This week, at the University of London’s annual Graduation Ceremony, I was fortunate to interview some fascinating people from all over the world.
I spoke to individuals and families from Thailand, Japan, Trinidad, Switzerland and the UK, discovering some of the fascinating stories behind our graduates’ achievements.
One of these interviews reminded me of something quite close to home.
London-based Frederick told me how an MSc in Finance had transformed his life after 30 years in the financial services industry.
His work so far has proven that an industry model which uses derivatives to predict exchange rate fluctuations is flawed. He now hopes to generate a new formula that can successfully predict the magnitude and direction of these changes.
It’s a project of great promise. But when he returned to study a few years ago, his biggest challenge was getting to grips with the technicalities of the language and theory.
“I didn’t know what ‘stochastic’ meant. It goes on and on”, he said. “I had to learn a whole new language before I could begin to read the subject.”
This reminded me of a similar challenge ahead of my own master’s degree.
I had identified somebody I really wanted to work with – James Loxley, author of Royalism and Poetry in the English Civil Wars, which had been instrumental in my undergraduate dissertation.
The one sensible thing to do before starting the master’s year was to read more of James’s work. So, I attempted to read his chapter, ‘The Prospect of History: Marvell’s Landscapes in Contemporary Criticism’ in Marvell and Liberty (Palgrave, 1999). In 2006, this volume was still the most recent collection of essays on Marvell, and among the most influential.
But I had the same problem as Frederick – it all seemed alien at first.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. At school, I’d dropped history at the age of 14 in favour of Latin and modern languages. As a joint-honours undergrad at Bristol, classes in Latin replaced the ‘Critical Issues’ course that was compulsory for single-honours English.
While my final-year dissertation had introduced me to the duels between historians Lawrence Stone and Conrad Russell and between literary critics Cleanth Brooks and Douglas Bush, I still hadn’t understood much about them, or why it mattered to someone writing about seventeenth-century poetry.
The discipline of critical theory was still too new to me, and I wasn’t ideally placed for postgraduate study, let alone a research master’s. James’s piece unnerved me into action at just the right time.
Become familiar landscapes
What did I learn? Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, just as Marvell defies rudimentary categorisation, so do his critics. The rise of ‘new historicism’ (or cultural poetics) via Stephen Greenblatt et al. in the 1980s doesn’t fit cleanly at all with the Marvellian critical landscape.
This new historicism fashioned itself as a wiser, more mature improvement on older models of historicism and the ‘new criticism’, pledging to incorporate the lessons learnt and marry the different approaches together.
But broad reconciliation was hardly likely, and the tide had, in fact, already turned.
John Wallace’s Destiny His Choice: The Loyalism of Andrew Marvell (Cambridge, 1968) was a powerful demonstration of renaissance literary history at least a decade earlier. And several other critics, including Annabel Patterson, had found themselves unable to contain Marvell the poet, politician and prose satirist within a ‘new critical’ container.
The need for an alternative critical environment had long been anticipated by Marvellians, who had let knowledge and interest take its course. There was no waiting for somebody to formalise this orthodoxy, nor any major difference once Greenblatt had done so.
As has been demonstrated since by works including Derek Hirst and Steven Zwicker’s Orphan of the Hurricane (Oxford, 2012), which leans on psychoanalytic assumptions, Marvellian criticism follows contemporary, eclectic and – I would argue – highly personal frontiers. It doesn’t wait to be dictated by trend; it’s just as likely to anticipate trends.
After spending the first four months of my master’s year reading and building a 15,000-word synthesis of seventeenth-century literary history (some of which was initially published here), during the year I came to understand the arguments that James was making.
Serenely, my supervisor’s own work proved the perfect yardstick for mapping the progress of my understanding over a 12-month period.
A Cavalier tribute
At this juncture, I’d like to introduce the main reason for writing, which is to pay thanks to James, who this week wrote exquisitely about mental health.
It’s something that has cropped up here regularly. This site is a long trail of difficult moments, and I’ve long believed that these have fuelled my studies.
If I’m interested in privacy, it’s because of an obsession with loneliness and emptiness, bachelorhood, the need for space and silence, and the subsequent fear of them. I’m struck by the need to address it and yet also to conceal it, and curious as to why some of us throw ourselves from one extreme to the other in terms of company and activity.
None of this is entirely healthy, but investigating it in Marvell – an enigmatic, lost, lonely character – was a thoroughly cathartic and therapeutic practice.
It’s precious and rare to hear a fellow Marvellian talk so candidly about vulnerability and anguish. Somehow, bizarrely, it retrospectively makes me feel less alone.
And for that, just as for the support and guidance 10 years ago that helped me towards a distinction and an academic post in Geneva, I am incredibly thankful.