Ruth Padel

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Ruth Sophia Padel
Ruth in Etz Hayyim B.jpg
Born (1946-05-08) 8 May 1946 (age 70)
Wimpole Street, London
Nationality British
Occupation Poet, author

Ruth Sophia Padel FRSL FZS (/pəˈdɛl/ pə-DEL) (born 8 May 1946) is a British poet, novelist and non-fiction author known for her poetry criticism, nature writing, and connections with music, science, Greece and conservation.[1][2][3][4][5] She is Trustee for conservation charity New Networks for Nature,[6] has served on the Board of the Zoological Society of London,[7][8] broadcasts for Radio 3 and 4 on poetry, wildlife and music,[9][10] and teaches Creative Writing at King's College London.[11]


Padel is daughter of psychoanalyst John Hunter Padel and Hilda Barlow, daughter of Sir Alan Barlow 2nd Baronet and of Nora Barlow née Darwin, granddaughter of Charles Darwin, through whom Padel is Darwin's great-great-grandchild.[12] Her brother is historian Oliver Padel; cousins include prison reformer Una Padel, sculptor Phyllida Barlow and biographer Randal Keynes; her uncle is Horace Barlow. Padel was born in Wimpole Street where her great-grandfather Sir Thomas Barlow[13] practised medicine.[14][15][16][17][18] She attended North London Collegiate School, studied classics at Lady Margaret Hall Oxford where she sang in Schola Cantorum of Oxford,[19][20][21] wrote a PhD on Greek poetry, and was first Bowra Research Fellow at Wadham College Oxford which altered its Statutes for her to accommodate female Fellows[22] She was thus among the first women to become Fellows of formerly all-male Oxford colleges. She taught Greek at Oxford and Birkbeck, University of London,[14] taught opera in the Modern Greek Department at Princeton University, has lived in Greece, and in Paris where she sang in the Choir of Église Saint-Eustache, Paris.[23] Her publishing career began in 1985, while she was teaching Greek at Birkbeck College, with a poetry pamphlet. Later she left academe to support herself by reviewing and to publish her first collection in 1990.[24][25] From 1984 to 2000 she was married to philosopher Myles Burnyeat.[26]



  • Alibi 1985
  • Summer Snow 1990
  • Angel 1993
  • Fusewire 1996
  • Rembrandt Would Have Loved You 1998
  • Voodoo Shop 2002
  • Soho Leopard 2004
  • Darwin - A Life in Poems 2009
  • The Mara Crossing 2012
  • Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth 2014
  • Tidings - A Christmas Journey 2016


  • Where the Serpent Lives 2010


  • In and Out of the Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self 1992
  • Whom Gods Destroy: Elements of Greek and Tragic Madness 1995
  • I'm a Man: Sex, Gods and Rock 'n' Roll 2000
  • Tigers in Red Weather 2005

Criticism and Editing[edit]

  • 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem: How Reading Modern Poetry Can Change Your Life 2002
  • The Poem and the Journey 2006
  • Silent Letters of the Alphabet 2010
  • Walter Ralegh, Selected Poems 2010
  • Alfred Lord Tennyson (Folio Society, Introduction and Notes) 2007
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins (Folio Society, Introduction) 2011

Overview: Poetry, style, themes[edit]

Padel has published a pamphlet (1985) and ten collections. Four in the 1990s when she won the 1996 UK National Poetry Competition;[27] and six since 2002 including Darwin - A Life in Poems, shortlisted for the 2009 Costa Prize, Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth, shortlisted for the 2014 T S Eliot Prize, and Tidings - A Christmas Journey (2016). She is said to be a poet of delicate skill and an exquisite image-maker skilled in line and stanza. Her characteristics are said to be intense lyricism, rich imagery, range, resonance and sustained feats of imagination.[28] Themes include music, science, nature, painting, history, wildlife and human relations.[29][30] Stylistic hallmarks are said to be juxtaposition of the modern world with the ancient,[31] technical skill and musicality;[32] wit, passion, lyrical intelligence, internal and half-rhyme, enjambement and unusual energy within and against the line,[33][34][35][36][37] 'As if Wallace Stevens had hijacked Sylvia Plath with a dash of punk Sappho thrown in."[3][33][38] Quoted influences include Gerard Manley Hopkins and Greek choral lyric.[39]

