Clare College Cambridge

Professor Fred Parker

Director of Studies in English

Senior Lecturer in English

Financial Tutor


I teach literature across the period from Milton through to the Romantics; Shakespeare; and the final-year Tragedy paper, which takes me from the Greeks to Samuel Beckett and Sarah Kane, depending on what Clare students want to work on. Thinking about Tragedy involves impossibly large questions: can intense suffering be communicated to others? what attracts us to transgression? how do we succeed or fail in facing our demons, and how does literature help us in the attempt, or reveal to us our failure? These are matters that take me and everyone else entirely out of our depth, and for that reason make for an ideal climax to a degree in literature.

 I have just finished a book with the provisional title On Declaring Love. It explores the difficulty, in literature leading up to Jane Austen, of finding public words that can establish intimacy, or speak the heart. I believe I first started thinking about this when I noticed that in Austen we never hear the woman say yes.

 My other books are Johnson’s Shakespeare (a defence of Samuel Johnson’s unfamiliar way of reading the plays, despite the Romantic readings that have come between him and us); Scepticism and Literature (in praise of eighteenth-century writers who build creative achievement on philosophical uncertainty); and The Devil as Muse (about Blake and Byron, mainly, and the dark roots of creativity). A short piece I’ve written recently is about ‘open borders’ in Paradise Lost (in a journal for teachers, The Use of English, vol.68 no.3),thinking about the relation between politics and poetry. (You can read it here.)

 An inspirational talk at my school by a university lecturer was part of the reason I applied to university. My own work with schools involves talks to student groups and to English teachers, usually about set texts; I also oversee Cambridge’s ‘HEplus’ modules in English, which offer extra stimulus to bright students in and around Year 12 <>. Most of these were written by Cambridge graduate students; ‘The Responsibility of Poetry’ is by me.

 In 2012 I was awarded one of Cambridge’s prizes for teaching. But ‘teaching’ can be a misleading word for what happens on an English course, if it suggests pouring knowledge into students. Socrates described himself as a midwife, helping others to deliver their ideas successfully, and (without comparing myself to Socrates) I quite like that image. It is connecting with the creative writers, the artists, that makes us pregnant.