Sunday, May 30, 2010

Claire Bordelon: "First Lakeland Poet"

Claire Bordelon
University of Louisiana, Lafayette

Book Review

John Bowes, Richard Brathwait: The First Lakeland Poet. Hugill Publications (2007), 256 pp. ISBN: 978-0-9551174-1-1. $20.00 (USD).

1> In the introduction to his biographical sketch of Richard Brathwait, the somewhat enigmatic figure of the 17th century, John Bowes places his work within the realm of personal interest rather than purely academic inquiry. In the wake of a 2004 retirement, Bowes set about investigating the origins of his 16th century home, which, he was to discover, had been occupied by the Brathwait family throughout the 17th century. In this very personal vein, the entirety of Bowes’ work is conducted in a less literary but vastly more readable manner. While several oversights are plain in both content and simple grammar, it is easy to forgive such grievances in the face of such an obviously personal work. Bowes moves through the life of Brathwait in chronological fashion, noting the various historical documents that refer directly to the Brathwait family in general and their youngest son, specifically. After sketching a broad-stroke portrait of the author, Bowes sets about setting the image he has created against the conventionally accepted description of the poet as “an upright, warm-hearted, well-meaning, neighborly, charitable, and well-contented country gentleman” (240). In contrast, Bowes encourages a study of the poet as a pragmatic businessman who struggled for much of his life against the temptation of the opposite sex as well as the trouble that he encountered in reconciling his worldly behavior with his spiritual life. This more complicated, less wholesome portrayal of Brathwait serves to illuminate the conflict between spiritual devotion and social construct, and stands in opposition to the conventionally accepted model of the amiable Englishman who dabbled in poetry and verse.

2> As Bowes sets to his work, he begins with an examination of the portrait of the Richard Brathwait that has been largely accepted as the “authentic description of the man” (240). Bowes anchors his rebuttal in the primary description of Brathwait as an English country gentleman moderately concerned with manner and duty, with a penchant for pamphlet writing and written guidance to his fellow gentlemen and women; in doing so, Bowes is able to highlight those elements of Brathwait’s character which he will spend the majority of his essay reconstructing. Operating chronologically, Bowes employs the sparse evidence available concerning Brathwait’s life (court documents, land appeals, etc.) in conjunction with close readings of the poet’s creative works in order to form a creative non-fiction-esque biography of Brathwait’s experience as both a poet and a man of considerable influence.

3> Perhaps the most helpful element of Bowes’ analysis is his awareness of the historical account of the often romanticized figure of Brathwait. Most biographies of the poet are significantly turned in the direction of the author’s literary prowess, rather than a historic recounting of his life. In contrast, Bowes’ strength lies in the intensely personal nature of his biography. His familiarity with the Brathwait’s life, and the situation into which he was born, allows Bowes to point to Brathwait’s poetry as partly a historical account of his life. This connection allows for a clearer, fuller picture of the poet to be drawn in the place of the vague references to the writer’s social title and power that has before been the traditional representation of Richard Brathwait. Most significant in this portrait is the establishment of Brathwait’s adolescence as the root of his later struggles with infidelity and the responsibilities of his social status. Although other recountings of Brathwait’s adolescence have been taken on, few have managed to establish the full picture of the young Brathwait. Most are written as a perfunctory retelling of Brathwait’s youth, with little consideration paid to the effect that his youthful indiscretions would have on his later life, and, subsequently, his creative works. In contrast, Bowes establishes a clear connection between Brathwait’s youth, adolescence, and adulthood, rooted in Bowes’ own personal interest in the writer, and informed by careful examination of his poetic development alongside his growth from juvenility to maturity.

4> In addition to his careful harmonization between Brathwait the poet and Brathwait the man, Bowes also employs a particular structure throughout his biography to further establish the formative nature of several of Brathwait’s personal experiences within his writings. For instance, Bowes devotes a large portion of his biography to a discussion of the impact Brathwait’s personal experiences and challenges had on one of his more notable works, The English Gentleman. Bowes states that although “it would be foolhardy to interpret The English Gentleman as a portrayal of Richard Brathwait, presented in the guise of a conduct book…it would be similarly foolhardy to assume that this famous work was the process of assiduous and objective academic study and assessment” (86-87). This mindset is characteristic of the manner in which Bowes establishes the entirety of his work, that is, using historical documents and his own knowledge of Brathwait’s life to illuminate the correlation between man and work. This union between figures allows for Bowes to pain a more personal image of the Brathwait than has been previously attempted. A large majority of the admittedly few works devoted to Brathwait and his works incorporate a brief biographical sketch, and then move on to consider his writings within the larger context of societal and political ideals. Bowes, while less devoted to making critical inferences about Brathwait, nevertheless makes important strides in uncovering the more intimate elements of his writings.

5> Taken alone, Bowes’ biography of Richard Brathwait is a simple yet informative glimpse into the life of one of the seventeenth century’s more inscrutable figures. The merit of his work lies not in the depth of its literary discourse, but rather in its attempt to converge known facts about Brathwait’s life, educated inferences, and the creative dialogue established by his writings. While there are an intrepid few who take on task of recapturing the life of Brathwait, most, aside from Bowes, choose to focus of the literary aspect of the poet, and therefore any biographical sketch lacks the degree of personal awareness of Brathwait in which Bowes’ work is so fully steeped. As Bowes states in his introduction, the aim of his work is to arouse as renewed interest in Brathwait, “once a famous son of Kendal…[now] unrecognized in…his own home” (iv). As an intimate account of Brathwait the man, informed by history and enlivened by his poetry, Bowes is able to do just that.

Claire Bordelon in a first year PhD candidate at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her primary area of research is Early Modern Literature with an emphasis on Humanism and Rhetoric. She received her B.A. in English Literature from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where she also minored in Philosophy and Theology. Her other areas of interest include J.R.R. Tolkien and the literature of her home region, the deep south.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Three (2010): Digital Archives

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