‘With or Without? Is there any History in this class?’

Philip Martin

In the classroom should we read literature with or without history?

My exploration of this question begins with an outline of what I assume to be a typical, or at least, a common, classroom dilemma. A literary text – or a series of such texts if we are thinking about a whole module – is to be introduced to a group of students. In planning the class, or the module, the tutor recognises the precondition of some historical knowledge to enable better understanding of the object of study.The nature of this knowledge need not be particularly exotic or recondite, and may be more or less crucial to the text in hand. I may want to explain some aspects of Romantic ideas of liberty by referring to the French revolution (less crucial) or to explain Pope’s political disillusions by referring to the collapse of the Tories (more crucial, perhaps because of precise textual reference to politics or political figures). I cannot assume – in either case – that the students will have any prior historical knowledge, to the extent that there may be no established notion of an historical chronology which would, for instance, contain the awareness that the French revolution predates the Napoleonic wars. So the dilemma is this: I know the historical information has to be put in, but how do I know it makes sense, or is any more than a bewildering cipher in the students’ minds? Simply referring to the French revolution (if you have absolutely no knowledge of what this might mean) will not help very much. And in addition, even supposing that all the students know nothing or very little about it, a disquisition on the French revolution may have a strong alienation effect in devaluing the students’ prior, and ahistorical, reading of the text. A contextual reading, a contextual pedagogy, continually bears this liability to take the text out of the students’ hands and place it in the irrefutable grasp of an imposingly authentic better knowledge: history, the factual tyrant governing literature’s fictions.

Now of course there are complex and sophisticated arguments surrounding the nature of historical knowledge, which at an advanced stage, can be introduced to place literary discourse and historical discourse in a parallel or equivalent relation, but I am not discussing working at those levels. I know something about quantum physics, but Newtonian physics provide a more reassuring and enabling understanding of why I don’t float around (gravity); I know about grand narratives and metanarratives, but a broad historical awareness strongly informs my sense of why it is that Dickens can’t be considered in any useful sense as an eighteenth century novelist. A great deal of literature teaching is structured through a curriculum heavily dependent on notions of historical periodisation, and it’s that notion of periodisation, and the historical assumptions within it – namely that history in some way incorporates literature, and that this incorporation is not negotiable - that I want to explore.

For the common paradigm implies something about the nature and relative status of two fields of knowledge – the literary and the historical. Because the historical is here being realised as a chronology (that is, a sequence of events that is arranged in such a way as to imply relations of consistency or conformity or linearity on the one hand, and causation explaining change on the other), then the notion of the conditional only works in one axis – literature is conditional on history. Even while most of us would want to contest this relation of status, it is confirmed – tacitly yet powerfully – at the broad level of the periodised curriculum, or – equally strongly perhaps – by the procedures of contextual readings.

These matters need to be taken apart. Contextual readings usually begin at the level of explication, which is to say that they are commonly introduced to make sense of what might otherwise be a puzzling or even nonsensical text – in its most local manifestation such explication can be lexical, or a matter of explaining contemporary allusions, but they can quickly expand to cover such matters as register, mode, content and so on. Periodisation may well embrace a curriculum intent on demonstrating differences between texts, but it consistently implies a greater hegemony of enclosure – historical periods in some way enclose and declare textual sameness: Victorian literature may be no more than a convenient way of putting together a bunch of texts but we should not underestimate the pervasive and insidious effects of the collective term.

Historicists like myself therefore work continually with this paradox: historical understanding is ideally the means of making texts more cogent by explaining them and enhancing meaning rather than leaving it trapped and unavailable, but in practice there is always the risk of the act of liberation backfiring – in other words meaning becomes trapped by the enthralling power of history. And this is continually reinforced by the heightened status of context in literary studies – in book series, in the new A/S and A2 syllabi, in the baleful litany of learning outcomes. This material context of our own work – the apparatus in which it is housed – has a massive effect. As a consequence, we might find ourselves, however uneasily, rewarding student work which is over-governed – or overdetermined – by this mantra for context. The problem, quite simply, is that ‘context’ in practice (and not in theory) might be immune from critical inspection. And thus literary texts, or indeed all texts, run the risk of being read as indicators of history’s truth or hegemony, as reflections of a backdrop that in this process becomes a foreground.

If we wish to continue to work historically and at the same time prevent this happening – and the place at which it most commonly happens I guess is somewhere in the middle orders of student ability – we have to promote far more actively the notion of texts as active agents in history themselves.The case has been concisely argued by William Galperin in his recent book on Jane Austen:

… historical readings invariably make Austen’s writings answerable to a given context instead of appreciating the degree to which the novels are just as much a context in themselves where matters of history, ranging from the literary to the social to the very reality on which the narratives dilate, work to complicated, if antithetical ends.1

To force this a little further we might say that texts contain their own contexts to a meaningful extent, and that the interchange between these elements is in some way, a history in process. This is not a convenient retreat to the notion of the literary as an autonomous field of knowledge, but an acknowledgement that texts are both forms and forces of historical agency (they have active effects in the realm of cultural meaning), that authors are the source of this agency, and more, that texts are in themselves primary historical documents – of a particularly rich and complex kind. This is to invert the old argument about the laundry bill as literary text of course: my point is that the literary text is just as historically authentic, and more so, than the laundry bill.

