Fresh Faculty: Amelia Worsley
Issue   |   Wed, 09/24/2014 - 02:37
Amelia Worsley

Assistant Professor of English Amelia Worsley grew up in Wolverhampton, England and studied English at Selwyn College, Cambridge. She received her master’s degree from Brown and her Ph.D from Princeton.

Q: How did you begin studying your subject and what made you decide to pursue it?
A: Reading literature was something that I loved from an early age, but not something that I planned to do as a career. I come from a medical family: my parents both worked in hospitals. As a teenager, I wanted to do the same. In the UK, doctors don’t go to med school, or even study as premed — they simply opt in to a medical degree when they start college. When I was 16, most of my friends were already pretty sure whether they were a sciences or a humanities person, but I wasn’t. So I chose chemistry and biology, the requisites for a degree in medicine, but also continued to study English and Latin literature for fun. When it got to the point of applying to college, I realized that I didn’t want to give up literature, even if I still liked the idea of working in a hospital. I am always pleased I made that decision to do what I loved! But nonetheless, it was a very hard decision for me to apply to study English rather than medicine, because I wasn’t sure where it might lead. I knew I would definitely have a career where I would be helping people if I studied medicine — I wasn’t sure how English could lead me to do that. Even now, I try to keep my original motivations in mind as I work as a professor.

Q: Why did you decide to teach at Amherst?
A: When I was just beginning at Princeton, I came on a college tour with a group of high school students from the Princeton University Preparatory Program. Amherst College’s commitment to its community, as well as to diversity, made it stand out from all the other schools we visited. I was really pleased to see that they had an opening in my field and very happy to be invited to join the English Department, which is a very intellectually exciting place to be.

Q: What is your research on and how did you become interested in it?
A: I am interested in the history of poetry and poetics, especially poetry written in Britain from 1660 to1830, and am currently working on a book about the history of loneliness. Both the words “lonely” and “loneliness” are newer than one might expect: there are very few records before the 17th century. When I discovered this, I became interested in the question of what this might reveal about English culture during the period. I wondered, did the invention of loneliness record a change in the way people understood the status of solitude and of the idea of the individual? Because I tend to work on poetry rather than prose, I wondered what this new concept might mean for poets in particular. Since so many Romantic poets picture themselves as lonely in their most creative moments, I wanted to question how and why the idea of what it meant to be a poet became aligned with what it meant to be lonely.
As I traced where the term actually shows up in literature, I found that loneliness’s history has an unexpected gendered dimension. Previous accounts of literary loneliness have tended to focus on the figure of the male (and often melancholy) solitary, from Hamlet to the graveyard poets to Wordsworth. But contrary to Romantic associations, the first instances of the words “lonely” and “loneliness” describe female characters together with other people, rather than male figures who are alone. I therefore offer a new account of the origins of the Romantic poetic imagination, which starts with the female, rather than the male, body.
My work on the lonely poet also has consequences for how we understand what it means to be lonely today. This emotion might seem in many ways natural or universal, but it has a history, and a literary one at that. Without particular words to describe emotions, they might not be quite the same — without particular poets and poems, descriptions of loneliness today might have been different.

Q: Are you currently working on publishing anything, or have you published anything before?
A: I’m working on my book, “The Invention of Loneliness.” An article about Ophelia’s loneliness, which will be the first chapter of the book, is forthcoming in a journal called English Literary History, or ELH, this summer.

Q: What classes are you teaching this semester? What classes are you teaching next semester? What are they about?
A: This semester, I’m teaching two seminars, Engaging Literature: Close Reading and Nature and the Imagination in the Romantic Age. Close Reading is a class aimed at people just starting out with English. The main question of this course is “why study literature?” We look at a huge variety of texts, from Shakespeare to contemporary novels, from political speeches to music videos, with a view to understanding the tension between language and meaning.
In Nature and the Imagination in the Romantic Age, we are questioning the extent to which our modern perceptions of the way our imagination works might have been conditioned by 19th- century poets’ ideas about their relationship to nature. We end by questioning how Romantic ideas of nature and the imagination have shaped contemporary environmental discourse. Separate courses on Green Romanticism and on the History of Aesthetics and the Imagination often study the same poems, but the two perspectives have not often been considered in relationship to each other.
Next semester, I will be teaching Reading Poetry and a 400-level seminar on Solitude and the Self.

Q: What aspects of Amherst do you like so far?
A: I’m really enjoying the way my students interact with each other in class. The combination of respect for each other and irreverence with respect to received ideas is truly wonderful. I find the community a very welcoming one, full of intellectual possibilities. I like Amherst’s stress on co-teaching and I’m already imagining possibilities for that. I’m also enjoying the landscape and looking forward to fall.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time? What is your favorite book?
A: I like to go to the theater and to readings, listen to music and watch films and documentaries. On weekends, I like to explore new places and visit friends in old ones. I like running, but only when I can do it outside. My favorite book is “The Prelude,” by William Wordsworth, a book that I have been rereading and rereading for 10 years now.

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