A fresh look at the wonders of Marvell

December 4, 1998

Who will shine in 1999? In the first of a series, Harriet Swain meets the English academics' English academic

Old battles over literary theory are passe. Today's issues exercising the minds of English department academics are both broader and more precise: selfhood and nationhood, for example, interdisciplinarity, the use of new technology, the environment, creative writing and intellectual history.

Asked for their views on who or what was to be the "next big thing" in English, department heads at United Kingdom universities confidently predicted the themes of the future but were unwilling to commit themselves to names. Worried about appearing to favour some colleagues above others, they were also surprisingly blinkered in considering people outside their research area or department (and, in one case, immediate family).

But the name that did crop up a couple of times in glowing terms and was known even to those whose work covered an entirely different area was that of Nigel Smith, chairman of Oxford University's English faculty board. Tipped by Martin Dodsworth, professor of English at Royal Holloway, and Paul Hamilton, head of the school of English and drama at Queen Mary and Westfield College, Dr Smith describes his work as "trying to find the lost voices in the 17th century".

Combining studies in English and history, exploring tiny communities and looking at relationships between nations in the British Isles and Europe, his research reflects many of the hot issues of the day mentioned by other colleagues.

Now 39, Smith took his first degree at the University of Hull in English and history - an experience that set an interdisciplinary base for his future career. From there, he moved to Oxford, where he studied Puritan writings during the English civil war, first at Lincoln College, then at St Cross, then as junior research fellow at Merton and finally at Keble, where he has been since 1986.

As a graduate student, he edited a collection of tracts emanating from the so-called Ranters, who practised free love in 17th-century England. He became fascinated by their prose style, which, he says, is similar to the way Rastafarians speak now - reorganising language in the name of the Lord. This led him to look at the collisions between the formal language of Reformation theology and narrative forms of mysticism and prophetic writing. By exploring these narratives, he began to find hints of the way novelistic discourse works. He also gathered clues to the way people developed "selfhood" outside their nation's definition of itself.

"The mid-17th century is usually thought of as a dead literary period," he says. "Theatres were closed, Milton was yet to write Paradise Lost; it is a period not taught very widely. But I began to see it was very crucial. The national crisis (the civil war between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists) produced a huge reorganisation of literary forms and the way they behaved. Then I began to see literature was playing a very important role in the civil war itself."

He became interested in the use of poems in political pamphlets and that of political discourse in poetry. He moved on to studying Andrew Marvell, poet, satirist, MP for Hull and author of works drawing extensively on political pamphleteering. Using computer analysis, Smith has helped to establish Marvell's authorship of a number of long satires, many of them pornographic, that helped undermine Charles II's ministry. He will produce a new, full edition of Marvell, who has become more of a hero to him than he ever expected, in two or three years.

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