“Lower Kinds of Poetry”: An Attempt at Defining Life Writing

Ricks’s apologia for Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë considers the same questions raised in critiques of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. How do we determine the goodness of Gaskell’s work? If we are to trust Johnson’s test for felicity that “[w]e cannot trust to the characters we find in history, unless when they are drawn by those who knew the persons” (qtd. in Boswell 408-09) then Gaskell’s relationship with Brontë is enough to inspire reliability; if we are to believe Ricks’s argument, Gaskell surpasses Johnson’s assertion that the biographer need only “as much [imagination] as is used in the lower kinds of poetry” (qtd. in Boswell 301).

Ricks’s claim that “there are in biography no requisites as prime as affection, generosity, sympathy, and imagination” (131), challenges Johnson’s simplification of biography quoted above. If Ricks is to be believed, then the techniques of higher poets are needed to bring out the qualities of the biographers subject. I have little trouble agreeing with him since few readers dream of reading a history text when purchasing a biography. I imagine Boswell also disagreed with his mentor considering his imaginative use of Johnson’s childhood and the care and sympathy he shows throughout the work. Ricks claims that Gaskell’s “language is alive to the principled ‘manipulation’ of the multiple stationings in time” (130) and these excerpts illustrate the lack of displacement that a modern reader normally feels in reading 19th century writings. Combined with a strong transference of the emotion behind the writer in phrases like “[i]n after-life, I was painfully impressed with the fact, that Miss Brontë never dared to allow herself to look forward with hope” (qtd. in Ricks 133), Ricks claim that Gaskell’s writing was “aspiring to future readerships, eyes yet unborn” (130) gains standing.

The value of a biographic work is difficult to ascertain in both Johnson’s and Ricks’s terms. It would seem that the quality of a piece is equally bound to libel considering Ricks’s assertion that the third edition of Gaskell’s work was the best once “excluding all the throbbing melodrama and, thereby leaving the true drama of Charlotte Brontë and her family free to be felt” (143). In this way, it seems that the closeness that Boswell attributes to Johnson and the affection and generosity that Ricks believes in are both detriments to a completed biography considering the earlier editions of Gaskell’s work. With the help of editing, in modern publishing or lawsuits, a complete work can be given to honor the life of another.

Johnson is right giving credence to the personal experiences of the biographer, which the cases of Gaskell and Boswell exemplify. And, I believe the imaginative and emotional language that Ricks champions in his essay help to give a modern reader the personal knowledge of Brontë that Gaskell had. However, I would caution, as Johnson has (and as Ricks hinted), that the felicity of a personal acquaintance cannot always be trusted fully. As Ricks aptly states, “it is not useful to a biography to publish untruths, or to publish that, even if true, does not ring true” (142).

Works Cited

Boswell, James. Life of Johnson Unabridged. Ed. R.W. Chapman. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press,  1970. Print.

Ricks, Christopher. “E.C. Gaskell’s Charlotte Brontë.” Essays in Appreciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 118-45. Print.

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One thought on ““Lower Kinds of Poetry”: An Attempt at Defining Life Writing

  1. Hi Bartley, I like this grappling; who has the authority to write about a life? What makes one biography truer and stronger than another? And indeed… are complete, dry facts really what we want when we open a book about a person’s time here? As you wrote: “… since few readers dream of reading a history text when purchasing a biography.” I agree. And all of these questions are applicable when we discuss biography, and it was interesting to explore them with Gaskell, Ricks, Johnson, and Boswell as you did; I hadn’t even detected their allusions regarding the way one ought to approach life-writing in my first read-through of the texts. As Johnson wrote, the biographer only needs “as much [imagination] as is used in the lower kinds of poetry” — fascinating. Snippets like this that you’ve highlighted make me take a step back. I wonder why Johnson ties lower forms of poetry to the process of biography writing; does he simply not assign much weight to this type of work?
    This also makes me think about the other experiences of life-writing that we’ve encountered, and the formula other authors have seemed to follow. In A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton writes about her own life and even this — pulled straight from the text’s protagonist, the life star, herself — is slanted in some sense; Wharton doesn’t delve at all into her affair with Morton Fullerton, for example. There are truths covered, or simply excluded. But then, as you wrote, the “felicity of a personal acquaintance cannot always be trusted fully,” as we consider biographies written by those who knew the subject in life. I agree, then, that a strong biography is one that balances, carefully tuned; built with personal experience and firsthand knowledge of the subject, imaginative and emotional language, and an underlying, continuous attempt at truth.

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