World Book Day

Today is World Book Day –  a big celebration of reading and books when millions of vouchers are given out to help get kids into reading. If you don’t get a voucher today, don’t worry because you can enjoy thousands of eBooks for free at 

Search in the Library for an author or title of your choice or if you’d like more context, explore the collections in Writers and Themes. All materials are available free for use in education worldwide. Pass it on.

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Writers with an image problem: William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson

In the contemporary world, we are bombarded with images from our laptops and televisions, on billboards and in magazines. These images may be advertising something, but often they seem only to advertise a way of life, a celebrity, unobtainable to all but a select few. Celebrities are more recognizable in some cases then our distant relatives, and our view of these famous figures is distorted on the one hand by extreme Photoshopping which makes them more ‘beautiful’, and on the other by candid snaps which expose their all-too-flawed humanity in gossip magazines’s ‘circles of shame’.

Writers are not often the victims of paparazzi attention in today’s world, yet the way in which we ‘see’ writers, especially historical writers, is often conditioned by external cultural and historical forces in ways that we might not at first recognize.

Shakespeare, possibly the greatest literary celebrity in the English language, exists in our visual field through a variety of representations from the engraving by Martin Droeshout on the front of the First Folio to his portrayal by Joseph Fiennes in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love. His must surely be a face we might be expected to know well, although you may be surprised to learn that arguments are still ongoing about the authenticity of Shakespeare’s portraits.

William Shakespeare – ‘Chandos portrait’. (After a previous owner, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos). The first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1856.

The Chandos portrait (above) is, according to the National Portrait Gallery, the only verified portrait of Shakespeare painted from life. The Cobbe Portrait (below) was unveiled in 2009, and it also supposedly depicts the famous bard painted from life. The fierce debate which continues about the authenticity, provenance and likeness of these portraits shows that the image of a writer is not simply a mug shot for a book cover, but a matter of some importance to generations of scholars and readers.

William Shakespeare? – Cobbe portrait, an early Jacobean panel painting. So-called because of its ownership by Archbishop Charles Cobbe (1686-1765)).

The poet Emily Dickinson is also a writer with something of an image issue. The only verified photograph of the reclusive poet is a 1847 daguerreotype showing the poet in her late teens. This was around three years before she even began writing poetry. Her earliest known poem is  ‘Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine, / Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!’, dated 4th March 1850 and published in the Springfield Daily Republican in 1852.

Emily Dickinson, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

A later image from 1859, purportedly showing Dickinson with her friend Kate Scott Turner, has been subjected to scholarly enquiry, computer work, ophthalmological report, and even comparison to 1850s fashion and textiles. It seems probable that it is Dickinson, so some 150 years after the photograph was taken, new eyes are seeing this Dickinson for the first time.

Emily Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott Turner, 1859 (?) – Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.

Writers should be known for their writing before their face or clothing, and for the imagery of their work rather than that captured by a camera lens or painter’s brush. However, author portraits accompany their work through time, they are something else that the writer has left behind, and readers can be forgiven for attempting to interpret their enigmas as fervently as they do the literature in question.

If you want to find out more about William Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson, Great Writers Inspire has free collections which include podcasts, ebooks, articles, and more created and curated by the University of Oxford.

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Reading Recommendation: Alexander Pope’s ‘Dunciad’

In this guest blog, Joseph Hone, an Oxford DPhil student, argues for the pertinence of one of the ‘most unread literary masterpieces’ – Alexander Pope’s Dunciad.

Alexander Pope

Portrait of Alexander Pope, oil on canvas. c. 1742. By Jean-Baptiste van Loo (1684-1745)