So in a way my answer to the question – ‘with or without: is there any history in this class?’ is yes, in all cases necessarily so, but how we use or construct this history is crucial. I want to explore this a little further before challenging this assumption through the (faintly preposterous) notion of the ahistorical text.

If I am teaching Milton this involves a fair amount of history that I will want to make available to the students. I need them to know about the social structure of seventeenth-century England to the extent that if reference is made to the struggle between King and parliament, or to Puritanism, then it does not draw a blank – it makes sense. And the reason I want to do this is not because I want them then to anaesthetise Paradise Lost by pinning it against the crude historical narrative, but to recognise Milton’s texts as active makers of history by hearing Milton’s voice as one which is both politically and religiously motivated, and by understanding each text thereby as a form of agency in which the ‘literary’ and the ‘historical’ are in fact ineluctably intertwined. Milton’s choice of the heroic form, and the allusions or quotations within it can be explained by a vocation which is political, religious and literary in proportions which cannot be measured because the divisions between them are in fact illusory.The presumption of Paradise Lost then, is precisely the presumption of a religious politics which validates the individual voice as one communing with the word of God without mediation. Now to deny this knowledge to the students, is to deny them the bridge which enables them to understand Milton as historically ‘other’; to leave them therefore, with the befuddling notion that Milton’s poetic form is perversely adopted to make it as unavailable as possible, or that it is a mystery that is beyond explanation. But the only way to understand this knowledge is to work it out from within the poem: Milton does not present the reading paradigm through which all literature of the seventeenth century can be understood – history is intrinsic to the text, not extrinsically operated from the outside.

But, it may be argued, and quite correctly so, Milton is a special case (in fact the corollary of my argument is that all ‘history’ is since we are looking at specific – or special – historical material in each and every text). So let’s look at an example of a text which – for the purpose of argument – might be considered ahistorical in the dimension of reading (clearly not in the dimension of production, since that is impossible). My example comes from the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt:

What menythe thys? When I lye alone,
I tosse, I turne, I syghe, I grone;
My bedd me semys as hard as stone:
What menythe thys?

I syghe, I playne continually;
The clothes that on my bedd do ly
Always methinks they lye awry:
What menys thys?

In slumbers oft for fere I quake;
Ffor hete and cold I burne and shake;
Ffor lake of slepe my hede dothe ake:
What menys this?

A mornynges then when I do rysse
I torne vnto my wonted gysse;
All day after muse and devysse
What menys thys?

And yff perchance by me there passe
She vnto whome I sue for grace,
The cold blood forsakythe my face:
What menys thys?

But yff I sytte nere her by
With lowd voice my harte dothe cry,
And yet my mowthe ys dome and dry:
What menys thys?

To aske ffor helpe no hart I have,
My tong dothe fayle what I shuld crave,
Yet inwardly I Rage and Rave:
What menys thys?

Thus have I passyd many a yere
And many a day, tho nowght apere;
But most of that that most I fere:
What menys this?2

Working through my model, history’s primary intervention might be at the level of explication. So what needs explaining here? Well, at the first cut, nothing. I can imagine that students will have questions to ask about the conventions of Tudor spelling, for I have chosen this poem in part because it so obviously comes to us dressed in the arcane cloth of history, but beyond that, there is little material here through which we could plot a course of contextual enquiry. Perhaps, if the biography were reliable, we might be able to pin this poem to a liaison which has some political intrigue about it (common enough in Wyatt after all), but it is unlikely that this would contribute anything specific to the poem even while the poem might add something to the biography. And, yes, it would be possible to explain something of the text’s mode by reference to the traditions of the poetry of complaint in Tudor times. But for the most part, this is scarcely necessary. At the level of explication, and indeed, further classroom discussion, the poem’s mode and statement are remarkably unproblematic. Even the figures of speech (‘as hard as stone’) are familiar and in this instance, still in currency. More, the sensations the poem describes – insomnia, feeling out of sorts, the sense that nothing is right, puzzlement, fear, speechlessness, inner anger – and so on – would not be out of place in a contemporary poem or piece about frustrated desire, or simply dissatisfaction.

This is a lyric poem. Its primary concern is sensation; its continuous rhetorical turn is to hint at the causes of these sensations, without ever precisely identifying them, by enquiring after their cause. To a very limited extent, its mode and its idiom are ‘historical’ – but not in any meaningful way, only in an antithetical sense, in that they are not of this time. Intrinsically, there is very little that is historically resonant about the text.This is not say that this poem must be taught without history, but to suggest that it might be.

My point is that we are increasingly free to think about the historicity of texts if we begin not with history, but with the text itself. Some texts – most obviously the social realist novel – absolutely demand contextual study by deliberately making claims about their relation to very particular social conditions. Others – a poem by Thomas Wyatt, or a poem by Wallace Stevens – might not at all. And it might be possible to place all texts on a spectrum ranging from such lyric poetry at one end to the novel of social realism at the other (although I think this would be pretty pointless). When we deal in History with our students, it seems to me there is not a single approach that derives from an extra-textual position, but a multiplicity of approaches. And to ask the question – ‘With or Without?’ – is not so much to enquire into an ideological or theoretical position, but to ask, with the students, a genuine open question about an appropriate or meaningful approach to the text in hand.

Back to the top of the page Back to top


  1. William H. Galperin, The Historical Austen (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

Back to the top of the page Back to top

Newsletter Issue 7 - November 2004

© English Subject Centre

Previous article | Table of Contents | Next Article