Spotlight on students: Adam Kelly

adam kelly

I knew the map from somewhere. It was maybe the third or fourth thing I noticed as I walked into the room, after the quad sprawling beyond the grand window, the William Morris upholstery, and the kindly tutor perched on the edge of her wingback chair, pouring ten cups of tea from an ancient kettle. The map that drew my eye was a map of the world, but not one that you or I could navigate. For a start, East was at the top, forcing me to look askance at the continents as if the terrain were entirely alien. I found Europe, then Britain, and then, vying for prominence with Rome, Paris, and Jerusalem, I found home, Hereford.

I was not raised to read medieval literature at Oxford; I doubt many are. I’d found myself in that beautiful room at Mansfield College by accident: doing well enough at my local college to win a study day at one Oxford institution, before mixing up my dates and ending up at Mansfield instead. This redirection, as they often tend to, proved utterly fateful. I walked in to the space with little aspiration to study at Oxford, hoping to enjoy the day above anything, and left in thrall to the strange world of that map and entirely committed to the idea. In the time since, long days sat on the floor of my grandmother’s living room, playing with a pop-up Camelot (besieged by a looming labrador), and trips with my parents to see the original Mappa in the local cathedral, have gained a resonance that until then passed me by.

In the grand space, the familiarity of the map offered something for my shy self to hold on to and I began to answer questions. It is to the credit of Lucinda Rumsey, tutor extraordinaire, that she seized upon a moment at the close of the class to encourage me to apply. The three years she taught me at Mansfield were the essence of what Oxford ought to be. We began first year with the Old English poem known as ‘The Wanderer’, a lament on the shortness of life and the passing of friends that ranks among the best of all dour literature. I was hooked. For second year I wound up taking the road less-travelled, Course II, eschewing the Renaissance for a taste of Romance in Old Norse and Old French. An incredible course, and one generous in allowing me to write on all things medieval, alongside avant-garde poetry, Shakespeare, and a dissertation on Nabokov. All this while swerving clear of The Faerie Queene

There’s a contrived symmetry to my time here, in that I began studying English, had a mad and valuable Master’s year pretending to be a STEM student and working on formal logic and psycholinguistics, and am now cresting the final year of a doctorate, in English again. My academic career has been far from straightforward, occasionally maddening for myself and those around me, but I hope vindicated by the work I’ve done and wherever I go next. The greatest gift this time has given me is an appreciation for great teaching. The absolute privilege of hours spent face-to-face with a giant in your field, who seeks not to crush you but to raise you up.

My doctoral work is on ‘Medieval Melancholies’ and has me attempting to understand the diverse ways that complex sadness was expressed and read in the space between Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance. When I say I work on melancholy and depression, some recoil, but most draw near, encouraged I think by that kinship we feel with those in the past through a shared suffering. That’s not to say the work is entirely downbeat - one of the most affirming aspects of studying a dark topic is finding endless remedies, therapies, words of comfort. An austere monk consoles a novice suffering from ‘acedia’, the weariness that strikes them all, while a macho knight offers consolation to a comrade in the throes of love melancholy. Though not all I work on is so bright, there’s a ubiquity to human resilience that never fails to uplift.

When the thesis is done (I say to myself) it may well mark the end of my time here. It’s been too much to make pithy, but the perspectives it has offered will last. To come from quiet beginnings, to live and work alongside peers from every place, and to have a few run-ins with the (not so) great and the (not so) good, has been enlightening. To go toe-to-toe with the authors of so many books on my shelf, and to learn that in the main they are generous with their time and knowledge, has been irreplaceable. Whatever is said by market demands or government screeds, there is an intrinsic value to studying literature and language in a place like this. I hope I’m far from the last to know it.

Adam Kelly is a 3rd Year DPhil student at Worcester College, where he works on 'Medieval Melancholies'. He can be contacted by email: