Posted by: Rob Viens | July 8, 2012

Plankton and Poetry

July 8th – Upon hitting the waves Darwin promptly became seasick again and his diary remained silent for another day.  As we wait for Darwin to get his sea legs again, I thought I’d share a poem from Ruth Padel’s book Darwin – A Life in Poems.  Padel is Darwin’s great, great, granddaughter.  In 2009 she put together this book of poems, which actually set many of Darwin’s own words (from his diaries and letters) to verse.  This particular poem was written about the plankton Darwin dredged up shortly after recovering (at least somewhat) from seasickness on the first leg of the journey in the North Atlantic (see Science is Everywhere).  It seemed fitting as he returns to sea.
Darwin – A Life in Poems

Plankton by Ruth Padel

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

Polyps, plankton, jellyfish. 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
as a gun flash, over the blown heart of sapphire.
Peacock eyes, beaten and swollen,
tossing on lazuline steel.

Ruth Padel (from the Guardian):
Ruth Padel

Be sure to check out the book if you are interested in Darwin’s life in poetry. (RJV)


  1. Thank you for reminding me of her work. Somehow–though I began my blog only a couple of years after this was published, and the big anniversary–I hadn’t recalled it & gone back to see how gloriously her life was jammed with oddly complementary interests.

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