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This review is taken from PN Review 84, Volume 18 Number 4, March - April 1992.

Kathleen Jones, Learning not to be First: The Life of Christina Rossetti (The Windrush Press, Gloucestershire) £16.99

We do not know much about the lives of the great poets of the past. Is that a misfortune? Even when we think we have some knowledge of their personal affairs - as with Catullus - it is mainly or exclusively on their own works that we are relying. Since it is for their surviving works that they are valued, that is no great loss. With poets of this and the last century, in particular, another figure obtrudes himself - that of the biographer. He is a person licensed to hack among the debris of records with which the modern world is too plentifully blessed and to come out with the truth at last. But the truth about what? The subjects of biography are unfortunately human, and what a piece of work is man! The biographer is, unfortunately, another piece, a situation which brings into play all the complexity - and all the uncertainties - of human affairs. Worse still, the subject of the biography uses words - if he is a poet, it is his raison d'être - and in what sense can the biographer be said to get at a truth which the subject's words have not revealed? He can give accidental details, of course, dates of birth, death, and whatever he can lay hands on, particulars of persons with whom the subject was acquainted and of the houses he lived in.

What does such a corvée amount to? What can it amount to but ...

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