The Perils of Autobiography

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Andrew Laird

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Autobiography and Truth

It can never be assumed that an autobiography of any kind is a reliable source of information about its subject.

An autobiographer’s recollections cannot always be tested or verified: least of all if they are about personal matters rather than independently recorded events.

An autobiography is not necessarily the best account of the life of its author: at the very least because it cannot take a reader up to the end of that life.

An autobiography, even when it is meant to ‘set the record straight’, is selective and partial.

An individual’s autobiography, aimed (usually) at more than one reader and conceived for posterity, is accordingly fashioned for that end. It is less likely to be straightforwardly veridical than other writings in which an individual may write down details of his own life or experiences for some independent purpose or end: a medical questionnaire completed prior to surgery; an application form for a job, a driving license or a university place; letters or emails to colleagues, friends or relatives.

In all those respects autobiographical poems or autobiographical songs in principle might be deemed no more or no less inaccurate than a work of autobiographical prose.

But there are further considerations: the presentation of an autobiography in verse will mean that it is inevitably stylised, and, almost inevitably, considered as a work of art in itself.

Constraints of Genre

Depending on the expectations of verse, poetry or song in a given time, place or society, poetic discourse is accorded a function – to be beautiful or aesthetically appealing, entertaining, uplifting, instructive, or as in the case of Ovid’s exile poetry to plead a case – and autobiographical content, even if it is predominant, will be subordinated to that function. In other words, poetic autobiography will be subject to the protocols of the genre through which it is mediated. The personal recollections of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight Coleridge, Frost at Midnight (1798), for example, are in accord with the preoccupations of Romanticism – a preoccupation with childhood and the opposition between the confines of the city and the freedom of the countryside. A second example, Eminem’s Cleanin’ Out My Closet Eminem, Cleanin’ Out My Closet (2002) about the artist’s mother, more explicitly calls attention to the medium in which it is expressed, by reference to genre (its status as a recording) in an address to the listener.

Autonomy, Reusability and Generation of Meaning

Poems and songs, along with liturgical texts, magical and legal formulae are discourses which have been classed as ‘reusable’: they are not written or spoken on one occasion (as is the case with the majority of utterances or texts), but function again and again, in the absence of the original speaker or writer. In this way, poems are divorced from their authors: they are charged with new significance by those who read, recite or interpret them. Catullus Catull. Carm. 42 and Propertius Prop. El. 3.23 famously treated this alienation figuratively in terms of the loss or theft of their writing tablets – another device in Ovid Ov. Am. 1.12 is the poet’s rejection of his tablets when they disappoint him.

Louis Macneice’s prefatory note Macneice, prefatory note to Autumn Journal (written in March 1939) to his lengthy verse reminiscence Autumn Journal (written in the final months of 1938) is illuminating. Among other things, it shows how even an apparently autobiographical poem could take on a life of its own, only some weeks after it was composed.

Author and Persona

The distinction between the author and persona is not a matter of opinion or a critic’s whim, but universal, common to all reusable texts in all cultures.

This distinction is generally recognised in the case of first-person fiction in which the persona has a different name and identity from the author (the author Daniel Defoe is never confused with his created fictional personae of Moll Flanders or Robinson Crusoe). But this distinction is not always recognised in works like Apuleius’ The Golden Ass (where the author’s name is attached to the fictional first-person narrator) or Lazarillo de Tormes, a Spanish picaresque novel (where the name Lazarillo, which belongs to the first-person narrator, is often given to the work’s unknown author).

In first-person poetry the distinction may be ignored by readers who are tempted to use the poet’s name to refer to a poem’s persona: ‘In this sonnet Shakespeare expresses his philosophy of love’.

First-person poems can employ devices which lead to this temptation. For example, in Propertius’ Elegy 3.3 Prop. El. 3.3.13-17 the author’s name is used by another dramatised character in the poem. Or the first-person persona employs illeism, the device of referring to oneself in the third person, using the author’s name. This can be seen in Catullus’ Poem 51 Catull. Carm. 51, which is especially useful in highlighting the artificial nature of the persona because the first three stanzas are a Latin translation of a Greek lyric poem by Sappho.


The speaker of a long poem, whether an epic or an apparently autobiographical text, like Ovid’s Sorrows 4.10 Ovid: A Guide to Selected Sources or Horace’s Satire 1.6, is always the creation, not the mouthpiece, of its author (who is bound to remain inaccessible).

Expressions of personal opinions and recollections can of course be discerned in such texts, but those effects are in the end confined to such texts. To confuse a poet’s persona with a historical author is rather like mistaking a fictional character for a real individual.