Going back in time

971042I am very much a nineteenth-century specialist, and although I have read and studied fairly widely in other periods, it is with the Victorians that I feel most comfortable. However, my research interests have been gradually creeping backwards with my work on Gothic, and I am now beginning a new project which places me firmly in the latter part of the eighteenth century. As I am currently staying at the marvellous Gladstone’s Library, I decided to begin my work by reading through the enormous New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse. I must admit I didn’t read every single poem, but revisiting the eighteenth century – in many cases, for the first time since my undergraduate days – was a delight.
Eighteenth-century writing seems to defy categorisation in many ways, and humans like to pigeon-hole. There is the ‘age of reason’ that we think of in works by Johnson, Swift and Addison, often in prose. The novel saw its rise during that time; think of Defoe and Fielding, for example. There is the elegant, witty neo-classicism of Pope, the regretful, nostalgic rural idylls of Goldsmith, the sublime melancholy of Gray, not to mention the political satire, the landscape poetry, the epitaphs, and the humour. Oh, the humour – some of these poems are really funny. And some made me cry.
I think, perhaps, while I remembered the satire and the classicism of the period, I had forgotten the humanity. Poems oGrayn children (read Joanna Baillie’s ‘A Mother to her Waking Infant’, for example), on the dead, on the nostalgia for your home, on the moving beauty of the landscape – I had forgotten how touching these can be. I think perhaps this is particularly so because I felt a little adrift in the eighteenth century. With the Victorians, I am comfortable: I know them and their ways; I know their history, their politics and religion, their homes and their cultural touchstones, as well as their art and literature. I also know how critical views have changed over time, and what the current thought is on many aspects of the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth, I know some of this, but less so, and it occurs to me that this defamiliarization, this sense of being in a place that I know but which is not quite how I remember it, is actually a gift to the literary critic, because never again will I read these poems with such a fresh eye or receptive mind. Having devoted much of my life to building up knowledge which allows me to contextualise work, it’s rather liberating to start again in a place where I don’t yet know much. And I am looking forward to finding out more.

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8 thoughts on “Going back in time

  1. Gotta dig the Victorians, man. My great-grandfather was Dean of Comparative Literature at USC and VIctorian Poetry was his bag. I think that stuff’s genetic, because I picked it up too. Killer blog.

  2. Thank you! I do think its addictive, and I got the Victorian poetry bug from my mother, I think, so it’s nice to think it can be handed down the generations!

  3. Colin Cruise used to run an annual course at Gladstone’s Library on various aspects of C19th visual culture. Loved the place.. Meals patchy though

  4. There is something about finding where your mind (if not your body) best belongs. I now know I was really belonged to the 1880-1914 era, an era of science, feminism, religious tolerance (largely), peace (largely), great clothes, impressive architecture, booming universities etc etc.

    I must ring my mum and tell her a mistake was made in my birth details 🙂

  5. Yes, I think that’s true. I think I’m probably late Victorian in many way, but – as the Victorians themselves had – with a keen interest in what came before them.

    I am not sure your mother will be able to help 🙂

  6. This June, I will be taking an eighteenth century lit class at my university. Looking forward to reading some of the authors you mention. They are on my professor’s reading list.

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