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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Giving the Dead Their Living Voices: On Writing Biography

Biographers face a daunting task when they seek to capture the essence of someone else’s life within the pages of a book. But when the subject is an artist, and especially a poet, the challenge rises to a new level. How to convey the meaning of poetry in prose? How to balance historical documentation with literary license? On November 19 distinguished poet and biographer Paul Mariani, University Professor of English at Boston College, joined us to discuss these and other questions in a presentation entitled “Giving the Dead Their Living Voices: On Writing Biography.” His talk corresponded with the publication by Viking Press of his fifth major biography of a poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life.

While Hopkins, a convert to Catholicism and later a Jesuit priest, never published his work during his lifetime (1844 - 1889), he came to be recognized in the twentieth century as one of the greatest poets of Victorian England. Professor Mariani said he was attracted to Hopkins in part because of his proto-modern poetic achievements, which broke new ground in form and language, but also because of the rich complexity of his inner life. For example, Hopkins was a sensualist who loved nature but nevertheless felt compelled to live a strict ascetic life. 

Mariani described the process of inhabiting a biographical subject’s life and work for five or even ten years. You can only begin to write, he said, when you understand your subject so deeply that you almost feel his blood pulsing and predict the pauses of his breath when reading his poetry. This sort of understanding requires access to the poet’s diaries and correspondence, something that can never be taken for granted. Some families and estates, Mariani recounted, are highly protective of private papers, while others are eager to have an outside voice interpret the material they have. In any event, the successful poetic biographer must love his subject—and be inspired by him. Without that emotional commitment, Mariani argued, the biographer cannot give the dead their living voice.