Oxford University Press

How best to tell the history of literature? – a long, chronological survey tracing broad arcs of development, or as a tight focus on a single, transformative year? The dedicated study of a single writer’s life, or the story of a movement, of several writers brought together for a time by some common cause? In recent years, the history of modernist literature has enjoyed these and other treatments. In Poets and the Peacock Dinner: The literary history of a meal (2014), Lucy McDiarmid takes as her subject a single evening: a dinner, held in West Sussex on 18 January 1914, in honour of the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and attended by six other poets, including W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound. That famous evening serves to focus a wide-ranging discussion of literary friendship and romance, collaboration and rivalry.

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If you are looking for the perfect command of voice, Alexander Pope is your poet. It is not just desiccated eighteenth-century rationalists who say this, my Keats-scholar friend Will Christie thinks so too. This is despite the fact that there is zero negative capability in Pope, ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. His ironies are precise riddles to be sprung, his judgements instant aphorisms. Pope writes exactly what he means, and it lands exactly on target.

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Shakespeare and East Asia is one of the latest titles released in the Oxford Shakespeare Topics series. Edited by Stanley Wells and Peter Holland, the Oxford University Press series is pitched at the elusive general reader who is seeking a primer on one of the many topics proliferating within the bustling industry of Shakespeare studies. Written by one of the directors of the MIT Global Shakespeares Archive, this book invites readers to think about the significance of Shakespeare’s continuing influence on cultural production in the Far East, and how Asian adaptations of his corpus participate in creating a contested image of Asia for audiences both in the region and in the Anglophone West. Assembling a varied body of cinematic and theatrical reworkings of Shakespeare from countries like Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, Joubin tells a story about Asian Shakespeares that is also a story about how a particular region has negotiated the imperatives of globalisation and the tacit anglicising effects of global culture.

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Along Heroic Lines by Christopher Ricks

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August 2021, no. 434

The first essay in Christopher Ricks’s Along Heroic Lines is the text of his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, an honorary post he held from 2004 to 2009. He takes as his subject the formal distinction between poetry and prose. If one is going to be a professor of poetry, the least one can do is arrive at a satisfactory definition of one’s object of study. To this end, Ricks summons to the witness stand an august procession of English poets and critics – Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, Alfred Tennyson, W.H. Auden, A.C. Bradley – and considers their authoritative pronouncements on the matter, only to arrive at the inconvenient conclusion that a strict line of demarcation is difficult to sustain.

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Michael Hofmann’s Messing About in Boats is based on his 2019 Clarendon Lectures at Oxford. This series, rather like the Clark Lectures at Cambridge or the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, offers a distinguished literary practitioner the opportunity to address a particular theme in a short sequence of interlinked lectures. Given that the form of oral delivery tends to preclude extensive or detailed critical analysis, the most effective of these sequences usually promote a few challenging ideas in a compact form that lends itself readily to crystallisation. For example, Toni Morrison’s book The Origin of Others (2017), which links racism to constructions of ‘Otherness’, was based on her Norton Lectures at Harvard the previous year.

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The Gallipoli campaign has a peculiar fascination for historians of World War I. This new book, by British historian Nicholas A. Lambert, is concerned not so much with the conduct of the campaign as with the reasons for its being launched. The chances for its success were known at the time to be low, so why was this gamble, which cost perhaps 130,000 Allied and Ottoman lives, taken?

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Refugee policies around the globe are under strain. As Alexander Betts recognises in the opening pages of The Wealth of Refugees, refugee numbers are increasing due to conflict and political instability in many countries, a situation that will be exacerbated in the future by climate change and the impact of Covid-19. Betts, a political scientist at Oxford University, also notes that populist nationalism has undermined the political willingness of wealthy countries to accept migrants and asylum seekers.

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Lost in Thought by Zena Hitz & The Battle of the Classics by Eric Adler

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June 2021, no. 432

The higher education sector currently faces a confluence of challenges that are imperilling the future of universities as they have traditionally been understood and the sort of intellectual life they have long sustained. The most immediately pressing concern is the impact of the pandemic that has eroded the financial stability of Australian universities, resulting in widespread job losses and the closure of entire departments. Overall state funding for higher education has in fact grown slightly over the past decade, but this increase has coincided with ever more complex and invasive attempts by governments to ensure that tax dollars are ‘well spent’, such as the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) exercise that began in 2010, the Engagement and Impact Assessment (EI) implemented in 2018, and the National Interest Test (NIT) introduced in 2019 for all applications for funding to the Australian Research Council. The impact of these efforts is felt across all academic disciplines, but some are hit harder than others, often by design, such as last year’s Job-ready Graduates Package, which has made most humanities degrees vastly more expensive than other subjects thought to lead to better employment outcomes.

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The French have a term for weighty tomes of scholarship: gros pavés or paving stones. Alexander Mikaberidze has landed his own gros pavé, an extraordinary account of the Napoleonic Wars of 1799–1815 in almost one thousand pages, based on an awe-inspiring knowledge of military and political history and a facility in at least half a dozen languages. The scale of his knowledge is breathtaking.

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Celestial Tapestry is a gem, indeed, a trove of gems: lavishly illustrated cameos from the science and history of art and mathematics, woven into a narrative about pattern and symmetry. We humans have an innate appreciation of symmetry, judging from 5,000 years of art, architecture, mathematics, and mythical and religious symbolism. After all, symmetry is all around us – in the shapes of our bodies, snowflakes, and seashells, and in the fractal-like branching of twigs and blood vessels. In its abstract, mathematical form, symmetry even underlies our modern theories of fundamental physics.

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