Professor Belinda Jack Gives Final Gresham Lecture

Professor Belinda Jack, Fellow and Tutor in French at Christ Church, has given her final lecture as Gresham Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College, City of London. The lecture took place on Tuesday 9 May, at the Museum of London in the Barbican.

Professor Jack was appointed as the Gresham Professor of Rhetoric in 2013, and as part of the role has given a yearly lecture series, involving six lectures per year on a variety of different topics relating to aspects of literature. During her first three years, her lectures focused on ‘The Mysteries of Reading and Writing’, exploring different genres and how these relate to ways in which writers explore varying areas of human experience. In the 2016/17 academic year her overall title has been ‘Rhetoric and Life of Literature’, allowing her to focus on rhetorical tropes and literary devices in relation to a wide range of writers. Her last lecture, entitled ‘The Poetry of Emily Dickinson, Metaphor and its Philosophical Mysteries’, examined ways in which our understanding of Dickinson’s poetry can be deepened through looking at her use of metaphor.

In introducing her subject, Professor Jack explained that ‘rhetoric makes sense of how we use language, how we communicate successfully and persuasively. Figures of speech – personification, irony, simile, metaphor and so on describe the workings of speech and explain – to some extent – how it moves us, seduces us, enlightens us and so on’. She argued that great writers can manipulate figures of speech, using them subversively to exploit the ambiguities that they present, and went on to focus particularly on metaphor, examining the various types of metaphor available to writers, and its use in poetic language. Much of the discussion centred on Emily Dickinson, in whose work, according to Professor Jack, ‘metaphor reaches an absolute limit, even a breaking point’. Professor Jack described the ways in which readers engage with Dickinson’s poetry in different ways, but also highlighted the extent to which her poetry offers readers a myriad of ways of understanding our own humanity and place in the universe, even though, like all other writers, all that she had at her disposal was words – or rhetoric.

Gresham College was established in London in 1597 out of the Will of Sir Thomas Gresham, and today the College continues its tradition of providing free public lectures in London, given by appointed Gresham Professors, Visiting Professors, and visiting speakers. The position of Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College also originated in the Elizabethan era – previous lectures have focused on rhetoric as the classical art of discourse and persuasion, but in recent times its scope has broadened to include lectures covering topics such as history, politics and literature. The previous Professor of Rhetoric was Sir Richard Evans FBA, Provost of Gresham College and President of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and a world-famous historian and academic. The newly appointed Professor of Rhetoric who will succeed Professor Jack has just been announced as Professor Sir Jonathan Bate CBE FBA FRSL, Provost of Worcester College, Oxford.

Professor Jack’s lecture will soon be available to listen to on the Gresham College website, where you can also listen to her previous lectures