Life’s Worth: The Question of Deserved Biography

               In Christopher Ricks’ “Tennyson’s Tennyson,” Tennyson claims that “The worth of a biography depends on whether it is done by one who wholly loves the man whose life he writes, yet loves him with a discriminating love” (qtd. in Ricks 172). The “discriminating love” helps to answer the question raised by Samuel Johnson: what makes a good biography.  Ricks’ piece extends the question to: who deserves to read a good biography. Tennyson’s idea adds another layer to the questions posed in the study of lives and letters: in addition to asking why read biographies and letters and what makes a good biography, the question of who deserves to read the letters and biographies of a person.

           Tennyson, in reference to Byron, attacks the notion that all secrets are eventually known by saying that what is known is only the public figure, not the actual person (Ricks 172). The people who care only for the gossip of a notable person without knowing beforehand that person’s oeuvre is the type of person that Tennyson finds “profane” and what Ricks would call a “trifling truffle-snuffler” (172). So what purity test can be administered to both readers and writers when it comes to life writing? Must the reader and the writer alike be the type that Tennyson calls for in his quote on biography? Considering Tennyson’s desire to keep his work private (187), I think that perhaps the poet would have preferred Charles Olson’s supposed statements about the closing of Black Mountain College: “Why shouldn’t things stop when they’re over?”

          However, the public will do what they can to learn of the lives of those they admire. It’s possible that Tennyson’s distrust for the undeserving reader (and writer) relates to his son’s inference through Milton that it is impossible to become familiar with a man through a collection of his memories (191). Maybe it is better to consider, as Ricks does, the lives and letters of a man as his offspring: not an exact replica of the person but “formers as well as formees” (191, 204). If the lives and letters of a person are offspring then there is no barrier on who can read about their life, because, as children carry forward the DNA of parents, lives and letters will carry forward a legacy.


Ricks, Christopher. “Tennyson’s Tennyson.” Essays in Appreciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 172-205. Print.


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