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Life & Works

Tuesday 19 June 2018

What can we learn about works of literature by studying the author’s life? This issue has been raised for me by a discussion of a student’s proposed Extended Essay, dealing with the relation between Sylvia Plath’s journals and the collection of poems ‘Ariel’ (see exchange of message with Catherine Cobb in Comments to the page ‘Extended Essay’).

Over the years, I have dealt with many students who have been interested in relating an author’s life and works. The problem is that I have always been sceptical about such an approach. The assumption seems to be that if you read up the facts of an author’s life, these will then ‘explain’ what the author ‘meant’ in any given work. But do the available facts really explain the works? To start with, what we know about an author’s life is fragmentary – we might know that she had lunch with those three people on that day ... but what about the other twenty two hours of that day? Or, why should we assume that the characters in a novel are based exclusively on the friends of the author and not on chance acquaintances about whom nothing is recorded?

If we accept that the facts of a writer’s life may tell us something about the raw material which has gone into the works, this does not necessarily tell us anything about the author’s treatment of those raw facts. To illustrate, if we could prove that the poet visited a certain butcher’s shop on the day that he wrote the poem ‘The Butcher’, what does that actually explain ... especially when we discover that the poet went to that shop twice a week for years beforehand? What made the poet, on that particular day, decide to use the butcher’s shop ... and in what particular way ... for what particular purpose? The answers to such questions are probably unavailable, because unrecorded for biography – and the only indisputable source we have is the work itself, what the words on the page actually say.

If we can only truly rely on words on the page, perhaps we can trust the biographical evidence of what an author had read before or at the moment of composition. A classic example of this is John Livingstone Lowes’ ‘Road to Xanadu’, a study of Coleridge which demonstrates in great detail how phrases and images in ‘Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ can be convincingly related to Coleridge’s extensive background reading of contemporary travel books. The logic here is that the worlds of these two poems are imagined – Coleridge had never seen an iceberg or a geothermal fountain, and so he had to rely on descriptions by people who had real life experience of such things. The two poems are collages (like all literature, arguably), so we can identify the sources of the ingredients... but that doesn’t really help us to explain why Coleridge wanted a fountain in the first place, or what he wanted to express by it.

Finally, taking us back to the example at the start, we may consider the biographical evidence of the author’s own reflective writing – diaries, journals, working notes. These may tell exactly what an author chose to select, and why ... or not, because it is evident that a large part of the creative process is unconscious, so what an author thought she was doing may be incomplete, or plain wrong. The most convincing linkage between journals and works may lie in comparing phrasing in the (everyday) journals with phrasing in the (developed, polished) final work – the fact that one word is chosen instead of another may well indicate deliberate purpose and meaning.

Of course, all of this discussion takes us right into the Conceptual Understandings of the new Subject Guide – and in particular, Context, Message and Purpose. Significantly, the only one of these where biography is of real use is Context – i.e. the context in which the work was written. This boils down to the context of experiences (the butcher’s shop) and the context of sources (background reading) - although we might also add the context of Audience: who the author thought she was writing for ... and perhaps the context of medium (e.g. publication in serials in the 19thC novel). As to Message and Purpose: in both of these cases, the text itself, what is on the page, is primary – in the end, it doesn’t matter what the author thought should be there, it is what is there that matters.

Given the highly debateable nature of biographical knowledge in explaining literary works, why are students so interested in the area? My guess would be that it is to do with the attractive enigma of creativity – how is it that the ordinary everyday world can be transformed into visions of beauty and meaning and value? Fair enough... but explaining magic is not that easy!


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