Have you ever warned somebody that a little learning is a dangerous thing, or that fools rush in where angels fear to tread? Have you ever said that to err is human, to forgive divine, or observed that as the twig is bent, so the tree’s inclined? If so, you have been quoting Alexander Pope. This is hardly surprising; after Tennyson and Shakespeare, Pope is the third most prolific writer in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. What is surprising, however, is that most of us do not even realize it. Though the most celebrated poet of the eighteenth century, Pope has received a tough press over the last two hundred years. According to Wordsworth his verse was more delicate than grand, and in the twentieth century his heroic couplets were almost universally deemed to have aged badly. Similarly, his critique of ‘low-culture’ and ‘Grub Street dunces’ whiffs of snobbery to those not steeped in the social and political context of the period. No wonder critics like James Reeves, in his book The Reputation and Writings of Alexander Pope (1976), have argued that Pope’s poetical talents have been wildly over estimated while his personal failings grossly overlooked. Such prejudice continues to blight the teaching of poetry to this day. Most school leavers have never even heard of the man (a little learning is a dangerous thing, indeed), whilst undergraduates consistently seem to avoid the period as much as they can. For all of the neglect and disdain, Pope remains an excellent poet. His evocation of early eighteenth-century life, from the sordid scribbling underclasses to the powdered wigs of society beaus, remains as energized and intimate as if it had been written weeks rather than centuries ago. There will always be people who refuse to read Pope; this blog is an attempt to save you from becoming one of them.

Simultaneously the most inaccessible and evocative of Pope’s works is the Dunciad. Amongst the most unread of literary masterpieces, the Dunciad provides a reading experience quite unlike anything before or since. The difficulties of the poem begin with the murkiness of its textual state. The first Dunciad was published in 1728 as a poem in three books, before being republished in 1729 covered with mock-scholarly notes by the pedantic caricature, Scriblerus. Some years later, in 1742, a fourth book of the Dunciad was published before the complete four-book mock-epic appeared in 1743. So which Dunciad do we read? The final edition of 1743 provides the most complete narrative, and in its recent form, edited by Valerie Rumbold, is the most readable it has ever been. Across the four books of his mock-epic, Pope tells the story of Bays – a caricature of theatre manager and poet laureate Colley Cibber. In reality Cibber was a prurient manager, but a dreadful poet. In his imaginative transformation he is the son and heir of the goddess Dulness, come to claim London as his rightful inheritance. The city, filled with lowlife hacks and poets, willingly supplicates to the new king, celebrating his return. These celebrations contain some of the most vibrant lines of poetry from the century, revelling in appalled delight at the scene. In a wonderfully scatological episode, the poets engage in celebratory games, challenging one another to dive the deepest into London’s sewers and piss the highest. It is the pirate publisher, Edmund Curll, who wins the competition, despite his genitals burning from venereal disease – a symptom of his notorious infidelity in printing texts:

Thro’ half the heav’ns he pours th’exalted urn;
His rapid waters in their passage burn.
Swift as it mounts, all follow with their eyes:
Still happy Impudence obtains the prize. (2.183-86)

Even now, the sewer-diving and the pissing contest are quite shocking, but they are full of cutting wit and derision. The dunce poets strive to sink into the depths of bathos rather than aspire to the profound; they have an ability to produce material from nothing. Like their bodily evacuate, their literary produce is vacuous – full of nothing. Characteristically, Pope revels in that which he deplores. The world of Grub Street, a real place at that time as well as a metaphor, becomes a shady refuge of appalling and ludicrous creative energies. Pope takes your hand and leads you through this poetical menagerie; there is a shock lurking behind every corner.

However, much of the true art of the Dunciad lies in its annotations, prolegomena, and appearance. Any English student that has come into contact with a masterfully edited critical edition – Alastair Fowler’s Paradise Lost, or Harold Love’s Rochester, for instance – will recognize the form of the page, with a handful of lines floating above the thick-set mass of critical commentary. Unlike the editions of Milton or Rochester, however, Scriblerus’s notes (along with Bentley’s in 1743) contain no discretion, scholarship, or critical sagacity. Rather, they are filled with conjecture and bad judgement, as empty as the ghostly dunces of the poem. The circular arguments and foolish pedantry of these dunces reminds us what not to do in our own critical work.

The Dunciad represents the jewel in Pope’s crown, but it by no means stands alone. His translations of Homer are rightfully canonical in their own respect, as are wonderful satires like The Rape of the Lock, An Essay on Criticism, and Peri Bathous. If, however, you only read one text of Pope’s, make it the Dunciad. I urge you not only to plunder it for its vibrant picture of early eighteenth-century London, but for what it tells us about the now. There is a reason for Pope’s domination of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: the sentiments of his poetry survive beyond the moment. The Grub Street world of hacks and dunces lives on in the modern spheres of journalism and politics, whilst the temporal nature of cheap print and ephemera has boomed with the internet revolution. Let’s face it, the Dunciad has never been so pertinent.

