MaryEllis Gibson

Much of my scholarly work is based in the reciprocal relation of research and teaching. Teaching often leads me to new areas of research, and conversely my research always finds it way back into curricular development and classroom practice. Much of my teaching and research has focused on questions posed from an interdisciplinary perspective: How do poets understand or remake tradition? What language, form, metaphors, themes can migrate from one place to another, from one time to another? How do the material conditions of oral transmission, writing and publishing and the institutions of reception and preservation make possible the persistence of poems over time and space? How does literary form respond to ideas of history, political hopes, and personal understandings of identity?

These questions guide my research in American and other English language poetry in the period since the industrial revolution. My monographs, edited volumes, special journal issues, and essays return to these questions, and particularly to the nexus of historical understanding and poetic form. My first book, History and the Prism of Art: Browning’s Poetic Experiments (Ohio State University Press), investigated nineteenth-century historicisms and their implications for the dramatic monologue, historical irony, and the long poem. The book ranged across the whole of Robert Browning’s long career, from his early infatuation with Shelley’s politics through the great monologues to his late meditations on art and religion. The volume ended with a consideration of similar questions in the long poems of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson. This work was supported by a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies. My early work and my current projects cross temporal and spatial divides, looking at transatlantic and global exchanges and the links between nineteenth-century and modernist writing.

My second monograph, Epic Reinvented: Ezra Pound and the Victorians (Cornell University Press) continued this examination of history and historiography, politics and poetic form, literary inheritance and canon formation. It examined the social, political and literary dimensions of Ezra Pound’s engagement with poetic tradition from Dante to Browning, from Confucius to the Pre-Raphaelites. At the same time it engaged with the ways forms of tropological reading might inform our understanding both of the poetic form and the political valence of The Cantos.

While I was examining the importance of nineteenth-century historical paradigms for modernist poetics, I was also pursuing another line of research, one extending postcolonial theory to the colonial archive. My research in archives in the UK, the US and India was supported by grants from the American Institute of Indian Studies (declined), a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship, and fellowships from the NEH and the National Humanities Center. It resulted the simultaneous publication of two books, Indian Angles: English Verse in Colonial India from Jones to Tagore and Anglophone Poetry in Colonial India, 1780–1913: A Critical Anthology. The reviews of these volumes make clear that they are in many ways groundbreaking in their historical reach, critical approach, and archival depth. Indian Angles is based in my identification of virtually every book of English verse published in nineteenth-century India, and it uses selections from these volumes and authors to chart the invention of English language literature in India and its development across the long nineteenth century. Anglophone Poetry made accessible for the first time the range of poems written in English on the subcontinent from their beginnings in 1780 to the watershed moment in 1913 when Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Even as the monograph established the reciprocal exchange between colony and metropole and the transperipheral connections making possible global Anglophone literacies, the anthology made available accurate texts for such well-known poets as Toru Dutt and the early nineteenth-century poet Kasiprasad Ghosh. The historical scope of the anthology, beginning with the Orientalist Sir William Jones and the anonymous “Anna Maria” and ending with Indian poets publishing in fin-de-siècle London, has enabled teachers and students to understand what brought Kipling early fame and why at the same time Tagore’s Gitanjali became a global phenomenon. The anthology allows scholars and students to experience the diversity of poetic forms created in this period and to understand the complex religious, cultural, political, and gendered divides that shaped them.

I am currently in the midst another book project. Cosmopolitan Poetics in Nineteenth-Century India: Four Literary Lives will comprise four literary biographies, designed to attract both scholars and general readers; it aims to provide a historical mirror on our own time of intellectual and cultural migrancy. On the basis of manuscript materials, newspaper archives, and published materials from the nineteenth century, I have begun to discern common patterns in these unheralded literary lives. From John Leyden, born in 1775 in a peasant cottage in the Scottish borders, to Emma Roberts who supported herself as the first woman journalist in India, to Honoria Lawrence embarking for India in 1838 to marry a man she hadn’t seen in ten years, to Toru Dutt born in 1856 to a wealthy family in Calcutta, the four poets I examine defined cosmopolitan spaces. They lived in what James Clifford calls “worldly, productive sites of crossing.” They created fragmentary connections between the global and the local through the medium of English verse. And they died young, having no time for memoir or recollection. Rather, they left records of financial transactions and poems, letters and travel writing, giving evidence of their efforts create places for themselves in Scottish, Irish, English and Indian societies. For them, the differences between Britain’s internal colonies—Scotland, Ireland and even Wales—were often as daunting as the boundaries between Britain and South Asia. None of them was born to the privilege of the successful imperialist, but taken together they represent the tensions between transoceanic empire and internal colonialism. Though all four occasionally associated with the powerful, they were ordinary middling people who, at moments of great stress or anxiety, created extraordinary lyric poetry. I hope to complete this project in 2017-18.

Along with these monographs, I have published a number of edited books, from the collection of essays on Browning which became a standard reference volume for many years, to two collections of short stories by Southern women writers, to my current editorial projects. I recently received a contract from Anthem Press (London, UK, specializing in academic titles in the humanities), for an anthology, Futurist Fictions in Colonial India, which will contain a group of science fiction stories published between 1830 and 1905. Virtually unknown and written by both British writers living in India and Indian writers, these stories are astonishing in their daring—they imagine new societies (and the death of the status quo) from utopian democracy, to an ecological deluge, to anti-colonial revolution.

As second edited collection is now in the formation stage. With Jason Rudy of the University of Maryland, I am bringing together a series of essays under the rubric of comparative colonial poetics which we are calling Poetry: The Common Property of Empire, 1780-1900. We anticipate publishing essays by a dozen prominent critics in the field which will allow us to think clearly about the ways English language poetry was exported, circulated and appropriated in the English speaking world in the nineteenth century.

I am completing an edition of futurist and science fiction written in colonial India by both British and Indian writers. Futurist Fictions in Colonial India will be published by Anthem Press in 2018.