves into.
The loneliness of it, the fear, the reluctance. A modest
plain honest man, curious and thorough, asking himself
about everything, freed by the Wedgwood money to ask,
freed by privilege to take his stick and coat, and walk it through,
big enough to knock the age of its foundations, deep
enough to keep us thinking hard for a couple of centuries.
– Anne French
This delightful poem is from French’s collection Wild (Auckland University Press, 2004; get it direct or from your local indie. They’ll order it if they don’t have it on the shelf) and it’s also one of the first books of poetry I ever owned, other than the usual illustrated Poetry for Kids books with “Tyger, Tyger” and “Ozymandias” and “The Fairies” in it. Oh, and one volume which was published by Usborne, mostly nursery rhymes, I think, but I chiefly remember it for the illustrations to Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody”. The pictures featured a green frog, which I suppose is the only thing in that poem to illustrate. At any rate, in my seventh form year I started reading poetry seriously (ish), and I got this book for Christmas, I believe. I quite enjoyed it and I’ve kept returning to it as I grew up, which has been a fascinating experience, to see which poems have appealed to me at different stages.
This one (for those of you who missed it: Down House was Charles Darwin’s home) is one that I liked when I first read it, and still enjoy now. There isn’t that much good poetry about science, despite the fact that science truly merits it; this one is lovely. My favourite stanzas are probably the second and the last. There’s something so human about “He hadn’t meant to see what he’d seen,/the finches …” I like it very much. It’s also a lovely expat poem and reminds me of my friends Lucy and Mike and Liz, who are overseas right now (the USA, in fact, rather than England); I think they’d appreciate it.
And that’s all the commentary you’re going to get today because this is already very late!