Joseph Hone

Dunciad Book II 1760 illustration, showing the Goddess and poets asleep. 1760 Collected (Warburton) edition of Pope, London, Vol V. Artist F. Hayman, Engraver C. Grignion, Scanner & uploader Steven J. Plunkett. (Wikimedia Commons)

Dunciad Book II 1760 illustration, showing the Goddess and poets asleep. 1760 Collected (Warburton) edition of Pope, London, Vol V. Artist F. Hayman, Engraver C. Grignion, Scanner & uploader Steven J. Plunkett. (Wikimedia Commons)

You can download and read the Dunciad, and other works by Alexander Pope for free by finding them in our ebook library. Go to and search for ‘Dunciad’ in the title or ‘Pope’ in the author name.

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Alfred Lord Tennyson, first Baron Tennyson (1809-1892)

Erin Lafford, a DPhil student, introduces the life and work of the Victorian poet and Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson in this guest blog post.

Lord-tennysonTennyson was born on 6th August, 1809 in Somersby, Lincolnshire, to a large family that experienced many financial and emotional problems.  His father’s ongoing rivalry with his brother, who was favoured in his receipt of the family inheritance, combined with a complex  family medical history of epilepsy and mental disorder posed various threats; the notorious “black blood” of the Tennysons circulated around many of the Tennyson children, Alfred included.  Many of his poems are marked by a sense of loss, depression, and despair (‘Mariana’ (1830), ‘The Lotos-Eaters’’ (1832), and ‘Ulysses’ (1842)) whilst some (‘The Princess’ (1847), In Memoriam A. H. H (1850), and ‘Maud’ (1854) ), were composed during his own period of emotional breakdown from 1844-45.

Despite this turbulent context, Tennyson’s early years were marked by his fledgling experiments with poetry, and he published a small volume, Poems by Two Brothers (1827), with his brothers Charles and Frederick.  This early poetic success continued whilst Tennyson was studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, where his poem Timbuctoo was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal in 1829.  During his time there, Tennyson became involved with the Apostles, a young intellectual society.  As a result, he forged a strong personal connection with Arthur Hallam (1811-1833), whose sudden death from a stroke whilst travelling in Vienna devastated the young Tennyson, and became the subject of his greatest known poem, In Memoriam A.H.H

Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830) was Tennyson’s first major volume of poetry.  It contains such key works  as ‘Mariana’, ‘The Kraken’, his pair of lyrics ‘The Mermaid’ and ‘The Merman’, ‘Supposed Confessions of a Second Rate Sensitive Mind’ as well as many other works in ode or sonnet form.  His subsequent publication, Poems (1832), contains the well-known ‘The Lady of Shalott’, as well as ‘Enone’, ‘The Palace of Art’ and ‘The Lotos-Eaters’. Arthur Hallam’s review of these volumes did much for recognition of Tennyson as a poet, as he dubbed him the ‘poet of sensation’ for his ability to capture states of emotion and feeling through his lyrically affective language and rhythm.  His 1842 volume Poems contains ‘Ulysses’, Tennyson’s famous and moving dramatic monologue written from the perspective of the aged king coming to the end of his role and contemplating the meaning of his life’s achievements, as well as anticipating the end of life with courage and resolve: “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.  This adoption of a well-known historic, literary or mythical persona in order to contemplate ideas of ageing, station, death, and religion is a frequent technique of Tennyson’s, and his 1842 volume contains other important dramatic monologues such as ‘Saint Simeon Stylites’, ‘Tithonus’ and ‘Tiresias’.  Use of the dramatic monologue allows Tennyson to adopt the tone and expression of his persona in order to emphasise the themes and questions he explores in these poems.  St Simeon Stylites’ repetitive, exclamatory religious proclamations, “O Jesus, if thou wilt not save my soul, / Who may be saved? Who is it may be saved”, for example, convey a personal state of pain and religious anxiety as Tennyson simultaneously questions the Saint’s sacrificial self-harm as a route to experiencing God through his violent depiction of bodily injury: “And both my thighs are rotted with the dew; / Yet cease I not to clamor and to cry, / While my stiff spine can hold my weary head, / Till all my limbs drop piecemeal from the stone”.  Tennyson’s most well-received poetic persona by his Victorian readership is his portrayal of King Arthur and the other knights of the Round Table in his epic ‘Idylls of the King’.  Not only did this subject material appeal to Victorian readers who would have been well-acquainted with these tales, it also permitted Tennyson, through the fall of Arthur, a Christ-like figure, to explore the religious crisis that developed during the nineteenth-century: “The old order changeth yielding place to new, / And God fulfils himself in many ways, / Lest one good custom should corrupt the world. / Comfort thyself; what comfort is in me?” (‘The Passing of Arthur’).

