When I was an Eng Lit student back in the early 1970s, a time when deconstruction wasn’t a proper word and everyone thought critical theory had something to do with physics, any attempt to mix history and literature was regarded with deep suspicion. Mightn’t it help our reading of ‘Easter 1916’ if we knew a bit about the rising itself, we asked tentatively? No, said our teachers: that would ‘lead us away from the poem’. Then didn’t Yeats help to explain Irish history? No: literary sources were unreliable. In any case, we weren’t there to study history. We were there to study ‘the Text’.
No matter what the work was or who produced it, that text existed in its own sealed world. Literature fed on itself, and external narratives, whether they involved Tudor politics or Wilfred Owen’s war or Thomas Hardy’s Dorset, were off the menu.
John Stubbs’s excellent Reprobates: The