Publishing History, Themes[edit]

From 1998 to 2004, Padel's collections appear to reflect themes of simultaneously written non-fiction: music (I’m a Man - Sex, Gods and Rock ‘n’ Roll); technical attention to the poetic line (52 Ways of Looking At A Poem, exemplified in poems such as 'Icicles Round a Tree in Dumfrieshire' her National Poetry Competition winner);[40] and wildlife (Tigers in Red Weather).[41] Subsequent collections Darwin - A Life in Poems and The Mara Crossing both include prose.[42] Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth is said to be a meditation on conflict and history, specifically the history and culture of the Abrahamic religions.[28] Tidings - A Christmas Journey is a single-book narrative poem exploring the meanings of Christmas today.

Middle East[edit]

Padel's 2014 collection Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth collects poems going back twelve years reflecting keen interest in the Middle East, from her prize-winning poem on Pieter Bruegel’s "The Triumph of Death",[43][44] the 2002 Siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem,[45] the title poem "Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth",[46] which she has stated came from hearing Le Trio Joubran;[47] in addition to a conversation with Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti,[48] and Introduction to the posthumous diary and poems of Mahmoud Darwish.[49]Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth is said to be steeped in the Middle East and in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: "Padel is a poetic Daniel Barenboim, determined to arrive at some approximation of Middle Eastern harmony."[50]


Padel's experimental poems and prose volume "The Mara Crossing" is said to revivify the prosimetrum, a mediaeval mix of poetry and prose,[51][52] It addresses animal and human migration.[53][54] [55] and is said to be a sweeping, experimental volume.[56] Migrants, cellular, animal or human, migrate to survive; human migration is inextricable from trade, invasion, colonization and empire.[55][57][58]"Home is where you start from, but where is a swallow's real home? And what does "native" mean if the English Oak is an immigrant from Spain?"[59] Padel supported the "Making It Home" project of the Refugee Survival Trust in Glasgow,[60] which used poetry-based film-making to build bridges between groups of women of refugees and local women in Edinburgh.

Darwin and Science[edit]

Engaged in relating poetry and science,[61][62][63][64] Padel has written on cell migration for The Scientist,[65] was a judge for the 2012 Wellcome Trust Science Book Prize [66] and the 2005 Aventis Science Prize for the Royal Society[67] has written poems on genetics and zoology,[68][69] and her book on migration is said to connect micro-level cell migration with macro-level social migration.[70][71] An interest in combining poetry, science and religion is reflected in poems on genetics,[72][73] debates on poetry and prayer with Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury[74][75][76][77] lectures at the Royal College of Surgeons and a residency at the Environment Institute, University College London.[10] Her poems on Charles Darwin employ Darwin's writings, letters and journals to address his life, family and science.[3][78][79] They were received as innovative work by scientists[80] and by the literary community as a "new species" of biography in verse,[34][81][82] whose emotional centre is the Darwins' marriage,[83] shaken by divergent religious belief and the death of a daughter.[34] The book's staging by the Mephisto Stage Company, Ireland, was described as intensifying the musicality of the verse and dramatic interplay between the scientific and the spiritual that permeates this collection.[84] Since Padel is a Darwin descendant, the book was also a family memoir.[85] Her preface illuminates the role of Padel’s grandmother, Nora Barlow, who in editing Darwin's Autobiography restored a passage in which Darwin said he did not see how anyone could wish the doctrine of hell to be true; this had been deleted by the first editor, Darwin's son Francis, at his mother's request. Padel's poems connected Darwin's loss of his mother as a child with his passion for collecting;[86] and linked his early scientific writing with his taxidermy teacher in Edinburgh John Edmonstone, a freed slave from Guiana.[87]


