This page contains abstracts of

  • Poem as Inscription: Ezra Pound to Ian Hamilton Finlay
  • In a Different Light: Imagining Greece in Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym
  • Women Writers and Readers in the Oxford English Dictionary
  • Text and Meaning in Charles Richardson’s New Dictionary of the English Language
  • Statistical Subjects? The Individual, the City and the Literary Text

Please scroll down to read individual abstracts.

Poem as Inscription: Ezra Pound to Ian Hamilton Finlay

My paper explores ways that modern poems draw on the traditions and generic resources of ancient inscription. They may imitate, or purport to be, inscriptions, finding new expressive potential in the conventions of epitaph, epigram, motto and graffito. Or they may be ecphrastic: evoking or meditating upon some inscribed object.
Three strands run through the paper: reader, writer and medium. Classical epigraphists have described how carved inscriptions invite a particular kind of reading experience, in which the passer-by approaches, views and responds to the written characters: there can be a dialogue with the monument and a re-performance of what it enjoins or commemorates. How do modern poems evoke a comparable experience in the reader? Can today’s poets, consigned to a narrowly private sphere, borrow (or mock) the authority of public inscription? What are the settings in which poems are placed, and the materials on and with which they are inscribed?
I begin with brief examples from three moments in the history of English literature which inform recent discussions of the “materiality” of word and text: Old English epic, Metaphysical conceit and Romantic lyric.
The paper then examines poems by Pound and Cavafy. Modernism was partly a response to new intimations of the elusiveness of meaning and the purely symbolic status of language. Pound’s poetry aims at perpetual mobility and open-endedness, even while aspiring to the condition of sculpture. Cavafy’s “inscription” poems are both lapidary and ironic, re-enacting the composition and reception of Greek epitaphs and dedications.
I conclude that a recurring impulse of later twentieth-century poets is to gesture towards monumentality in work that is fragmentary, lacunose, or ultimately erased. Examples include texts by U.A. Fanthorpe and Geoffrey Hill and laconic visual poems carved at “Little Sparta” by Ian Hamilton Finlay.


In a Different Light: Imagining Greece in Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym

By Rowena Fowler and Rose Little*

The chapter explores the importance of Greece in the lives and writings of Elizabeth Taylor (1912–1975) and her friend and contemporary Barbara Pym (1913–1980).  Both are often thought of as quintessentially English novelists, yet for them, as for their fictional characters, the experience of Greece—whether comic or poignant—casts a new light on national manners and assumptions.   Each writer is treated individually, but common points emerge.  We begin with their knowledge of ancient Greece before discussing their growing awareness of the continuing existence of the modern country.  Drawing on eight of Taylors’s novels and two stories, and on Pym’s novel A Few Green Leaves alongside her letters and unpublished travel diaries, we trace the ways they shaped their responses to Greece into narrative.  Taylor assimilated patterns of Greek myth and tragedy into everyday English settings but admitted that exposure to the contemporary Greek world could disorient and perturb.  Pym, with characteristic shrewdness, exposes the ironies and pitfalls of philhellenic self-discovery.  Both Taylor and Pym offer new ways of experiencing Greece and putting it into words.  Just as their imagined country looked different in the stark light of the Mediterranean their travels challenged their sense of themselves as women and as writers. 

Published in Greece in British Women's Literary Imagination 1913-2013, ed. Eleni Papargyriou et al. (Peter Lang, 2017), pp. 47-65.

* Rose Little is a freelance writer and scholar and editor of the Barbara Pym Society newsletter, Green Leaves.  She has edited the letters of Elizabeth Taylor to Barbara Pym.



