Livres et lettres…

It is good to begin with a mistake, or rather with an acknowledgement that I am not very clever. A friend of mine pointed out to me that Geoffrey Hill would have called this site Livres and Letters (not that he would make the time to blog). In my case, with fewer consequences, I can see how “The dead keep their sealed lives / And again I am too late” (“Tristia: 1891-1938”)*. This could have solved any confusion & overlap with the University of London’s Centre for Lives & Letters. Alas. Next time, if I’m not too late again.

At any rate, livres and lettres is almost too close, nearly a decent anagram of lives and letters. The closeness of the French to the English shows a tension that life-writers often encounter––namely, that the life is of little use for understanding the work, or if it is of some use, then we often feel like spies into a life we’ll never understand. On the other hand, the insistence of the New Critics is now mere dogmatism, as Empson convincingly argued in Using Biography (1984). At least I keep my weakness of understanding in mind, recalling Auden’s line about the blindness of love and biography in “Who’s Who“: “A schilling life will give you all the facts.”

*Selected Poems (Yale University Press, 2009), 43.


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