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Professor Nicholas McDowell

Professor of Early Modern Literature and Thought


01392 724269

I was born and went to school in Belfast and then studied at Cambridge and Oxford. An interview I did with The Guardian some years ago about my route into academia and the origins of my research interests can be accessed here.

My principal interest is the literary, cultural and intellectual history of the period 1500-1800, with particular focus on the Civil Wars of the 17th-century, and on major literary figures of that period, pre-eminently John Milton and Andrew Marvell. A subsidary interest is the legacy of 17th-century ideas and conflicts in the modern world, especially 20th-century Ireland. Much of my work is animated by a fascination with how writers articulate, register, or resist historical change through literary innovation. Poetry has been a particular focus: it can embody most intensely the tension between liberty and constraint that is fundamental to religious and political thought.

My major study of the intellectual development of Milton, focusing on his early life and writing up to the outbreak of the English Civil Wars, was published by Princeton University Press in 2020. Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton is also available as an audiobook and is now out in paperback; a Chinese translation is to be published by Guangxi Normal University Press. The book featured in a news story in The Sunday Telegraph; an extract can be read on Literary Hub and podcast interviews can be heard on, for example, Princeton Ideas Podcast, Sparks of History, and Artidote. An online debate about the significance of the book can be watched at Online Library of Liberty. Poet of Revolution was chosen as one of the five 'Best History Books of 2020' on Five Books and there are reviews in, for example, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Prospect, the Catholic HeraldHistory Today, the Times Literary Supplementthe London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books. It has been awarded the James Holly Hanford prize of the Milton Society of America for the most distinguished book published in 2020. I am currently completing the sequel, contracted to Princeton University Press, which covers the second half of Milton's life. New work on Milton and free speech and on the astonishing recent identification of Milton's copy of the Shakespeare First Folio can be freely read in Aeon and The Seventeenth Century

My next project is a comparative study of poetic responses to the experience of civil war which seeks to put the early modern in a longer perspective. Focused on 17th-century Britain and 20th-century Ireland, 'The Poetry of Civil War' argues for civil war poetry as a specific genre in English literature, distinct from 'war poetry' and with its own recurring tropes and images which are rooted in ancient Greece and Rome but operate transhistorically and beyond relationships of direct influence. Preliminary essays on this topic have appeared in Essays in Criticism and Global Intellectual History. I am indebted to the Leverhulme Trust for the award of a 2022 Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship to research and write 'The Poetry of Civil War' in 2023-5, about which more can be read in the Leverhulme Trust Newsletter. Alongside this project, I will be editing Paradise Lost with William Poole of New College, Oxford: we have been commissioned to produce a brand new Longman Annotated English Poets edition of the poem.

I'm also the author of The English Radical Imagination: Culture, Religion, and Revolution, 1630-1660 (Oxford University Press, 2003) and Poetry and Allegiance in the English Civil Wars: Marvell and the Cause of Wit (Oxford University Press, 2008); and the editor, with Nigel Smith, of The Oxford Handbook of Milton (Oxford University Press, 2009; paperback, 2011), and, with N. H. Keeble, of The Oxford Complete Works of John Milton. Volume VI: Vernacular Regicide and Republican Writings (Oxford University Press, 2013), for which I completed a new scholarly edition of Milton's English prose works in defence of the execution of Charles I.

My recent work on the cultural politics of literary translation and transmission in 17th- and 18th-century Britain and Ireland, focusing on translations of the great French satirist Rabelais, was assisted by the award of a Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust and a Maddock Research Fellowship from Marsh's Library, Dublin. Essays derived from this work have appeared in English Literary RenaissanceRenaissance QuarterlyRenaissance Studies, and the first volume of the Oxford History of the Novel, and a new article on the role of forced migration in literary translation is coming out in English Literary History in 2024. This work will be collected in a forthcoming monograph. With my Exeter colleague Henry Power, I am editing the 36-chapter Oxford Handbook of English Prose, 1640-1714. I have published many articles and essays in collections, on topics ranging from political prose in Tudor England to Jonathan Swift's satirical voices. 

My research has previously been recognized by the award of a Philip Leverhulme Prize in Modern European Languages by the Leverhulme Trust, and four of the annual awards of the Milton Society of America for the most distinguished publication on John Milton (the Irene Samuel Award for a collection of essays in 2011, the James Holly Hanford Award for an essay in 2013, the John T. Shawrcoss Award for an edition in 2015, and the James Holly Hanford Award for a monograph in 2022).

Before coming to Exeter I was a Research Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge; visiting fellowships have included a period in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Among administrative roles, I was Director of Research in the Department of English at Exeter in 2011-13 and 2015-17, in which capacity I oversaw the 2014 REF submission and advised colleagues on all aspects of publication, grant application, and public engagement. I have also advised other English departments in the UK on the development of their research profile. I currently act as a Senior Academic Lead in the Department of English at Exeter.

Forthcoming talks:

  • 'The Genius of Areopagitica', at 'Radicalism, Politics and Poetics in Early Modern Europe', Princeton University, 11-12 May 2023
  • '"Of True Virtue Void": The Virtue Politics of John Milton', plenary at the Thirteenth International Milton Symposium, University of Toronto, 10-14 July 2023
  • 'The Poetry of Civil War: from Milton to Yeats', at the West Cork History Festival, 11-13 August 2023
  • 'The Poetry of Civil War in Britain and Ireland: from Milton to Mahon', Visiting Speaker Seminar, Department of English, Bristol University, 15 November 2023

Research interests


Literary, cultural and intellectual history c. 1500-1780, specializing in poetry and prose.

Topics and authors on which Professor McDowell has published include

  • literature and the English Civil Wars
  • literature and political allegiance
  • theology and religious difference
  • heresy, heterodoxy and radicalism
  • translation and literary transmission, particularly Anglo-French contexts
  • education, humanism and the universities
  • patronage and literary circles
  • representations of Ireland; connections between early modern English and modern Irish poetry
  • scholarly editing and textual studies
  • biography
  • Milton
  • Marvell
  • Herrick, Lovelace, and the ‘Cavalier' poets
  • Swift

Research supervision

Professor McDowell has recently supervised doctoral students working on Milton, Marvell and Anglo-Dutch relations; on Milton and materialist philosophies; on Milton, utopianism, and millenarianism, on Milton, gender, and the Bible, and on representations of labour in early modern literature. One recent student, Dr Esther van Raamsdonk, is now British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Warwick.

He will be pleased to discuss potential doctoral projects relating to literature and culture in Britain, c. 1500-1750.

Topics on which he can offer expert supervison include:

  • early modern poetry
  • early modern prose
  • literature and the English Civil Wars
  • literature and political allegiance
  • literature and religious difference / theology / the Bible
  • heterodoxy and radical ideas
  • translation and literary transmission, especially Anglo-French
  • education, humanism and the universities
  • literary patronage and literary communities
  • representations of Ireland / the Irish
  • scholarly editing and textual studies
  • connections between early modern and modern poetry
  • 17th-century reception of Shakespeare
  • Milton
  • