The Living Nature of Past Literature

To me, a poem revolves around the associations it draws from its reader.  This idea has influenced powerfully my development as a scholar.  My past research projects have provided opportunities deeply to explore the way themes and motifs evolve and dissolve through poets’ manipulation.  The network of associations a reader draws from a poem constantly changes, grows, develops, and dissipates as new elements, both of the text and of experience, are introduced.  This organic dialectic between subjective reality and literature led me to write my undergraduate thesis about T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.  Both poets’ work engages not just with narrative content but with the function of poetry, and this pursuit of poetry’s purpose impels me to become a professor of literature.

The late medieval and twentieth-century American periods, though seemingly worlds apart, have fostered my intellectual growth.  My way of thinking about poetics is, in a sense, mythical: symbols assume new meaning as they interact with other symbols and personal experience, and the way in which this meaning grows is often the meaning itself.  Eliot harnesses this changeability in his introduction to The Waste Land: “April is the cruelest month” perverts Chaucer’s celebratory opening to The Canterbury Tales.  Both poems are spiritual journeys.  In my future research, I plan to explore the ways such texts as Eliot’s poem not only follow from, but are sustained and transformed by, older texts.  As Eliot argues in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” past and present literature exist together in an eternal present; the addition of a new text recreates the canon.  Chaucer’s tales are not mere influences; they are alive.  At the same time, that eternal present is always turning into a new past in need of constant renewal.

As a research assistant for The College of [redacted]’s Project MUSE, I examined the way poets recreate, rather than echo, their predecessor’s voices.  Professor [redacted] and I compared the style of late medieval and Renaissance poets in order to determine ways in which Chaucer was the father of early modern English poetry.  My current interest rests on this framework of literature as an organically connected body.   David Holmes, a prominent stylometrist, theorizes that the frequency and grammatical context of words in a text illuminates its author’s style.  Holmes made lateral comparisons between contemporaries; Professor [redacted] and I applied his method to literary history.  With the aid of computer software we measured Chaucer’s, John Lydgate’s, and Edmund Spenser’s stylistic signatures.  Though the project continues, Chaucer’s idiosyncrasies seem active in Spenser’s texts.  This endeavor inspired my ongoing search for reciprocal relationships between distant periods.  Chaucer’s presence in Spenser’s poetry exemplifies Stevens’s supreme fiction, reality which constantly changes yet always refers back to itself.

The College of [redacted], a small public college with a strong liberal arts program, has provided me with a focused and personalized education.  All courses at [redacted] are taught by professors devoted to both their students and their research.  While writing my thesis I met weekly with Professor [redacted]; he guided my project in a critically relevant direction while encouraging me to pursue my own interests.  I hope to gain insight into such mentorship by teaching sections under the auspices of the University of [redacted]’s faculty.  [Redacted]’s analysis of the seasonal arc in Stevens’s poetry particularly intrigues me, as does [redacted]’s study of medieval travel and sexuality.

My background in philosophy, my second major, has been essential to my development as a critic.  While English provided a theoretical foundation and a wide breadth of reading, philosophy trained me to build robust logical arguments and to engage with theorists analytically.  Literary theorists are not scientists; rather, they are philosophers who think categorically in order to classify the semantic structure and poetic effect of text.  In my thesis, I addressed questions concerning the nature of reality as conceived by Eliot and Stevens; my experience untangling metaphysical problems allowed me to make fine distinctions between reality-as-divinity and reality-as-material.  This skill, in conjunction with my practiced use of abstract concepts as theoretical frameworks for larger discussions, informs my continuing study of medieval and modern poetics.  As a student of philosophy, I am equipped to articulate and defend my growing theories about the living nature of past literature.

One’s ability to create and transform subjective reality through symbols that both epitomize and obscure meaning is central to my academic inquiry.  For me, Stevens’s idea that the imagination both produces and is a part of reality resonates above all others.  As I argue in my honors thesis, both Eliot and Stevens are what Blanford Parker, in his remarkable Triumph of Augustan Poetics, calls logists: they push language (logos) beyond its material limits.  I believe the poet harnessesas Coleridge suggestedthe process of consciousness: an evolving collection of symbols, a myth recreated in every moment and never complete.  Eliot’s logism is Christian; he attempts to facilitate the reader’s experience of God.  In doing so he treats his poetry, a succession of symbols, as a machine to be used and then discarded.  Hence Eliot develops motifs of the four elements in “Little Gidding” that culminate in death: he wishes to reveal God in the earthly elements’ wake.  This treatment of language as mechanical marks Eliot as a modernist.  Stevens similarly invokes old symbols in order to negate them: the dove of the Holy Spirit becomes a pigeon in “Sunday Morning.”  However, Stevens shows his reader that poems are not dead objects; they are symbolic of, and synonymous with, realitya vital, continuous process: in this he is both a secular logist and postmodernist.  Eliot and Stevens disagree on the fundamental question of whether language, in facilitating the experience of reality, transcends itself or reflects upon itself.  In my graduate studies I wish better to understand the ways in which poets resolve this tension.  I hope to take Stevens’s philosophy further by exploring the living worlds created by late medieval poets, these worlds’ presence in modern literature, and their ongoing function in literary history.


This application received an offer of admission from a top 10 public university.

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