Dr Fergus McGhee

Junior Research Fellow
Subject: English
Victorian literature; poetry of the long nineteenth century; intellectual history (especially problems of self-knowledge and knowledge of other minds); aesthetics and the philosophy of literature; the history of psychology; nineteenth-century theology; the Victorian reception of the Renaissance; Victorian writing about art.
Haworth-Campbell Junior Research Fellow

Dr McGhee is the Haworth-Campbell Junior Research Fellow at St Catharine’s with wide-ranging interests in poetry, aesthetics, and the intellectual life of the nineteenth century.

His current project studies the perils and promises of knowing people (oneself, one another, and God) in Victorian poetry. Entwining close readings of poems with nineteenth-century philosophy and moral psychology, it examines how the desire to know is variously framed in Victorian poetry (the sources and limits of our knowledge of persons) and the ethics of such knowing  the ways in which it might be valuable and sustaining, or tyrannical and self-thwarting. In particular, his study shows how poetry provides a challenge to the Victorian novel’s typical affiliation of knowledge with sympathy and love. For if such novels often suggest that salvation comes from knowing people more surely, poetry of the period explores how the failure to know people as fully, or as intimately, as we wish may produce not merely frustration and disappointment but unsuspected fruits of possibility and pleasure.

This argument builds on the philosopher Stanley Cavell’s work on language and scepticism, in particular his 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 purely as a tragic limitation, the poets are alive to the possibility that the condition of ‘half views and partial knowledge, of guesses, surmises, hopes and fears’ (in the words of John Henry Newman) belongs to the very world in which knowledge and love acquire their meaning for us.

Fergus holds undergraduate degrees in Theology and English and an MPhil in modern literature from Cambridge, where he won the Members’ English Prize for the best Master’s dissertation. He completed his doctorate on Victorian poetry at Oxford, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and All Souls College. Fergus was awarded the Review of English Studies Essay Prize in 2019 for his work on the poet Arthur Hugh Clough, and the Richard D. Gooder Prize in 2020 for an essay on the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He has presented his work at conferences and symposia around the world including Oxford, Cambridge, London, Birmingham, Venice, Vienna, and Chicago. He has also written about literature, art, and the history of ideas for the Times Literary Supplement, The Art Newspaper, and the London Review of Books.

Together with a colleague in Classics, he founded and convenes the Cambridge Lyric Network, a cross-disciplinary forum for research on lyric poetry, based at St Catharine’s.

•    Victorian Re-Encounters, special issue of Victorian Poetry, ed. Dominique Gracia and Fergus McGhee [forthcoming 2023].
•    ‘Pater’s Montaigne’, in Walter Pater and the Beginnings of English Studies, ed. Charles Martindale, Lene Østermark-Johansen, and Elizabeth Prettejohn (Cambridge  University Press) [forthcoming].
•    ‘Rossetti’s Giorgione and the Victorian “Cult of Vagueness”’, Cambridge Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 3 (2021), pp. 279-95.
•    ‘Clough, Emerson, and Knowingness’, Review of English Studies, vol. 71, no. 300 (2020), pp. 413-32.
•    ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Déjà Vu’, Victorian Studies, vol. 62, no. 1 (2019), pp. 61-84.

Richard D. Gooder Prize 2021; Review of English Studies Essay Prize, 2019; Members’ English Prize for best MPhil dissertation, 2017; Gibbs Prize for best performance in the Final Honours School of English, 2016