Olivia McQuaid

olivia mcquaid

I never thought I’d study English at university, let alone Classics and English.

I was dead set on studying Medicine, taking Chemistry and Biology A-Level alongside Classical Civilisation and English Literature. I’d walk into the lab, ready to dissect a frog or perform a titration, clutching my heavily annotated and honestly, a bit tatty, copy of Paradise Lost, and would have to hide my folders of notes from the spray of ethanoic acid or a rogue splatter of fish innards. Like many other young people, I was blinded by the idea that humanities degrees were ‘lesser’, ‘not as academically challenging’, or ‘not as employable’, and, while I genuinely loved the sciences, a part of me was always stuck on the humanities. Eventually a combination of the realisation that I’d be a horrible doctor who’d pass out at the sight of even the tiniest bit of blood, pus, or guts, plus the random opportunity to go on a Classics and English study day at Oriel College while I was in Lower Sixth, led me to do a complete academic u-turn and plant myself firmly in the realm of the literary.

I had no clue what Classics even was until I was 16, having attended a state school which offered no classical subjects until I moved for sixth form. I picked it completely on a whim, planning to drop it by Christmas of Lower Sixth, but fell in love with the way it informed and reinforced my love for literature, intertwined and woven throughout English texts – accepted and embraced, rejected and reinvented for centuries. The Classics and English course at Oxford allowed me to learn Latin from scratch in less than a year – taking me from complete beginner to reading some of the most famous and illustrious extant Latin texts over the course of my first year.

As I write this, I’m beginning my reading for my third year, which truly puts the ‘joint’ in ‘joint honours’! The course is extraordinary in that I am allowed to completely combine Classics and English in the link papers offered, looking at Epic poetry over a timeframe of more than 2000 years, and how Classical texts are received in modern poetry in English. I’m really hoping to explore more works by Seamus Heaney, whose poetry has been a mainstay on my bedside table since I read Storm on the Island at GCSE, and who probably is the poet who, when I look back on my teenage years, was most formative in pushing me towards Classics and English (even if I had no clue what the classical references meant until last year…!)

Though now firmly planted in the world of the humanities, I still try to pay homage to my ‘science-y’ background in my work – this year Dr Mark Williams’ lecture series Literature and Magic touched upon Medieval and Renaissance alchemical texts, and the subtle ways thoughts and theories of these texts are woven throughout literature from 1370-1670. The lectures were genuinely something I looked forward to every week, and have completely transformed my way of thinking about texts and even some aspects of the universe – though I’ll definitely stick to books from now on.

That’s what I love about my degree – the complete freedom to explore and effectively take my own path through the course. Studying at Oxford has been such a privilege, even through every all-night-essay-crisis, every massive reading list, and even despite the 3000-page Shakespeare anthology awaiting me after I send this article in.