Serendipity and literary research

The current official discourse surrounding scholarly research in the humanities is that it’s rationally controlled and highly focused: from the outset you define your research question, your research methods, your research context; and then you set about doing your work. There’s no room for chance or inspiration. I would agree that it’s crucial that we have some idea of what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why. But the controlled and directed process of official discourse isn’t always the entire story. Sometimes more unexpected elements come in.

Notes and Queries have just published a short note by me, ‘Wordsworth’s 1802 “Preface” to the Lyrical Ballads and 1 Corinthians 15.53.’ It’s unlikely to change the face of Wordsworth scholarship, but here’s the core discovery. In the 1802 version of the Preface, William Wordsworth wonders about science becoming available to poetry:

If the time should ever come when what is now called Science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.

The passage in which this quotation appears became, by the early twentieth-century, a standard point of reference in discussions about the relation of science and poetry, and so although I don’t usually research on or teach Romantic-era writing, it’s long been familiar to me.  What I realised is that there’s a faint echo of a passage from the Bible. In spite of the efforts of the Church of England primary school I attended in the 1970s, I’m not deeply familiar with the Bible.  So how did I make the connection?

FaberMichelCover

In January 2015, my partner and I decided it would be fun to start reading the same novel simultaneously, so that we could discuss it as we went.  We chose Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. The reading-in-sync project worked out fairly badly, as she’s either a faster reader than me, or she’s better at fitting reading into odd minutes of the day, or both; but I enjoyed Faber’s novel, read mostly on my Kindle or my phone late at night, and it led to my note on Wordsworth.  Faber’s novel is science fiction, of a sort, about Peter, a recovering drug addict who has become an evangelical Christian, who travels to a distant planet to spread the word to a race of hooded, not-quite-human things, the Oasans. The title of Faber’s novel is also their name for the Bible. At one point, speaking to the converted Oasans, Peter finds himself discussing what will happen to his body after his death.  One of the Oasans insists that Peter’s body will not die, and Peter uses a passage from 1 Corinthians to argue against them:

So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption‘, he recited, ‘and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?’

This brought to mind the passage from Wordsworth in several respects, and made me wonder whether the ‘put on’ was an echo from Corinthians; and whether the ‘as it were’ was a way of hinting that this was a metaphor, and a metaphor about which Wordsworth wasn’t entirely sure.  It’s not just the ‘put on’: there’s the implication of a contrast between body and spirit as well, though Wordsworth’s use reverses some elements.

At this point it was possible to construct something more like the approved research model: I had a question (what is the relation of 1 Corinthians 53-54 to Wordsworth’s Preface?); I had a context (what has been said before about that passage in the 1802 Preface, and what has been said about Wordsworth’s knowledge of the Bible and Corinthians in particular?), and, as I decided early on that I only wanted to write a factual note, I had a method (stick to the facts).  But my larger point is that these kinds of textual echo are often discovered accidentally, and sometimes are discovered in out-of-hours reading. It’s possible to improve one’s chances of finding a writer’s sources, above all by producing a list of their known reading and working one’s way through it; I’ve done something like this in annotating Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day and in pursuing Hugh MacDiarmid’s sources.  But when you have texts accessible to memory (if not exactly memorised), then serendipity can should not be ruled out; and that means there’s a justification for activities that go beyond rational planning.

Beyond happening across relevant information, there’s another aspect of serendipity that might be beneficial. It struck me, writing the note, that many people with greater familiarity with the Bible must have read the passage in Wordsworth’s Preface and been in a position to note the similarity, and yet never did so. Why not? Possibly it’s because ‘put on’, even in such a relevant context, seemed too slight a similarity; but I wonder if they didn’t have the excitement of the unexpected discovery. Irrational though it is, the excitement provides an impetus to record the discovery.

[My Notes and Queries article is linked here, but I suspect the link will  work only if you or your institution have a subscription.]

 

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