This profound sense of loss, change, and religious anxiety runs through In Memoriam.  T.S Eliot described Tennyson’s famous elegy as “the concentrated diary of a man confessing himself.  It is a diary of which we have to read every word”.  Through his journal-like series of elegiac stanzas, Tennyson skilfully moves from his private grief to public issues, providing a personal elegy that is capable of speaking to all who have experienced loss: “That loss is common would not make / My own less bitter, rather more: / Too common! Never morning wore / To evening, but some heart did break”.  His ABBA stanza structure and steady, iambic rhythm that pervades through each section provides a comforting framework from which Tennyson represents many fragmentary and jarring states and experiences.  His reaction to the geological and evolutionary scientific progressions occurring around him are vividly expressed in section 56, as Tennyson rails against a nature revealed as “red in tooth and claw” and careless of the “type” of a human life that valued the existence of God.  The elegy has also become known as one of Tennyson’s most thoughtful considerations on the ‘use’ of poetry and how effective it is an conveying such strong emotional states as grief and loss: “I sometimes hold it half a sin / To put in words the grief I feel; / For words, like Nature, half reveal / And half conceal the Soul within”.  It is this ability to bring these multiple themes and ideas into one affective whole that marks In Memoriam as one of Tennyson’s greatest works.  It even earned him the position of Poet Laureate in 1850, a testament to the significance of his poetry during his own lifetime and a marker of its potential to resonate with us still.

Erin Lafford

You can read Maud: a monodrama…  for free from the Oxford Text Archive. You can find other free works by Tennyson from Project Gutenberg.

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Free Love

valentine picImmerse yourself in love this Valentine’s Day by visiting Great Writers Inspire. Here are some ebooks from the Oxford Text Archive which can be downloaded for free, and there are many more to discover in the Library.

Love and Friendship by Jane Austen. Discover lots more ebooks and other learning resources in our Jane Austen collection.

Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence, find lots more resources in our D.H. Lawrence collection

Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story by George Eliot. Learn more about George Eliot.

Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister by Aphra Behn, find out more about Aphra Behn.

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Rabindranath Tagore and the Nationalist Movement in India

In the second of her guest blog posts, Priyasha Mukhopadhyay (a DPhil student) situates the work of Rabindranath Tagore in relation to the political context of nationalism in India. You can read her first post on the work of Leonard Woolf here.

Rabindranath Tagore in Kolkata (probably taken in 1909). Source: Wikimedia.

The first non-European to win a Nobel Prize, Rabindranath Tagore’s negotiation with the politics of his times is particularly complex. Born in 1861 (just shortly after the 1857 Mutiny, often thought of as the First War of Indian Independence) into an upper-caste privileged Bengali family, he was instantly surrounded by the cultural and political excitement of late colonial rule in India. The sheer range and versatility of his novels, poems, plays, songs and paintings are perhaps a result of the vitality of this age, and are definitely instruments through which he articulated his opinions regarding the upheaval that enveloped India from the late nineteenth century onwards.

Much of Tagore’s writing deals with the problems of national belonging. Gora (Fair- Skinned, 1910), written in the early years of anti-colonialism, examines these through its British protagonist, Gora, an orphan who is raised in a Hindu family, only to discover his true identity as an adult. But while nationalism remained an issue Tagore returned to throughout his life, his own involvement in the nationalist movement in India fluctuated, largely because of the ideological differences he had with its leaders. While Tagore was, without a doubt, patriotic, his notion of “freedom” was not simply political release from the British. He was wary of violent public movements, clearly understanding how these marginalised smaller players in the colonial state. Of these, Tagore was particularly critical of two: the Swadeshi Movement, and the rise of revolutionary nationalism.

