Sir Edmund Gosse as a critical biographer
Allen, Margaret Jane
The term 'critical biography' demands definition. For the purpose or this thesis the term does not mean a critical estimate of the subject of the biography. It rather implies the bringing together of two different worlds into one work--the world of literature and the world of life. The biographer is 'critical' in that he deals not only with what Gosse calls "the faithful portrait of a soul in its adventures through life", but also with "the imaginative attempt on the part or man to structure his total experience"1 which is literature--at its best more real than life, yet also inferior to life: "no matter how complex the vision which it offers, it can never be as complex as life itself. "2 The critical biographer, dealing with a literary figure, is both artist and critic. He is an artist in the selecting and shaping of his biographical material, and he is a critic in the perceptive discussion of his subject's works. The temptation of the critical biographer, of course, is to illuminate the works by the light of the life, and to fill in gaps in the life by 'internal evidence' in the works. This union of life and works is a delicate and sometimes a dangerous business; the biographer could read into works material from life that is either unnecessary or distorting, and could take for real life experience that which was originally an imaginative concept. This thesis will examine in part whether Gosse was tempted into these errors. Creative, imaginative literature is regarded by many modern critics as belonging to a world of its own-the world of modes, genres, myths, symbols and archetypes. 'Peripheral explanation' is unnecessary for a true work of literature, which should be complete in itself. Northrop Frye, in The Anatomy of Criticism, says, "We think of literature at first as a commentary on an external 'life' or 'reality'. But . . . we have to go from literature as reflection of life to literature as autonomous language . . . --pure literature, like pure mathematics, contains its own meaning. "3 So the ideal critical biographer today should be able to give a perceptive analysis of the work of art as "pure literature" as well as a "commentary on an external 'life'". Although the critical biographies of Gosse would be less than satisfactory to critics of the "pure" and "autonomous" school of literature, they will be studied here mainly within Gosse's tradition. This thesis will examine the nature and scope of Gosse's contributions to critical biography, as seen especially in his studies of Gray, Congreve, Donne, Taylor, Patmore, Ibsen and Swinburne. Note that numbers refer to bibliography.