Monday, 7 January 2013

Letters, Journals and Biographies in Literature

by Fay Davies

An introduction to one edition of Keats' poems contains the following lines: ‘fully to understand him we must read his poetry with the commentary of his letters which reveal in his character elements of humour […] So doing we shall enter into [his] mind and heart’. I find it very hard to accept the writer’s implication that this is fundamentally necessary, but there is no doubt that it is a justifiable activity. The letters of any poet, along with any journal entries and other fragments of personal discourse, might seem invaluable if we want to truly gain insight into the meaning of a text. At the same time, we are still perfectly capable of understanding and appreciating a work if we ignore them. So exactly how important are these literary satellites, and in what ways can we use them?
To answer this we should probably first ask ourselves what it even means to do a ‘reading’ of a poem or a novel. Some possible definitions could be to look through a certain lens, to resolve or at least recognise ambiguities, and to find parallels, connections and themes within a work in order to give it some kind of coherence. Obviously this presents an inescapable subjectivity, and also a plurality of meaning: it is possible to look through numerous different ‘lenses’ and for none of them to be ‘wrong’. A text is what we make of it. Each reader brings something of themselves to it– their own thoughts, life, experience and knowledge. Importantly, then, this ‘knowledge’ can be knowledge about the author of the work they are reading. To put it concisely: I would argue that one can choose to take biographical elements into account in order to further a particular reading of a text. As they are written by the same author, letters and journal entries share the same environment, context, and therefore seem relevant to the text.
It would be useful to have some examples of where this has been put into practice. Tom Paulin’s reading of Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ draws heavily on factors external to the poem itself, for example a letter to his brother in which he details the ‘great changes’ that have been in progress. Speaking of the French Revolution, he mentions the ‘seed of opposition to this Tyranny – and it was swelling in the ground till it burst out…’ . Paulin sees clear similarities to these lines from the first stanza of ‘To Autumn’: ‘And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; /To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells’. The sense of imminence, of over-ripeness bordering on change, therefore has political significance. It is not just the inevitable change of the season: it is revolution. For Paulin, Keats’s letter operates to add more credibility to this reading. He emphasises the resemblance of the imagery in the poem and the letter, and even claims a connection between ‘swell the gourd’ and ‘swelling in the ground’. Biographical elements are relied upon as well as Keats’s writings. Paulin references Keats’s attendance of mass demonstrations to add another layer of meaning to the word ‘o’erbrimm’d’; he alludes to the illness of Keats’s brother in the word ‘clammy’. The purpose of an essay is, largely, to persuade the reader to one’s viewpoint. In English Literature, I do not know what gives a reading credibility apart from the concurrence or appreciation of others. Therefore, we might say that Paulin strengthens what is essentially a political reading of ‘To Autumn’ by referring to biographical facts and extracts, providing more evidence to the reader thus improving his chances of acceptance.
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is widely agreed to be a semi-autobiographical novel, and it wasn’t until I read Anne Stevenson’s biography of Plath that I realised the extent of its similarity to her life. However, Professor of English at Queen Mary, University of London Jacqueline Rose would be quick to point out the ‘transformative potential of her art’. Indeed, although the events of The Bell Jar may have been inspired by Plath’s own life, one should not confused cause and meaning. Plath’s experiences have become words on a page, and they have the potential to relate, connect, allude and convey more than they did before. As Rose writes, ‘the lived life was the point of departure rather than, as it is for the biographer, the place at which there is a desperate need to arrive’. There is also a further question here. Stevenson builds a great part of the biography from Plath’s abundant letters and journal entries, which are taken as evidence of her character. We feel like we know Plath. Yet I would argue that these texts, too, are fictions. A self is projected onto the paper, a specific audience is in mind (even if it is merely the writer herself) and the imagination is at work. What is more, they are as open to interpretation as any story or poem. Maybe, for any author, fragments such as these are no more ‘real’ than their published work.
By taking the personal writings of authors into account are we doing the same thing as simply  looking at the ‘context’ of a work? Perhaps not. Context seems more universal; it can be historical, it can be political, it can be cultural, and it can be related to other works of literature and the way they interconnect. By focusing specifically on letters, journals, articles and any other writings of the author of the text we are analysing, we are restricting ourselves to one viewpoint – and, it could even be argued, putting too much emphasis on the agency or origin of the work. However, I prefer to see it differently. As mentioned above, these writings might as well be fictions in themselves – they are perhaps no less worthy of being called ‘literature’ than conventional novels or poems are. We often compare various works by the same author in order to draw conclusions and open up meanings – why shouldn’t we treat their letters, for instance, in the same way? As long as these elements are not relied upon as the final, exclusive ‘answers’ to the novel or poem being analysed, there is no reason to deem them irrelevant or misleading. They are simply other ways to open up meaning in a text; meaning that may not have been otherwise discerned.

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