Staff–Postgraduate Seminar Series

School of English, Trinity College Dublin

Abstract for Week Twelve

The Value of English Literature

What is the value of English literature?  Why do we want to read it, study it, teach it?  This paper explores the political, aesthetic and imaginative values of literature in English.

Professor Nicholas Grene, Trinity College Dublin


Abstracts for Week Eleven

Susan Howe’s Telepathy

One of the most important U.S. poets of her generation, Susan Howe was born in Boston in 1937. Daughter of Dublin-born Mary Manning (an actor and playwright for the Gate and Abbey Theatres and close associate of W.B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett), Howe began as a visual artist. Her text-based work eventually led her to composing poems, always with strong visual elements. She has published numerous books of poetry and essays with the esteemed press, New Directions.
Howe is also an eminent critic. She is author of My Emily Dickinson (1985), one of the groundbreaking studies of the 19th-century poet. Howe has described herself as a ‘library cormorant’, as she often uses archive material, from New England Puritan sources through William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, in her work.

This talk looks closely at Howe’s most recent book, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives (New Direction, 2014), and explores her singular achievement in American poetry and letters. Jonathan Creasy’s New Dublin Press is producing an ‘Evening with Susan Howe’ in Dublin – readings and conversations – in June, so this talk should provide a primer for that historic occasion.

Jonathan Creasy

“We are entering the age of the insect”: Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend as early eco-horror

The post-war years were formative for American eco-horror as we recognise it today, prompting a change in both the ways in which and the scale on which humanity perceived its ability to wreak havok on the natural world. Rachel Carson is rightly credited with bringing environmentalist concerns into the mainstream with Silent Spring (1962), and a wave of nature-themed horror films followed this burgeoning awareness. Earlier examples of post-World War II eco-horror, however, are less frequently recognised, even though the years after 1945 saw the emergence of a different kind of concern about nature; not focused simply on halting or reversing its erosion, but rather worried about the unintended side-effects of tampering with the natural world.

This paper will examine Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), a landmark in horror fiction, through an ecocritical lens, and highlight the ways in which it demonstrates a broadening and maturing of ecological concerns rarely recognised in pre-Carson texts. In doing so, it will aim to expand the current understanding of what consitutes eco-horror, and to explore previously unrecognised facets of a significant genre-text.

Emily Bourke

Abstracts for Week Ten

Felicitating the Whole of the Polis in Finnegans Wake and How It Is  (Wednesday, 18 March)

My question is: what is politics. I will begin through Aristotle’s Politics and his conceptualisation of the human as a political animal. I will argue that Aristotle’s Politics defines politics as fundamentally economical and instrumental. I will then turn to Beckett’s How It Is and then Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for both elucidation and nuance apropos being-towards-the-political and its inherent unworkability.

Dr Sam Slote, TCD

Minor Languages and European Modernism

Between the middle of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th, the linguistic map of rural western Europe changed dramatically, as populations abandoned the local languages (such as Irish Gaelic and Breton) and dialects (such as French patois and Low German) they had traditionally spoken, in favor of major, transregional languages such as English, standard Italian, French and German. We are accustomed to thinking of modernism as the literary mode of the city, but this talk argues that the sudden linguistic homogenization of the European countryside was a fundamental impulse in the development of high modernist ideas and feelings about language.  It will draw examples from French, Italian and Irish writers (e.g. Marcel Proust, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Seán Ó Ríordáin).

Professor Barry McCrea, University of Notre Dame

Abstracts for Week Nine

‘in the becoming was the weared’: Beckett, Joyce and Clothing

As a new way of thinking about the literary relationship between Joyce and Beckett, this talk proposes to use the representation of clothing in their texts as a way of drawing out key threads tha tboth weave them together and draw them apart. Taking Circe as a case study, this talk will argue for the importance of clothing to the writing of Joyce,as a means of creating meaning through a kind of textile over-determination. In Circe, this process almost becomes a parody of itself, where identity is invested almost totally in the cloth to the negation of the body and subject which gives it shape. The negation of body and subject is a familiar operation in the work of Beckett, but how it is enacted, through the medium of clothing and the revelation of the body in his work, is not through textile suffocation, as in Joyce, but in repetition and the constant threat of disintegration and nudity (bodily and otherwise). The representations of clothing in both Beckett and Joyce raise crucial questions about identity formation, going further than the well-worn maxim, “the clothes maketh the man” towards Thomas Carlyle’s more troubling assertion in Sartor Resartus that clothes “are threatening to make clothes screens of us all. ”Behind the cloth lurks the ever-present risk that nothingness abounds, a risk that drove Joyce towards a glorification in fabrication, while Beckett’s operations possess a more wary relationship to that which conceals a body and subject that is ultimately inexpressible.

Karl Peters

Suspicious Servants: Fielding’s Universal Register Office and the Elizabeth Canning Case

The paper will explore Fielding’s somewhat ambivalent attitude towards servants, suggesting that he had a deep-rooted distrust of this group and in particular, of their capacity for truth telling. In this context, the paper will examine his involvement in the Universal Register Office established in 1750. This office was established as a meeting place of sorts, and fulfilled many functions; a primary role however was to act as a recruitment agency, matching employers with potential employees. It is this role which the paper will focus on, examining the office’s attitude toward, and treatment of servants. In this respect, the paper will examine the policies and procedures practiced by the office in its attempt to defend against servant imposition.