The Swadeshi Movement, beginning with the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and continuing till 1908, targeted the economic stronghold of the British in India. Reacting to monopolies of production through which the British were able to sell Indians goods at highly inflated prices, a large group of people in Bengal chose to boycott foreign goods, instead preferring to buy domestically produced ones (swadeshi means of one’s own country, and here, by extension, refers to self-sufficiency). While this seemed an effective strategy of resistance, the movement failed to take into account the enormous losses that small traders, mainly Muslims, incurred as a result of this. Tagore’s novel, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916) is particularly poignant in its depiction of Muslim traders, harassed into giving into the demands of the public to burn their stocks of British goods in a highly spectacularised, ritualistic manner. When Nikhil, the well-meaning zamindar or landlord, widely considered Tagore’s mouth-piece in the novel, protests against the treatment of the traders living on his estate, he is branded unpatriotic and regressive.

The boycott of foreign goods was but a small part of a more disturbing turn in anti- colonial politics, the rise of revolutionary nationalism. Tagore withdrew from the forefront of the nationalist movement after an eighteen year old, Khudiram Bose, killed a woman and child by accident, in a botched attempt to assassinate the magistrate of Muzzafarpur, a town in the Indian state of Bihar. His horror of violence and the blinding irrationality that comes with it is portrayed through Nikhil’s antithesis in The Home and the World, Sandip. Deceptively charismatic, Sandip has extraordinary rallying powers, mesmerising everyone, including Nikhil’s wife, Bimala. In his private moments, he is revealed to be egotistical, mean-minded and selfish. Tagore is particularly critical of Sandip’s relationship with Bimala. The progressive Nikhil wishes for his marriage to Bimala to be a companionate one among equals, andencourages her to read, introduces her to his friends, but Bimala is quickly taken up by the rush and excitement of Sandip, who christens her Mother India and worships her as a Hindu goddess, which becomes in the course of the novel, the sign of Indian freedom. While on the one hand, the political use of Hindu iconography in a national struggle introduces a communal element into the Nationalist movement, the figure of the Mother also creates new concerns in the novel. The rhetoric Sandip uses is problematically erotic. Bimala fails to realise this – instead of liberating her, the power Sandip attributes to her does nothing more than turn her into a sexual object on display, an image and nothing more. She only realises this when she finds alternative relations to channel herself into, with the young revolutionary Amulya for whom she develops maternal feelings, but it is too late – the novel ends with Nikhil, disillusioned and fighting for his life. Tagore was to continue denouncing revolutionary nationalism and its reliance on spectacle, violence and sloganeering, and his last novel, Char Adhyay (Four Chapters, 1934) continues to depict its disastrous effects.

Nikhil, on the other hand, as Bimala realises at the end of the novel, has a much more nuanced view of the political situation. Selflessness rather than selfishness characterises Nikhil’s narrative voice. He understands that anti-colonialism cannot merely take the form of rejecting everything British, but rather, should be aimed at synthesising all that is good in western societies with that of the East. He argues, much as Tagore was to in his speeches and lectures, most significantly in his collection, Nationalism (1917) that “freedom” is not just political freedom from the British, but rather the ability to be honest and truthful with oneself, without which self-rule loses all meaning. These ideas, of course, were later to become the corner stone of the philosophy of another nationalist leader, Mahatma Gandhi.

Priyasha Mukhopadhya

You can download some of Tagore’s books for free from Project Gutenberg.

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Leonard Woolf and Empire: The Village in the Jungle

Priyasha Mukhopadhyay, a DPhil student, explores empire as shown in an early twentieth-century novel less well known than the popular works by Joseph Conrad and E.M. Forster. In this guest blog post, she argues for Leonard Woolf’s literary legacy.

