Dr Fergus McGhee

I work mainly on nineteenth-century poetry and non-fiction prose, exploring their relations with visual culture, moral philosophy, and intellectual history (particularly aesthetics and the history of psychology). Rather than advancing from any pre-ordained theory or context, however, I believe the best criticism always begins from a perplexity arising from the text's own expressive and inventive qualities. I therefore have a particular commitment to close reading and its creative possibilities.

My first book project, Darklier Understood: Knowing Persons in Victorian Poetry, arises out of my thesis and traces the passionate, compromised quests to know people—oneself, one another, and God—in a wide range of Victorian poetry. From Robert Browning to Alice Meynell, poets across the period show how the failure to know people as surely, or as intimately, as we desire may produce a host of unsuspected possibilities and pleasures. Such writing asks how knowing others relates to knowing oneself, and to being known in turn—concerns which have typically been regarded as the preserve of the novel. Bringing close readings of poetry into conversation with contemporary essayists and philosophers (Emerson, Ruskin, Pater, Newman, McTaggart), this study builds on Stanley Cavell's work on language and scepticism to reveal a new dimension of Victorian moral psychology and literary creativity. I also show how poetic form offers distinctive resources to ethical reflection, expanding accounts of literature's ethical value beyond familiar claims bound up with narrative as well as more recent appeals to alterity. An article I have already published in this vein, ‘Clough, Emerson, and Knowingness’, was awarded the Review of English Studies Essay Prize in 2020.

My second book, The Art of Indistinctness, traces the broad cultural debate, stretching across the nineteenth century, about the uses of indistinctness in art. Forging new connections between aesthetics, psychology, visual culture, and literary form in the period, this study examines the various kinds of value (including moral value) placed upon indistinctness as a tool of artistic expression. Beginning with John Ruskin's spirited defence of Turner’s painting, I show how Victorian criticism thinks carefully and extensively about the conceptual and expressive potential of indistinctness, and how this discussion incubated and responded to formal innovation across the arts. I then relate these developments to nineteenth-century psychological inquiry into perception and states of reverie and daydream. My article ‘Rossetti’s Giorgione and the Victorian “Cult of Vagueness”’ trials some of these questions in relation to a single sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and was awarded the Richard D. Gooder Prize for the best scholarly essay on the relations between literature and the arts in 2021. My article in Victorian Studies (‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Déjà Vu’) demonstrates how one might integrate close attention to literary form with the history of psychology, a key method for this project.

Further research interests include the functions of criticism, the Victorian reception of the Renaissance, and the essay as a literary form, all reflected in my recent work on Walter Pater (‘Pater’s Montaigne and the Selfish Reader’).

I have also edited a special issue of the journal Victorian Poetry which explores the theme of 're-encounter' from a wide range of interdisciplinary angles.

For Corpus, I teach across three ‘period’ papers – Prelims Paper 3 (1830–1910), Prelims Paper 4 (1910–present), and FHS Paper 5 (1760–1830) – as well as the theory and practice of criticism (Prelims Paper 1). 

For the Faculty, I am co-convening the third-year paper ‘Writing Lives’ and giving lectures on the philosophy of literature and nineteenth-century writing about art.

I have supervised undergraduate and Master's dissertations on a range of nineteenth-century authors including Coleridge, the Brownings, the Spasmodic poets, Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, Swinburne, and Michael Field.

After a first degree in Theology (at Cambridge), I was lucky to win a scholarship to pursue a second undergraduate degree in English at Oxford. I subsequently returned to Cambridge for the MPhil and completed my DPhil at Oxford in 2021, supported by a joint award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and All Souls College. From 2020-23 I was Haworth-Campbell Research Fellow at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where – together with a colleague in Classics – I founded the Cambridge Lyric Network, a cross-disciplinary forum for research on lyric poetry. I currently sit on the Executive Committee of the International Walter Pater Society.

Beyond my academic research I have written widely about literature and ideas for the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and The Art Newspaper.