In contrast to this, the paper will then examine Fielding’s role as a magistrate in the Elizabeth Canning Case, which occurred three years after the founding of the Register Office. This case, which involved the mysterious disappearance of a young servant girl and her suspicious reappearance twenty-eight days later proved highly controversial and divided public opinion. The paper will conclude by suggesting that Fielding’s belief in the marvellous and improbable story told by this young servant girl is ironically surprising given his evident suspicion of these domestic employees.

Vivienne Keeley

Abstract for Week Eight

Ireland’s Shakespeares: Politicising Biography

The topic ‘Shakespeare and Ireland’ has been much investigated over the course of the past several decades. One aspect of the topic that has received relatively little attention is the extent to which Irish writers and scholars have taken up the issue of Shakespeare’s biography. Thus, for instance, the first attempt at a systematic and fully researched biography of Shakespeare was undertaken by the Irish scholar Edmond Malone and a key text in Victorian constructions of the playwright was Edward Dowden’s Shakspere: a Critical Study of his Mind and Art. Other writers also presented fictionalised versions of Shakespeare’s life. This paper looks at a selection of texts from the nineteenth century through to the first decade of the Free State, tracking Irish imaginings of the playwright’s life, and reading these texts against the political context in which they were produced.

Professor Andrew Murphy, University of St Andrews

Abstracts for Week Six

Emily Lawless, Historical Fiction and the Nineteenth Century

The periodical press of late-Victorian London was not just a dynamic and integral part of public intellectual life, but an important space where Irish writers consolidated opportunities to expand their publishing careers. Of the many influential names that graced the pages of journals in the 1890s, an Irish cohort (including journalists, authors and politicians) was distinctly visible. Although today largely neglected figure of the literary revival, Emily Lawless was a prolific Anglo-Irish novelist who enjoyed a considerable degree of success in England. Her work dealt chiefly with Irish subject matters, and its popularity was such that even Gladstone was to admit his views on Ireland were influenced by reading her novels.

This paper focuses on a major element of Lawless’s periodical writings in the form of her historical fiction. The four stories published in the Nineteenth Century journal between 1880 and 1895 – ‘A Bardic Chronicle’, ‘Art Kavanagh’, ‘The Builder of the Round Towers’ and ‘Gerald the Great’ – draw upon many of the themes that characterise her longer works, most strikingly questions of historical appropriation and cultural translation. The paper deals with the idea and use of voice in her narratives, and how Lawless deliberately moves away from attempts at authoritative representation in recourse to Ireland’s Gaelic past. The interaction with colonial and Celtic revivalist concerns, significantly, demonstrates an awareness on Lawless’s part of contemporary national discourses that were being replayed throughout the whole of the Nineteenth Century and the intellectual press – a keen cultural sensitivity that typifies the most successful of her published work.

Nora Moroney

The Shop Window: The Honest Ulsterman and the Northern Canon

A number of critical studies on Northern Irish literature and culture have highlighted the important role played by little magazines in fostering a creative environment and disseminating the work of new authors. The literary “renaissance” associated with the “group” poets (Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon) of the 1960s is often seen as a turning point in the literary history of Northern Ireland. Commenting on the Honest Ulsterman, Edna Longley said that “[no] magazine could sow the seeds for the imaginative “flowering” and cross fertilisation that was already taking place when it was founded, but it could provide earth and a shop-window and encourage the plants to spread”.

The importance of the Honest Ulsterman in fostering a new literary scene has already been identified by a number of critics. Yet these studies are often limited to the role the magazine played in providing a point of solidarity for Northern poets in its early years. The longevity of the magazine proves its ability to remain relevant far beyond its connection to the ‘group’ poets. This paper explores how the Honest Ulsterman presented new poets and established certain criteria for writing in Ulster. Here, attention will be paid to how the magazine and its Ulsterman Publications pamphlet series offered a platform for new authors. It also argues that the magazine and the debates that it generated determines the reception and fostered the idea of “Northern poetry”.

Ben Simmons

Abstract for Week 5

Elizabeth Bishop’s Work of Fire

“At the Fishhouses,” published in A Cold Spring (1955), is a metaphor for how art alters our relations to the present moment:

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.

Imagining what knowledge would be requires a transformation of thought and a shift in how we perceive and experience physical reality. The ‘Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,/the clear gray icy water’ is transfigured into the feel of burning fire, the elements transposed in the move from a visual perception of the water to a visceral experience of it. And what maps this metamorphosis? The individual human imagination coming into contact with reality, perceiving one thing as another in a poem or in ‘art in the present time’ as Emerson noted in ‘The Poet’ (1844). This paper reads Bishop’s understanding of the transfigurative nature of art in relation to Emerson’s concept of poets as the ‘children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted’ before moving on to consider this poem in particular alongside Gaston Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire (1938) and Maurice Blanchot’s The Work of Fire (1949) to understand Bishop’s own take on the processes of art.

Dr Philip McGowan, Queen’s University Belfast