Leonard Woolf

By Oliver Mallinson Lewis from Oxford, United Kingdom (Picture 034) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Leonard Woolf is probably one of the few men to be remembered in history as somebody’s husband. Overshadowed for the greater part of his life by his eccentric and brilliant wife Virginia Woolf, Leonard is often considered to be part of a literary moment in which he played a secondary role. Few intellectuals, however, can match the sheer versatility of his work. Many students of literature will know of his contributions to the Bloomsbury group, a radical set of modernist writers, and his role in the establishment and running of the Hogarth Press, which published the first works of many writers at the beginning of the twentieth century (including the first edition of Freud’s works in English translation). Fewer will know that he published his first novel in 1913, two years before Virginia’s The Voyage Out, and that when he died in August 1969, he had two novels, short stories, a five-volume autobiography and several economic, political and literary essays to his name.Leonard Woolf’s life before he married Virginia was the source of much of his literary and political engagement in the subsequent years of his life. When he was unfortunate enough to be ranked sixty-ninth in the Imperial Civil Service examinations after graduating from Cambridge, he was sent to the aspiring colonialist’s second choice, Ceylon, rather than India. Woolf left England with the enthusiasm of a twenty-four year old, but returned seven years later, in 1911, lonely and ambivalent about the value of colonialism.The Village in the Jungle (1913) was his first novel, loosely based on his administrative and personal experiences when working as an Assistant Government Agent in the Hambantota District of Ceylon. Mirroring Woolf’s own disillusionment with the imperial project, the novel traces its protagonist Silindu’s struggle against the slow but steady bureaucratisation of life that comes with the account books, gun licenses and courthouses of colonial rule, which ultimately leads him to murder.The novel is a strange counterpoint to Woolf’s other writing from his time in Ceylon. While his official administrative diaries show meticulous records of legal proceedings, pearl fishing and harvesting, The Village in the Jungle finds facts difficult to grapple with. Dominated by a narrative voice from within Silindu’s community, the novel nevertheless refuses to put forward definite opinions. Using the master-trope of the modernist colonial novel, disorientation, all the characters and events that Woolf writes about are, like the jungle, shrouded in a sense of unknowability.

The novel is an exceptional contribution to the modernist period, largely because of its unusual treatment of racially othered characters. Unlike commonly read novels such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and Forster’s Passage to India (1924), set in the Belgian Congo and colonial India respectively, The Village in the Jungle has a single white character (a magistrate, possibly based on Woolf himself), and escapes resorting to stereotypes of the “native” as uncivilised, immature and dangerous. Instead, a more complex portrait of Sinhalese colonial society is created. Rather than simply representing the colonial encounter in terms of binaries of us/them, the novel demonstrates that communities are built not just on race, but also on affect and fellow- feeling. Woolf’s fellow colonisers, as the volume of his autobiography dealing with Ceylon, Growing, shows us, had little in common with him; he in turn was disgusted by their artificiality and stylised behaviour. Similarly, while Silindu’s oppressors, headmen and petty moneylenders, are definitely instruments of the colonial state, they are Sinhalese like him, and yet see nothing but a bestiality in him that they at once exploit and are afraid of. The magistrate, on the other hand, not only recognises the suffering he sees in Silindu’s face when he is brought before him on charges of murder, but identifies with his pain in a manner that renders barriers of race and colour irrelevant.

Perhaps some of the most poignant descriptions in the novel are of the jungle itself. The jungle threatens all the characters in the novel, it is an impregnable force that remains beautiful, though elusive and dangerous, subjecting all to its will. Woolf realised this quickly, and his descriptions of the jungle in Growing and his letters to Lytton Strachey at the time are similarly heavy with wonder and awe, but also a great sense of fear.

The aftermath of The Village in the Jungle spurred Woolf on to write a series of tracts that argued against the British Empire, both as an economic as well as a moral-political construct. He also went on to actively propound these views through his associations with the Labour Party and Fabian Society. He was only to visit Ceylon again in 1960, nine years before his death. The novel, in its centenary year of publication, remains today a central text in the Sri Lankan colonial literary canon.

Priyasha Mukhopadhyay

You can access a digitized version of The Village in the Jungle at the California Digital Library.

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Meet the new US Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey

Carlie Sorosiak, a student on the MSt in English and American Studies, introduces the incumbent US Poet Laureate.

While researching my dissertation on contemporary poetry in the American South, I stopped by Blackwell’s last month to pick up Natasha Trethewey’s new collection, Thrall (2012). I was dismayed to find, after a thorough search of the shelves (and later an even more gruelling search through every bookstore in Oxford and the Bodleian’s resources), that Trethewey’s poetry was nowhere to be found – not even her 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Native Guard.

Perhaps I’m partial to the Mississippi native’s memory-filled poetry, as it reminds me so much of my childhood in the American South. Although evidently not yet considered a writer of extreme importance in the UK, Trethewey was recently named the 2012-2013 Poet Laureate of the United States, an honour previously bestowed upon her late southern predecessor and Vanderbilt Fugitive poet, Robert Penn Warren. She is certainly a poet to watch.