Since 2013 Padel has written and performed sequences of poems on composers in conjunction with the Endellion String Quartet: first on Josef Haydn's Seven Last Words,[88][89] which formed the central crucifixion section in her 2014 collection Learning to make an Oud in Nazareth;[90] subsequently on Beethoven's late quartets[91] and Schubert's Death and the Maiden.[92] She was first Writer in Residence at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden[9][10][93][94][95] and is said to be a lifelong choral singer; she has presented Radio 3's programme "The Choir",[96] has broadcast a series of BBC Radio 3 opera interval talks and has stated that if she could choose any other career it would be that of opera director.[97] She has written on women's voices in opera and on a sixteenth-century madrigal for the London Review of Books,[98][99][100] and in a Radio 3 essay series, Writers as Musicians, she spoke about playing viola,[101] an instrument whose "inner voice" illustrates her Newcastle Poetry Lectures Silent Letters of the Alphabet,.[102][103] For BBC Radio 4 she has written and presented features on writers, scientists and composers including Hans Christian Andersen,[14] Edward Elgar, Charles Darwin and W.S. Gilbert.[14] As guest on Desert Island Discs.,[15][104][105] chosen works included Beethoven String Quartet Opus 132, Verdi's Requiem, "Down by the Salley Gardens" sung by Kathleen Ferrier, "I’m Ready for You" sung by Muddy Waters, a Cretan folksong and "The Boys from Piraeus", from the film Never on Sunday.[106][107] Her luxury was a herd of deer.[108]


Scholarship and Greek Myth[edit]

Padel's non-fiction began with books for Princeton University Press on ancient Greek drama and the mind.[109][110][111] In and Out of the Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self explores the way Greek ideas of inwardness shaped European notions of the self.[110] She used anthropology and psychoanalysis to support her thesis that male Greek culture spoke of the mind as mainly "female" and receptive rather than "male" and active.[112] Whom Gods Destroy: Elements of Madness in Greek and Other Tragedy investigates madness in tragedy from the Greeks to Shakespeare and the moderns, parsing different views of madness in different societies.[112] She presented the tragic hero as embodiment of the human mind, 'which lives catastrophe, suffers damage and endures.'[112]

Her subsequent work I'm A Man: Sex, Gods and Rock 'n' Roll (2000) argued that rock music began as a ‘wishing well of masculinity,' which drew on mythic connections between male sexuality, aggression, anxiety, misogyny and violence which derived from Ancient Greece. Padel has stated that she intended this to focus on women's voices but then felt she ought first to pick apart the maleness of rock music.[113] The book had a mixed reception from male reviewers. Women reviewers described it as original, beautifully expressed, vivid, amusing and convincing;[114] Rock writers Charles Shaar Murray and Casper Llewellyn Smith described it as 'provocative and fascinating' and her analysis of rock's misogyny 'dazzling.'[113]

Nature: Wildlife and Conservation[edit]

Padel is known for her poetry and prose on conservation, especially of tigers,[115] served as Trustee for Zoological Society of London,[116] inaugurated an influential programme of ZSL Writers' Talks on Endangered Species to highlight the Zoological Society of London's conservation work.[117] and is an Ambassador for New Networks for Nature, an alliance of practitioners in different fields, artistic and scientific, who celebrate Britain's nature and wildlife.[118] Her account of wild tiger conservation,[113] drawing on her scientific background and Darwinian descent,[119] was valued internationally for quality of nature writing, insights on conservation, travel writing on little-known parts of the world such as Sumatra, Bhutan and Ussuriland, and ear for dialogue.[119][120][121][122] and portrait of both the tiger and the field-zoologist.[121]


Her novel Where the Serpent Lives, focussing on wildlife crime in India and the UK,[120][123][124][125] was noted for vivid nature writing, innovative use of science and an animal's eye viewpoint.[124][126][127][128] In India and UK, reviewers commented on the imaginative connections between nature, poetry and science.[129] "She has done for the forests of Karnataka and Bengal what Amitav Ghosh did for the Sundarbans in The Hungry Tide."[120][123][124][129][130][131]

