I work principally on the literature and culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with frequent forays into later periods. My thinking about this period usually gets drawn back, in one way or another, to close and sustained encounters with Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Milton’s Paradise Lost. I’ve tended to work at the intersection between literature and contiguous fields – philosophy, theology, science, visual arts – and have longstanding interests in critical theory. I've lately been getting excited about the implications for literature of recent work in anthropology. I'm also particularly intersted in biography and life-writing, and in the intersections and overlaps between critical and creative practice.
Monographs and Articles
I am currently working on my fifth book, which will be focused on the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza. At the centre of this book will be the question: why has Spinoza - who is perhaps the least obviously literary of the great philosophers, his dense and abstract prose aspiring to the status of geometry - been so admired and beloved by a long series of great imaginative writers? My aim is to explore both the strangeness of Spinoza's writing in its seventeenth century rhetorical and philosophical contexts, and its many afterlives, in authors as varied as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, P.G. Wodehouse, Jorge Luis Borges, Clarice Lispector, and Cynthia Ozick. Like most readers of Spinoza I'm also interested in his status as a renagade Jew, part of an emerging interest in my work in Jewishness and Jewish writing. My current preoccupation is with how I want to write this book: with working out a form of critical writing that will be properly answerable to Spinoza's remarkable and challenging life, work, and afterlives.
My fourth book, an experimental biography of John Milton titled Making Darkness Light, was published by Basic Books in 2021 (paperback 2022). In it I interweave a narrative of Milton's life with explorations of the imaginative worlds of his major poems and reflections upon what it means to me to live with his poetry. The book was widely reviewed, including by the Sunday Times, Boston Globe, The Atlantic, and the New York Review of Books, and was a Publisher's Weekly starred review and a New York Times Editor's Choice. An essay emerging from this book, 'Milton, Freud, and my Cousin Hymie,' appeared on the New York Review of Books Online. You can see me discussing the book with Jeff Dolven and Michael Wood at Laybrinth Books in Princeton here.
My third book, Iconoclasm as Child’s Play (Stanford University Press, 2019), begins with the fact that, during the reformation, formerly holy things were sometimes given to children as toys rather than being broken or burned. In it I consider the conceptual intersections between iconoclasm and play in sixteenth century culture, and in later philosophical writing (especially T.W. Adorno and Alfred Gell). An article on Spenser emerging from this work appeared in PMLA.
My second book - A Stain in the Blood: The Remarkable Voyage of Sir Kenelm Digby – was about the seventeenth century polymath Kenelm Digby (1603-65), whose interests spanned literature, theology, natural philosophy, mathematics, alchemy and cookery. Aimed at the general reader, it focused on Digby’s 1628 Mediterranean sojourn, and was published by William Heinemann in 2016 (paperback 2017) and shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize for biography and the Elizabeth Longford Award for historical biography. I’m not yet done with Sir Kenelm, and am editing his correspondence (under contract with OUP), for which I have discovered a significant number of new letters.
My first book, Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England (OUP, 2014; paperback 2017), explored the varied and contested importance of touch. I combined sustained analyses of specific figures - particularly Spenser, Lancelot Andrewes, and Milton - with explorations of areas including the touching of relics and the Eucharist, of paintings and sculptures, the role of touch in faith healing and experimental science, the philosophical history of tickling, and the early reception of Chinese medicine in England.
My articles have appeared in PMLA, English Literary History, Modern Philology and elsewhere. They have mostly focused on early modern topics, but also include essays on Spenser and Hegel and Spenser and Proust, and I have an essay on Cynthia Ozick and idolatry forthcoming in Studies in Jewish American Literature.
Collaborations, Leadership, and Editorial Work
I am currently running a project, supported by a major grant from the John Fell Fund, titled 'Creating Criticism.' The aim of this project is to explore connections between creative practice and the conventions of academic writing, without opposing them: to see scholarship itself as generating new possibilities for critical writing. With Leah Whittington (Harvard) I organised an international conference, 'Creating Renaissance Criticism,' which invited participants to experiment with techniques of early modern writing in their own critical prose. We are now developing a volume of essays emerging from this conference. With Iris Pearson (Oxford DPhil) I have launched an ongoing series of 'Workshops in Experimental Criticism' in which speakers discuss their own practice and engage the audience in collective critical activities.
I co-edited, with David Hillman (Cambridge) and Namratha Rao (York) a special issue of Spenser Studies titled Companionable Thinking: Spenser With... (University of Chicago Press, 2023). The twenty-one essays in the volume pair Spenser's work with a series of modern thinkers, from Deleuze and Adorno to Sianne Ngai and Sylvia Wynter, and consider the frictions and relations that thereby emerge.