As a multiracial woman, Trethewey connects her experience of growing up as a non-white ‘other’ with the brutal cultural history of the South. Her poetry is an attempt to recover marginalized and forgotten histories, especially the stories of mixed-race and African American women. For example, Trethewey’s first published collection, Domestic Work (2000), is almost a social documentary, profiling the often forgotten characters of the pre-civil rights black working class. Her next collection, Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), illustrates the life of mixed-race prostitutes in Louisiana’s Storyville district. Clearly, her poetry differs from the traditional, white, patriarchal prose of the South – no moonlight or magnolias from Gone with the Wind here! She establishes, perhaps, a truer picture of the way the South has always been, following a line of critical discourse that began with William Faulkner. In fact, one of her best known poems, ‘Pastoral’, concludes with a reformulation of Quentin Compson’s famous final words in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!‘I dont hate [the South]! I dont hate it!’

In Native Guard, her most lauded work, Trethewey best braids her startling personal history with the violent, complex, hidden history of the South. She focuses especially on her mother, who was murdered by Trethewey’s stepfather, and how her mother’s life represents a semi-forgotten narrative. Thrall proceeds in Native Guard’s footsteps, continuing the racial theme but this time in the form of describing 17th and 18th century Spanish American Casta Paintings.

I continue to expect great things from Trethewey in the future. Find more information about her life and work through Emory University, where she teaches creative writing, or through the Library of Congress.

Carlie Sorosiak

Natasha Trethewey reading at the Library of Congress. Photo by Slowking4. Released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Natasha Trethewey reading at the Library of Congress. Photo by Slowking4. Released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

You can find out more about Natasha Trethewey and read and hear her poems at her page on the Poetry Foundation website.

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Mary Wollstonecraft’s Politics of Feeling in ‘The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria’

Mary Wollstonecraft is best known for her work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), but in this guest blog, Shoshannah Jones Square, a DPhil student in English at the University of Oxford, suggests why we should read her fiction.

Mary Wollstonecraft cph.3b11901

“It is the province of true genius to develop events, to discover their capabilities, to ascertain the different passions and sentiments with which they are fraught, and to diversify them with incidents, that give reality to the picture, and take a hold upon the mind of a reader,” writes William Godwin (1756-1836), anarchist, novelist, and husband of the feminist philosopher of feeling, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) (Maria 178). In thus concluding Wollstonecraft’s final, unfinished fiction, The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria (1798), Godwin, editor of the work, cogently captures Wollstonecraft’s overarching authorial purpose: to engage her readers through emotion, and so to engender real-world ethics through the artistry of affective aesthetics. Maria is indeed “fraught” with feeling, and it is through this infusion of emotion that Wollstonecraft enlists and enlivens her reader’s empathy, forming an “affective bridge” between reader and text (Csengei 46). As Wollstonecraft declares in her “Preface” to Maria, “[i]n writing this novel, I have rather endeavoured to pourtray [sic] passions than manners”; it is the “sentiments,” Wollstonecraft asserts, that “I have embodied” (67). To “embody” is to “give concrete form to (what is abstract or ideal)”; in creating Maria, then, Wollstonecraft has “give[n] concrete form to” feeling (“Embody,” def.3a). This novelistic figuring forth of feeling serves Wollstonecraft’s “great moral purpose,” her ambitious political design, for it activates her readers’ empathy through affect, encouraging them to care about, in Wollstonecraft’s words, “the misery and oppression, peculiar to women, that arise out of the partial laws and customs of society” (Godwin, Maria 178, Wollstonecraft, Maria 67). Through Wollstonecraft’s invitation to imagination, her readers are transported into the fictional world of Maria, “[feeling] their hearts awakened”—as Godwin writes in his “Appendix” to the novel—and thus their empathy stirred by the evocation of emotion (163). This is what one could term Wollstonecraft’s politics of feeling, whereby she employs the feeling-oriented art of fiction to rouse her readers’ empathy and so enjoin them to partake in her political purpose. Wollstonecraft uses “fictional worldmaking” to prompt her readers to re-make their own world, inspiring them to step outside the fictional frame and address gender inequity in their own society (Keen, “Temperaments” 298).