Criticism and teaching[edit]

Padel teaches writing poetry at King's College London. From 1998 to 2001 she pioneered The Sunday Poem, a weekly column in London's Independent on Sunday in readings of contemporary poems she collected in her popular books 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem and The Poem and the Journey.[132] As Chair of the UK Poetry Society 2004-2007, she presided over the establishment of poetry 'Stanzas' across the UK.[14][133] In 2010 she chaired Judges for the Forward Poetry Prize,[134] in 2011 delivered the Housman Lecture at the Hay Festival on "The Name and Nature of Poetry."[135] and began Radio 4's Poetry Workshop: a series of programmes on writing poetry in which she leads workshops with poetry groups across the UK.[136][137][138][139][140] Her books on reading poetry and the column from which they grew influenced a decade of writing about poetry in the UK,[141] followed by her Newcastle University 'Bloodaxe' Lectures on poetry's use of silence, Silent Letters of the Alphabet.[142] Her criticism is reported to employ close analysis, knowledge of Greek poetics, myth, metaphor, tone and rhyme; she is said to read with aural acuity, generosity and no polemic; her precision "does not obscure but builds the big picture", addressing the general reader but with "utmost attention to the page".[39][143][144]

She has written introductions to the works of Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish, Mourid Barghouti and Ramsey Nasr, and British poets Walter Ralegh, Tennyson and Gerard Manley Hopkins.[145] At the opening festival of the T S Eliot Festival at Little Gidding in 2006, 70 years after Eliot's visit there, Padel described the contrast between Eliot's memories of Little Gidding and his experience of The Blitz whilst writing the poem. "It reminded him there was still a place that had a sense of truth."[146][147] She returned to this moment in her Foreword to the posthumous volume of Mahmoud Darwish, comparing his sense of the poet's role in a time of violence to that of Seamus Heaney in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and of Eliot during the London blitz.[148]

Awards, residences, appointments[edit]

Oxford Professor of Poetry[edit]

Padel is the first woman to be elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, elected on 297 votes in 2009. (Predecessors James Fenton and Christopher Ricks were elected on 228 and 214 votes; a new online system allows wider participation.)[20][177][178][179][180] Her election took place in a media storm: pages sent anonymously to Oxford academics from a university publication detailed sexual harassment charges at Boston and Harvard Universities against her rival Derek Walcott who then withdrew his candidacy.[181][181][182] Padel criticised the anonymous interventions, denied connection with them and said "I wish he had not pulled out" but the press alleged her involvement.[183][184][185][186][187] Padel resigned saying she did not want to do the job under suspicion.[20][186][188][189][190][191][192][193] An American commentator attributed public treatment of Padel to the assumption on the part of some of a gender war.[194][195] Some British commentators explained it by misogyny;[196] and the "toxicity of the metropolitan media, the poetry establishment, and the post-feminists of academe":[182] the story "had everything, from sex claims to allegations of character assassination,"[20] allowing the press "simultaneously to pursue allegations in Walcott's past and criticise Padel for having mentioned these allegations as a source of voters' disquiet".[181] Asked if she would encourage Walcott to stand again, Padel replied, "Yes, if he wants. I think he'd do good lectures."[197] Letters to British newspapers criticised media handling of the affair: both unfair pursuit of Walcott's past and unfair denigration of Padel, "justly held in high regard for her poetry and teaching." Oxford had "missed out for the worst of reasons on an inspirational teacher; Walcott removed the decision from the electorate by his own choice; Padel should not have been made to pay for his decision to confront neither his accusers nor his past."[198][199] On Newsnight Review,[200] poet Simon Armitage and poetry promoter Josephine Hart expressed regret about her resignation. "Ruth's a good person," Simon Armitage said. "I don't think she should have resigned, she would have been good."


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