Women Writers and Readers in the Oxford English Dictionary

My paper asks: how did women, as contributors and subjects, stand in relation to the establishment, development and cultural mission of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)? Of all the great Victorian learned projects (the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Dictionary of National Biography, the Victoria History of the Counties of England) the OED drew most extensively on the work of women: as the writers of texts from which words and illustrative quotations were drawn and as the voluntary readers and paid editors who compiled the text of the OED itself.  Now that the OED is almost fully searchable electronically and its process of compilation can partly be reconstructed from the archives, we can begin to identify the women (both well-known and obscure) who responded to the “Appeal to the English-Speaking Public” to “read” for the new dictionary. Which works did they choose to cite and what exactly were they looking for? Did their choices reflect or reconstitute the canon of English literature as it existed in the late nineteenth century? Did the writers themselves provide aids or challenges to the process of definition? I offer examples of both eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women writers as they appear in the OED, and attempt to account for some of the explicit or tacit principles which governed their selection.  (Some examples of numbers of quotations per writer in OED2: Jane Austen 1,093; Mrs Beeton 206; Aphra Behn 181; Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1,486; Maria Edgeworth 1,167; Felicia Hemans 164; Jean Ingelow 89; Mary Wortley Montagu 11; Florence Nightingale 159; Adelaide Anne Procter 6; Christina Rossetti 134; Hester Thrale 18; Queen Victoria 158; Mary Wollstonecraft 79.)  I also explore continuities and discontinuities in the ways they were approached by the readers for the original OED and for its twentieth-century Supplements (OED2). Finally, in reporting on the progress of the new online OED (OED3) I suggest ways that we can all contribute our knowledge of the women writers of the past to secure them a place in the dictionaries of the future.

Text and Meaning in Charles Richardson’s New Dictionary of the English Language

Charles Richardson’s eccentric New Dictionary of the English Language (1836-7) has no definition field, relying entirely on quotations to establish and demonstrate meaning. It offers a intriguing approach to the relation of citation to definition, an under-theorised area in historical and current lexicography. Drawing on discussions of quotations in Johnson (Kolb and Kolb 1972), Webster (Micklethwait 2000), Webster’s Third (Morton 1989) and OED (Taylor 1993, Silva 2000, Fowler 1998), my paper explores Richardson’s reliance on literary texts as both source and illustration of meaning. I investigate the tension between “literary” language and the very different, systematic, ordering of sense that is the business of the lexicographer: are writers credible “witnesses” of language (Willinsky 1994, Hill 1989) or do they remain a challenge and irritant to the dictionary maker (Burchfield 1987)? I discuss the selection, ordering and contextualisation of quotations, their use and misuse in establishing or unsettling meaning and their sometimes unassimilable autonomy within works of reference and record.

Statistical Subjects? The Individual, the City and the Literary Text

My paper explores the ways in which the Victorians’ understanding of probability and statistics framed their sense of themselves as citizens and city-dwellers.   It was with a mixture of optimism and panic that they experienced the breaking down of the “social body” into quantifiable units.   Advances in the collection of data and the measurement of uncertainty rendered the average person less certain of his or her autonomy, privacy and personal value.   Imaginative literature, and especially the novel, where “probable” character and plot depended on particularity and individual agency, was unsettled by mass tendencies and the laws of large numbers. Reading novels of London life by Dickens, Trollope, Meredith and Eliot, I argue that literary form both contributed to and was reconstituted by developments in statistical analysis and the mathematical calculus of probability.  The explosion of numbers in censuses, sanitary reports and tables of mortality suggested to the Victorians, wrongly but compellingly, a blind determinism at work in areas of life (marriage, crime, suicide) they had believed to be subject to choice and conditional on individual morality.   Other facts of life, outside human control but believed to be in God’s hands (the life span, the balance of the sexes), threatened to be reducible to mathematical laws.  I draw on the dissemination of demographic and statistical theory in Victorian popular discourse, and on recent work on probability as thematised in or as constructing literary texts, to show that London was at the centre of Victorian concerns about countability and accountability.   The city, the locus of randomness, anonymity, epidemics and faceless crowds, also offered the chance encounters, contingent relationships and structures of social interrelatedness that are at the heart of the Victorian novel.