Dr Fergus McGhee

I have wide-ranging interests in Victorian literature and the cultural and intellectual life of the nineteenth century. My primary objects of study are Victorian poetry and non-fiction prose, especially art and literary criticism. I approach these in three main ways: intellectual history (particularly debates in aesthetics, theology, and psychology); ethical criticism and philosophical approaches to literature more generally; and theories of the lyric. 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 current 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 not simply frustration and disappointment but 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. Building on the ‘ethical turn’ in scholarship on Victorian fiction, I show how the period's poets and essayists offer a different vision of the perils and promises of knowing from that articulated in the century's great psychological novels. These writers explore how the wish to know may be tyrannical and self-thwarting as well as ethically fruitful and sustaining: freed from the longing for ‘That mirror / Which makes of men a transparency’ (Hardy), they discover how a person may be ‘Loved deeplier, darklier understood’ (Tennyson). For religious poets, too, God’s hiddenness becomes not simply a block to, but a resource for, faith.

This argument builds on Stanley Cavell’s work on language and scepticism, in particular his founding conviction (derived from Wittgenstein) that to examine how we use words is to examine our lives in the world. Like Cavell’s sceptic, Victorian poetry is haunted by the idea of human beings’ ineluctable finitude and separateness: the idea that, as Matthew Arnold put it, ‘We mortal millions live alone’. Yet rather than conceiving this as a tragic limitation, Victorian writers from Ruskin to Rossetti recognise that the condition of ‘half views and partial knowledge, of guesses, surmises, hopes and fears’ (John Henry Newman) shapes the very world in which knowledge, sympathy, and love acquire their meaning. Turning attention from character, plot, and perspective towards questions of voice, rhythm, and figuration also allows us to ask different questions about the ways in which experiences of knowing are variously stirred and stymied by reading—and to reflect on what these experiences have in common with knowing a person. 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 project traces the broad cultural debate, stretching across the nineteenth century, about the uses of indistinctness in art. Beginning with John Ruskin’s spirited defence of Turner’s painting, I show how arguments about the expressive potential of blurriness came increasingly to centre on poetry, which proved an indispensable testing-ground for emerging questions about the nature of perception, representation, and imagination. Disclosing surprising affinities between poets from Tennyson and Swinburne to Carroll and Field, this study asks what resources indistinctness offered to Victorian writers, artists, and thinkers. 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 exploring 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 my proposed project.

Further research interests include the functions of criticism, the Victorian reception of the Renaissance, and the essay 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.

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

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 Junior Research Fellow at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, where – together with a colleague in Classics – I founded the Cambridge Lyric Network, an interdisciplinary forum for research on lyric poetry. I currently sit on the Executive Committee of the International Walter Pater Society.

Outside 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.