Thus, why read Wollstonecraft? Because her emotionally-wrought fiction will affect you; because the greatness of her writing, its empathic force, will move you, stirring contemplative and investigative thought, which itself is fertile ground for dialogue. As Wollstonecraft asserts in her Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796)—a work praised by her contemporaries for the sympathy it summons in the reader through its acuteness and vibrancy of feeling—“[t]he most essential service . . . that authors could render to society, would be to promote inquiry and discussion” (33).1 This is precisely the achievement of Maria: not only does it contain the emotional effusiveness of Wollstonecraft’s Letters—“the natural and energetic expression of feelings” of which, according to a reviewer in the Monthly Mirror, “do credit to the writer’s heart,” and do “not fail to touch that of the reader”—Maria also possesses a political potency that demands critical attention and readerly reflection (qtd. in Brekke and Mee 164).2 In Maria, Wollstonecraft utilizes affective aesthetics to enkindle her readers’ empathy, persuading them to become “concerned participant[s]” in the life and experience of her oppressed and wrongly imprisoned female protagonist (Nussbaum, Knowledge 390). Indeed, in Maria, Wollstonecraft gives voice to several women silenced by a repressively patriarchal society, using stories within stories to highlight “the peculiar Wrongs of Woman” (Wollstonecraft, Maria 68).3 Through story, Wollstonecraft demands that her readers “attend to [the] histories, lives, and experiences” of women from a variety of backgrounds and social classes (Schaffer and Smith 1). And in teaching her readers to feel for and with her persecuted characters, in encouraging them to undergo an “imaginative process” of “experience-taking,” Wollstonecraft predisposes her readers to respond empathetically to similar human beings in their own lives (Kaufman and Libby 1).

Therefore, although known best for her groundbreaking feminist treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Wollstonecraft—an adept architect of narrative affect—should also be recognized for her literary deftness, for her masterful manipulation of the social medium of language as a means to imparting her political message. In Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft proves her polemical prowess; in Maria, she displays her artistry, illuminating the moral possibilities of feeling through emotionally evocative language. Consider, for example, the semantic charge and emotive power in Maria’s proclamation to her fellow inmate and soon-to-be-lover, the unreliable and effeminate Darnford: “‘I must open my whole heart to you; you must be told who I am, why I am here’” (Wollstonecraft, Maria 91). Although Maria—unjustly confined in a madhouse by her tyrannical husband, her only child having been callously stolen from her arms—is speaking to Darnford, she addresses the indefinite “you,” a practice she continues throughout her narrative. Maria’s habit of addressing that indeterminate “you,” in which the subject “you” is suspended in referential ambiguity, encourages an empathetic link, an affective alliance, between reader and fictive character. In this way, the reader becomes a participant in the story, functioning as Maria’s silent companion. This “sharing of affect” by means of the participatory imagination lies at the heart of fiction’s ethical power (Keen, “Empathy” 208). In Maria, Wollstonecraft harnesses the moral potential indwelling in fiction, cultivating care and compassion through emotionally persuasive storytelling and thereby motivating her readers towards ethical action.

Shoshannah Jones Square

You can read The Wrongs of Woman, Maria in Wollstonecraft’s Posthumous Works for free online or download it as an ebook from Project Gutenberg.

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Happy National Poetry Day from Great Writers Inspire!

Today is National Poetry Day here in the UK. This is a day to celebrate poetry in all its many forms, and right across the country people will be writing, reading, sharing and discussing poetry. The theme this year is ‘Stars’, and there are some fascinating projects – someone is even using fireworks to send poetry quite literally to the stars.

Great Writers Inspire includes learning resources which focus on many of the stars of literary history, including Shakespeare and Jane Austen. The materials are also arranged by theme, meaning you can see how these stars form constellations with other writers.

However, for me, there is one starry poet in particular that shines in my mind. John Keats (1795-1821) was one of the main figures in the second wave of the English Romantic poetry movement. You can download his poetry for free from Great Writers Inspire, and if you simply search for the term ‘star’ in the text (using control + f), you will find some of the finest examples of how stars can be rendered in poetry. Like all the materials provided here, these poems can be re-used and shared freely!

For now, I’ll leave you with the poem which gave its title to the 2009 film based on Keats’s life and romance, Bright Star.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

Charles Brown, Portrait of John Keats, 1819. Sourced from Wikimedia.

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