Accessibility statement

James Williams



I came to York in 2012 as Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture and became Senior Lecturer in 2019. Before joining the department, I held teaching posts in Oxford at Brasenose, Jesus, and Oriel Colleges. I read English Language and Literature at St John’s College, Oxford, and completed my PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge.

I write largely, but by no means exclusively, about poetry. While making excursions into various periods, I can usually be found somewhere in the long nineteenth century. Particular research interests include poetics, stylistics, allusion, translation, influence, nonsense writing, comedy, and wit.

In 2024 I will hold Visiting Fellowships at Keble College and St Catherine’s College, Oxford; in 2012 I was Visiting Fellow at the Houghton Library at Harvard. I am a member of the Editorial Board of the OUP journal The Cambridge Quarterly.



Much of my work is in the field of nineteenth-century poetry: recent essays discuss, for example, Hopkins’s rhymes and Tennyson’s debts to Pope. Edward Lear has been a major focus, resulting in a monograph, Edward Lear (Northcote House, 2018), and an essay collection, Edward Lear and the Play of Poetry (OUP, 2016), co-edited with Matthew Bevis (Oxford). My work on Lear speaks to a broader preoccupation with literary nonsense which recently culminated in The Edinburgh Companion to Nonsense (EUP, 2022), co-edited with Anna Barton (Sheffield). This, in turn, reflects my concern with writing sometimes described, or dismissed, as “light”—the playful, the comedic, and the witty—which I have explored through close analyses of the formal intricacies of particular writers (Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Dorothy Parker) as well as exploratory essays on a wider canvas (“Parodies, Spoofs, and Satires” [1880-1920], Victorian comic verse). Various other intellectual investments can be gleaned from my wider list of publications, including prose stylistics, religious and philosophical aspects of writing, and opera libretti.

At the heart of my work is a curiosity about how literary language operates, why texts are written the way they are and not some other way, and why it matters. These questions animate all my practice as a critic, whatever texts, topics, and authors I might be thinking about at any given moment. I’m also interested in the activity of literary criticism itself: what possibilities, obligations, and forms of attention and understanding are continuous with or distinctive to it. These questions sometimes bring me into conversation with philosophers, psychoanalysts, art historians and theologians. The practice of editing, as distinct from but continuous with criticism, is increasingly important to me, as is working across languages and the philological imagination this engenders. By this I mean the pleasures, struggles, and insights of the complete beginner every bit as much as the rewards of proficiency or mastery. I am usually learning a couple of languages (without necessarily being very advanced) in whatever spare time I have, and this influences my work as a critic and editor in a range of ways, some of them more obvious than others.


I am working on a monograph entitled The Ends of Wit: a cultural biography of wit from the nineteenth century to the present which explores the inner life of wit through close readings of individual wits from Sydney Smith to Fran Lebowitz. Alongside this I am writing a study of the often subterranean and coded ways in which allusion to classical mythology is reconfigured in the period between the advent of Romanticism and the advent of Modernism as a way of articulating the kinds of ideas that a later period would re-clothe in the idiom of literary theory: in particular, as a way of speaking about the capacities and dynamics of poetry. The working title is Myths of Poetry in Nineteenth-Century Britain.

My work on the latter book has been one of the catalysts for a wider collaborative project on allusion which will develop over the coming years, and a collection of essays is currently in preparation entitled Poetic Allusion in the Long Nineteenth Century, co-edited with Jane Wright (Bristol).

Alongside these critical projects, I am working on an edition of the Victorian poet and translator Edward FitzGerald.


I have supervised a number of PhD and MRes theses: past and present topics include repetitions in Tennyson, theological difficulties in Geoffrey Hill, Victorian magic lanterns, late nineteenth-century queer erotica, and the long sentence in contemporary fiction. If you are developing a research proposal and think I might be a good fit as a supervisor, feel free to tell me why in an email.

Contact details

Dr James Williams
Department of English and Related Literature
University of York
YO10 5DD

Tel: +44 (0)1904 323340