I’ll define biographical criticism as a critical approach that uses the events of an author’s life to explain meaning in the author’s work. Examples are ubiquitous and familiar: Samuel Clemens piloted a riverboat in the Antebellum Era, John Steinbeck researched migrant workers and families in California before publishing Grapes of Wrath, and Joseph Conrad captained a steamboat in the Congo. Chaucer’s grandmother, according to my AP English teacher, served as his inspiration for the Wife of Bath. Even as early as my 7th grade English class, I learned that Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet who died around the time the Bard wrote Hamlet.
According to Benson, a biographical approach considers a work’s first-order context – the author’s life – and recognizes literary study as being an art not a science (110). He places it at odds with New Criticism, so a work takes on a different meaning when viewed through the lens of an author’s life.
Let’s attempt a biographical critique of Frost’s “Home Burial.” We read it in class and know already that Frost and his wife Elinor, just like the poem’s couple, lost their first-born son soon after his birth. Because the poem is long, I suggest a new tab for this link to follow along at home.
Imagine the author of "Stopping by Woods..." threatening his sister from this porch
Frost’s poems are often in first person, so it seems ironic that this poem is written not only in dialogue but also in third-person. A way of pushing away a poem that Frost called “sad” and never read aloud in public (Thompson 598)? Perhaps, but Thompson gives several more details about the poem’s background. Frost admitted the emotional parallels between him and his wife after their child’s death and Amy’s and her husband’s after theirs. Amy’s declamation that “the world’s evil” in Line 110 is a verbatim quote from Elinor Frost following her own child’s death.
The true subject of the poem – from a biographical perspective – is the death of Frost’s nephew, child of his sister-in-law Leona White Harvey, in 1895. It was her relationship with her husband that inspired the poem. Thompson implies yet another connection to Frost’s life, this time to his childhood in San Francisco. In the index under “Home Burial,” he lists page 10. While no reference to the poem exists on that page, it does describe how Frost’s mother would at times leave the house when his and flee to a neighbor’s when his father was drunk. If I may posit my own connection, a fight with his sister Jeannie (Thompson 340) in which he used a loaded pistol to force her back into the house may have inspired the force alluded to at the poem’s closing. Also, the poem was written in England at a time when Frost was homesick.
Those life events are the personal context for “Home Burial.” Rather than adding meaning to the poem, whose text remains unchanged, these revelations about Frost’s life and the poem’s possible inspirations change the interpretation of Frost’s life. Biographical criticism may explain the personal context of the poem, but it does not explain the poem’s meaning, its significance.
Rather, as we discussed today in class, it limits the interpretations. Because we know Frost’s and Harvey’s firstborn children died, we assume also that Amy and her husband lost their firstborn. No mention is made of other children, but they might be there (lack of evidence is not evidence of absence). The attendant implications for Amy and her husband’s relationship are enormous; “Newlyweds” weathering a crisis from their first child’s death is more tragic and dangerous than parents struggling with the death of their third.
I argue biographical criticism casts the choices inherent in writing as clues to the author’s personality – not the poem’s meaning. In this way, Frost’s oeuvre is the leading witness in finding meaning in Frost. We can see him taking different strategies when dealing with an emotional Elinor, progressing from belittling, to consolation, to denunciation, to confrontation. In this way biographical criticism creates an interpretation of the author, as Foucault suggests, and can reveal much about the times and culture of when the work was written.
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Literary theory has become the hegemonic methodology for the study of text and is often regarded both as a sub-discipline in itself and as a critical tool through which to liberate deeper and more complex meanings from texts. It encompasses a massive range of topics, including periods, movements, themes and works that make it a dynamic field of study. It is constantly evolving as writers from different areas make connections with what might be termed mainstream literary theory and these writers, in turn, become part of the theoretical enterprise. While this presents problems for the classifier and the bibliographer, it is an example of the dynamic and constantly-developing aspects of the field that have made it such an indispensable tool in the area of reading texts, be these texts written, iconic or socio-cultural. As such, this area invites trans-disciplinary collaboration with fields as varied as literature, history, cultural studies, and philosophy making it challenging for students and scholars to stay informed about every applicable area. Given that literary theory draws from other disciplines such as linguistics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, sociology, the social sciences and work from non-Anglophone cultures and traditions, the very scope which makes it a necessary tool for contemporary academics and intellectuals can be off-putting in terms of locating a starting point for any specific inquiry. Oxford Bibliographies in Literary and Critical Theory will offer clearly-signposted pathways through the different areas, and will make clear references to the other disciplines which feed in to, and are often transformed by, literary theory.
Editor in Chief
Eugene O’Brien is Senior lecturer and Head of the Department of English Language and Literature in Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Ireland. He is also the director of the Mary Immaculate Institute for Irish Studies. His publications include: Seamus Heaney – Creating Irelands of the Mind; Seamus Heaney and the Place of Writing; Seamus Heaney: Searches for Answers and Kicking Bishop Brennan up the Arse – Negotiating Texts and Contexts in Contemporary Irish Studies. His latest book, From Prosperity to Austerity: A Socio-Cultural Critique of the Celtic Tiger and its Aftermath, co-edited with Eamon Maher, was published in 2014 by Manchester University Press, and his forthcoming book on Seamus Heaney as an aesthetic thinker will be published by Syracuse University Press. He is currently working on an edited book on the Later Poetry of Seamus Heaney with Notre Dame University Press.
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