“The life of a poet affords but few materials for a narrative”: Paratextual Life Writing in Eighteenth-Century Poetry Books
It “has been lamented by biographers, and echoed by their readers, that the life of a poet affords but few materials for a narrative” writes Percival Stockdale in “The Life of Edmund Waller”, prefixed to The Works of Edmund Waller, Esq. in Verse and Prose in 1772. Nevertheless, it was a common practice to include the “life” of a poet in the paratext of books published in the eighteenth century, long before Johnson’s popular Prefaces Biographical and Critical to the Works of the English Poets (1779-81) were published. Information on the life of the poet was, however, also provided by other parts of the paratext, such as the title page, portraits of the author on the frontispiece, letters to the reader, as well as by commendatory poems. This paper proposes to read the paratext of eighteenth-century poetry books as a form of multi-generic, multi-perspective, and multi-modal form of life writing and argues that paratextual life writing needs to be considered as a separate form of life writing rather than as a deficient form of ‘true’ biography.
The connections between a poet’s life and his or her work established by paratextual life writing serve commercial as well as interpretive functions. By focusing on intra– and interparatextual relationships in a selection of eighteenth–century poetry books, this paper will show how paratextual life writing, within the commercially framed context of a poet’s print–published book, is in constant dialogue with earlier re/constructions of the poet’s life. It will yield insights into assumptions about eighteenth–century life writing and explore how the various contributors to the paratext position themselves as eligible life writers.
Sarah Herbe is assistant professor at the Department of English and American Studies, University of Salzburg, Austria. In her post–doc project she examines paratextual life writing in 17th and 18th-century poetry books. Recent publications include articles on seventeenth-century poets William Cartwright and Thomas Beedome and on Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture, the monograph Characters in New British Hard Science Fiction (Winter, 2012), and the edited volume Life Course Models in Literary Genres (Winter, 2011).