As 2014's National Poetry Month comes to an end this week, let’s take a look at some brilliant biographies of poets.
Christine de Pizan was the first French woman of letters. A poet and prose writer, she grew up in the court of Charles V. In the fall of 1390, Christine was widowed at age twenty-five and took up writing as a way of supporting her children. Her early poems focus on her grief over the tragic loss of her beloved husband. Later on, she wrote courtly love poems. Her prose works include the official biography of King Charles V and the only contemporary account of Joan of Arc’s early victories. “The Book of the City of Ladies” is perhaps her best known work defending women against the misogynist writers of her time. Charity Cannon Willard’s biography is the essential book on Christine de Pizan. Willard, as translator and authority on Christine, also edited the fine volume “Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan.”
Byron, the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Romantic poet has been the subject of so many biographies, just when you think everything has been said about him, a new one crops up to add to his legend. Controversy still clings to the name of Byron even as the 200th anniversary of his death creeps closer and closer. Beautifully illustrated and well-researched, “Byron: Life and Legend” by Fiona McCarthy was controversial when it was released in 2002, following on the heels of the slightly more salacious “Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame” by Benita Eisler from 1999. More recently, Edna O’Brien’s “Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life” published in 2008, focuses on Byron’s love life, and not so much on the poetry or literary criticism.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of the famous “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the subject of Richard Holmes’s two volume biography “Coleridge: Early Visions” and “Coleridge: Darker Reflections 1804-1834” was a complicated man. A Romantic poet of genius, he struggled with his opium addiction and troubled family life, and then managed to reinvent himself as a more philosophical poet in his later years.
William Butler Yeats the preeminent poet of the twentieth century is the subject of another two volume biography. R.F. Foster’s “W.B. Yeats: A Life, Volume 1: The Apprentice Mage 1864-1914” and “W.B. Yeats: A Life, Volume 2: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939” are masterworks. Solidly researched and well-written, both volumes are a pleasure to read. Full of photographs and insights into the poet’s life and times, this biography is highly recommended for fans of Yeats and indeed for fans of biography in general.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was a gifted poet, and the subject of the 2001 biography “Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay” by Nancy Milford. With exclusive access to Millay’s papers, Milford created an in-depth portrait of Millay in this compelling biography.
To read poems by the above-mentioned poets online, check out the following websites.