Poet and conservationist Ruth Padel gives the Jane Harrison Memorial Lecture

In the 2021 Jane Harrison Memorial Lecture, poet and conservationist Ruth Padel challenged us to reimagine the ways we think about our own humanity, and our relationship with nature.

In a talk rich with metaphor, she explored the history of philosophy and science – from ancient Greece and India to Darwin and Freud – repeatedly placing apparently disparate ideas together and drawing out the parallels.

Ruth Padel is Professor of Poetry at UCL, and is the author of twelve acclaimed poetry collections, most recently Beethoven Variations, a stunning biography of Beethoven in verse. A great-great-grandaughter of Charles Darwin, she grew up in a family that loved and respected nature. In her eco-travel book, Tigers in Red Weather, she explored conservation today and Darwin’s legacy, a theme which became her verse biography of Darwin. She is a Life Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, and has served as one of its Trustees. Prof Padel, however, is a classicist by training, taught by E. R. Dodds, and has written two works on madness and mind in Greek Tragedy. She explained that the Memorial Lecture had been a wonderful opportunity for her to return to some of her youthful work, and to weave it together with her current concerns and approaches.

In this lecture, as she does in her verse writing, Prof Padel offered the listener a series of complex, slanting perspectives, through which to view previously familiar ideas. Her particular theme were the late Victorian discoveries in physiology, archaeology, psychology and biology made at the time Jane Harrison was writing, which she contrasted with ancient understandings of the world.

The lecture was given via Zoom, which allowed a diverse audience to attend, with listeners from around the world. A lively chat on Twitter followed, with attendees discussing the talk and how the ideas could be further explored. Writer Ranjit Hoskote praised “the back-and-forth in time and domain; the compelling poetics of your history-of-ideas approach; the way you developed a vision of the temenos that linked the world of myth and rite with the urgency of ecological activism” – an excellent summing-up of the talk.

Many thanks to Ruth Padel for a lecture that will leave us all reflecting on and discussing her ideas.

It can be watched again online: The Jane Harrison Memorial Lecture 2021:

The Jane Harrison Memorial Lecture has been hosted by Newnham since 1928. It was created to honour the memory of Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928) who studied and lectured in Classics at the college, and was renowned for her public lectures on Greek art and for her unconventional and outspoken views. She wrote on a variety of subjects, from the Russian language and literature to women’s suffrage and herself.