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.

Between Two Listeners: A Question of Addresser-Addressee Relationship in Epistolary Poetry

Epistolary poetry reconsiders the addresser-addressee dynamic. When the poet dedicates a poem to a specific person, does that constitute a breach of privacy? The poem is meant for public consumption, so a transgression of personal space could not possibly take place in poetic format. I think privacy can be breached in poetic correspondence, just as it is breached in reading private letters; however, like the letters of the early modern English court, epistolary poems, and other poems, are meant to be seen beyond the recipient.

Frank O’Hara’s manifesto “Personism” relates to the epistolary quality of poetry that Bishop and Lowell write.  O’Hara refers to the poem (in a cheeky fashion) as a “Lucky Pierre” situated between the writer and the reader. The poem, especially the epistolary kind, is then an entrance into the privacy of others. O’Hara points out the simplicity of writing a poem in this style: “Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears)” (633).When he first realized the concept, he also realized that “if [he] wanted to [he] could use the telephone instead of writing a poem” (634). The poem, like the letter, has a gap between writing and reading––and responding–– that allows the poem to be its own entity, existing between the writer and reader. The epistolary poems of Bishop and Lowell function in a similar fashion to O’Hara’s personism.

While “The Armadillo” and “Skunk Hour” show a direct intercourse between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop (because both are addressed in the beginning), the two poems also allow for interpretation of the connections between the two poets or poems. Each poem has reached a level of poetry, like Lucky Pierre, where they exist on their own between two readers. Two of those readers are of course, Lowell and Bishop, but they are also the reader and the poet abstract. The poem, or letter, becomes a space on which ideas exist between times, standing alone without added context.

The epistolary poem is the re-envisioned court letter. It exists as a form of correspondence to the individual but also functions as an address to the crowd. It allows for the private understanding of a few, and broader interpretations of others. From Horace’s epistolary revolution to O’Hara’s personism the question of addresser-addressee reaches a level of synergy where the letter-poem has now become the poem-letter.


O’Hara, Frank. “Personism: A Manifesto.” Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. Ed. Paul Hoover. New York W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1994. 633-4. Print.

Essay: A Response

John Barth’s use of the epistolary form in Letters: A Novel certainly veers away from the form used by Samuel Richardson and Aphra Behn. Of course, the novel also owes its form to these early writers. Barth does honor Richardson with Lady Amherst’s labeling the author as Mr. B, the aggressor for Pamela’s virtue in Richardson’s novel; however, even this nod to the past has a reversal of roles with the aged woman attempting to circumvent the author’s laurels for her own benefit. The opening chapter is also Barth’s way of mocking the posturing he sees in academia, with its honorary degrees and political battles for power. Regardless of the motives behind his resurrection of epistolary narratives, Barth manages to honor the form’s origins throughout.

Unlike Aphra Behn’s Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister, in which the author uses the romanticized love letter, Barth uses the business cover letter to bring forth a story. The plot that Germaine unfolds to the author is full of the intrigue that Love Letters portrayed (and perhaps less dry too) with political power plays for University, and (local) congressional authority. The invitation, however, is perjured. It is an honest perjury since the writer admits her motives, but it is a perjury nonetheless because without the addendum of a postscript it was deceitful to offer the degree.  By openly admitting the deception involved, it harkens back to stories like Behn’s, with Philander’s extramarital practices, the opening letter to Barth’s work admits the lack of felicity in letter writing.

Barth also hides references to Pamela, throughout the opening letter in the form of expectant puns. Aside from the obvious Mr. B moniker, Lady Amherst “must trust not to miscarry” (5) weaves a “tail like the spermatozoon’s far outmeasures its body” (11) and she “conceived [her] vow…to speak its own miscarriage” (4). The number of pregnancy references must relate in some way to Richardson’s Pamela, who frets over the dangers of birth in her own letters. The author then takes Germaine for his own creation, as Lady A, perhaps a 20th century Mr. B?

Barth not only honors and revives the epistolary novel, he also reminds the reader about its shortcomings. Barth makes the reader wait for 50 pages before he shows return correspondence to Germaine’s invitation. He reveals the extra level of perjury in his letter to the reader that epistolary novels will not necessarily have been written when they claim to be. Above all, Barth reminds that “every letter has two times, that of its writing and that of its reading, which may be so separated, even when the post office does its job, that very little of what obtained when the writer wrote will still when the reader reads” (44). Jack Spicer claims that “Time does not finish a poem” (162), so perhaps the question to end on is: Does time finish a letter?


Barth, John. Letters: A Novel. New York: Putnam: 1979. Print.

Spicer, Jack. “Imaginary Elegies I-IV.” The New American Poetry. Ed. Donald M. Allen. New York: Random House, 1960. 144-7. Print.

“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.