I also contributed to Companionable Thinking an essay co-written with Ayesha Ramachandran (Yale) that placed Spenser alongside the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. This is part of an ongoing collaborative project that we are undertaking along with Carina Johnson (Pitzer College) and Edward Wilson-Lee (Cambridge) on the affordances for early modern studies of the 'ontological turn' in anthropology, a body of writing that includes work by Viveiros de Castro, Marilyn Strathern, Roy Wagner, and others. We are co-writing a book on this topic, to be completed in 2024.
I am working with David Hillman (Cambridge) to develop a proposal to co-edit Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice for the new series of Cambridge Shakespeare Editions, which will have an innovative form of editorial annotation and apparatus.
I am currently the President of the International Spenser Society. In this role I have overseen and helped to launch numerous initiatives: these include a revamp of the Society's online presence, and the relaunch of the online journal The Spenser Review; the launch of an 'Inclusive Pedagogy Initiative', to produce events and resources that explore Spenser in relation to race, class, gender, and sexuality; and the ongoing 'Spenser at Random' online reading groups, where we close-read a stanza from The Faerie Queene chosen by a random number generator.
I previously served as interim Director of Oxford's Centre for Early Modern Studies, and helped to launch the series 'Early Modern Masterclasses.' I currently co-convene the Early Modern Literature Seminar with Lorna Hutson and Bart Van Es.
I am a series editor for the Edinburgh University Press series Edinburgh Critical Studies in Renaissance Culture, which I co-edit with Lorna Hutson and Kathryn Murphy from the Faculty of English, and Katherine Ibbett from the French Department. We are interested in proposals for monographs on renaissance literature and culture, especially those with an interdisciplinary bent.
I am currently Director of Teaching for the English Faculty. In this role I oversee all undergraduate and graduate teaching, in close liaison with the Director of Undergraduate Studies and Director of Taught Graduate Studies, and focus on larger strategic and structural matters relating to how we teach. Along with the Director of Research, I also deputise for the Chair of the Faculty when necessary. In this role I have launched, with Nick Gaskill, a Faculty 'Pedagogy Forum' to allow all those involved in teaching English to discuss both large and detailed questions relating to teaching.
I offer teaching for the English Faculty in FHS Paper 3 (English Literature 1550-1660) and Paper 4 (English Literature 1660-1760) as well as Shakespeare. I also teach for Prelims Paper 1B: Introduction to English Literature.
I particularly enjoy Oxford's emphasis on collaborative teaching. With Lorna Hutson I have co-designed and taught several undergraduate seminars on early modern literature and race, and on the ways in which early modern texts provide sources and provocations for later writers in their constructions and explorations of race. I have also enjoyed launching and co-running a work in progress group for graduate students and colleagues with Kathryn Murphy, and several public reading groups with Nick Gaskill.
I am currently co-convening the MSt in English Literature 1550-1700 with Lorna Hutson, for which we co-teach the A Course, 'Critical Questions in Early Modern Literature.' I have previously offered graduate classes on Spenser's Faerie Queene, and, with Bart Van Es, for three years co-taught the course 'Imagined Lives in Early Modern England,' exploring the connections between criticism, biography, and fiction.
I have supervised undergraduate and graduate dissertations on a wide range of topics. I am currently supervising an MLitt student working on Shakespeare and the emotions, and a DPhil student working on Spenser and Iconoclasm.
I am also keen to build connections between teaching practice within and beyond the university. With Hannah Crawforth (King's College, London) I have been working with the English Association and Dixon's Academy Trust in the north of England to establish a 'Hub', working with school teachers to explore practical and playful ways in which early modern teaching techniques can be re-activated and re-imagined in the modern classroom.
I enjoy finding ways of communicating my research to a wide and varied audience. In 2015 I was selected as one of the ten BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinkers. I continue to appear frequently on the radio, discussing my research and other topics of interes. I have appeared on panel discussions on Caravaggio, Milton, the photography of Cindy Sherman, and, the human knee and the history of the bedroom. My first radio documentary, to mark the 350th anniversary of Paradise Lost, was broadcast on Radio 4 in August 2017.
My reviews and essays have appeared in publications including The TLS, The White Review, and The Financial Times. I frequently review contemporary fiction and non-fiction for The Observer, including works by and about Bruno Schulz, Howard Jacobson, Jamel Brinkley (which was a 'book of the day') and Walter Kempowski.
My research has been supported by the Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy, the John Fell Fund, the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies.