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Showing posts from February, 2013

Three Notes on Gray's Elegy

A few interesting points from this week's seminars on early Romanticism. As usual, and motivated by my affection for the poem, we spent quite a bit of time discussing Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard', and it provoked some of the best analysis of the last few weeks.

1. The beginning. One student highlighted a certain gothicism hreaded through the initial stanzas. I found this interesting because my overall impression of the poem's moving opening is something close to Keats's 'To Autumn' - a soft, enveloping, dusk-tinged warmth. The solitude, for me, is sensuous and almost dreamlike - a solitude of reverie where sensations are both heightened but paradoxically merged.

Yet that 'ivy-mantled tower' (l.9) and the melancholy owl offers a definite counterpoint: the terms of secrecy, transgression and ancient rule and intertextuality with David Mallet's The Excursion (Mallet's owl screams) offer a different, more uncanny edge to th…

40 Monograph Challenge #5: Literary Relations

This week, excitingly, a monograph by one of my senior academic colleagues at Exeter, Professor Jane Spencer.

Title: Jane Spencer, Literary Relations: Kinship and the Canon 1660-1830 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Methodology: Historicist, biographical, a dash of psychoanalysis from time to time
Critical Context: Existing work on tradition and canon (e.g. Richard Terry), work on women and literary tradition (e.g. Alliston, Mandel). Harold Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence.
Thesis: The metaphor of kinship and familial relations - and sometimes actual biological kinship - was crucial in conceiving and creating the literary canon in the long eighteenth-century, as well as notions of literary identity, tradition and legacy. Spencer is particularly interested in the place of women writers in this phenomenon.

In a Nutshell: The monograph covers the full range of kinship relations, some of which are very well embedded in cultural mythology, others which are far more problema…

40 Monograph Challenge #4: Romanticism and the Human Sciences

This week, a really brilliant and wide-ranging book with something of an unpromising title..

Title: Maureen M. McLane, Romanticism and the Human Sciences: Poetry, Population, and the Discourse of the Species (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Methodology: A highly theorised historicism, attuned to both deconstruction and post-Marxism
Critical Context: Chiefly theorists - Benjamin, Foucault, Lacoue-Labarthe/Nancy - but also critics like Alan Bewell and David Bromwich who work on Romanticism and political science.
Thesis: Romantic poetry is deeply implicated in a crisis in the category of 'the human' (and by extension humanism and the humanities) and this takes place, in particular, through a dialogue with moral philosophy and what shall become utilitarian thinking (especially Thomas Malthus). Poetry, in the last analysis, has just as much, if not more, to say in answering the question of the human.

In a nutshell: McLane begins by considering how poetry was redefining itse…

Richardson and Transcendental Virginity

My students - who mostly disliked Richardson's Pamela with admirable vehemence - might be surprised to know that I felt the two seminars on the novel were some of the best we've had this term (okay, it's only week four, but that still 20 hours of discussion...)


There was a particularly provocative knot of discussion which I knew straight away I'd like to blog about. Two students were debating how Pamela's virtue - i.e. her virginity - functioned in the text.

On one side, there was the suggestion that her refusal of Mr. B's seductions (who holds all the power cards of class, gender, capital and physical space) was a frustration of male desire. Pamela's apparent inviolability (there was an interesting discussion in the other seminar about why Mr. B didn't actually rape her) seems to be the point where the desired object, the female body, closes in on itself. It would be an avowal of sexual self-legislation. We might position Pamela's moral resistance,…

40 Monograph Challenge #3: Shelley and Vitality

As I am planning a module - Inventing the Body - which includes Romantic debates around the nature of life, this monograph is definitely on the reading list. But as the module hasn't even passed committee yet, I think I'm well within my rights to include in the challenge!

Title: Sharon Ruston, Shelley and Vitalism (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

Methodology: undefined until the afterword, when it's confirmed as historicist
Critical Context: Prior to 2005, a few key works on Romanticism, science and medicine by scholars like Nicholas Roe and Alan Richardson. Also engages with the tradition of a 'materialist' or 'Lucretian' Shelley (e.g. Paul Hamilton).
Thesis: The question of 'life', fiercely debated in the 1810s in medical and scientific circles, is central to Romantic preoccupations; indeed, it shouldn't be seen as 'just another historical context' (p. 184), because the two cultures model of science vs. humanities simply didn't …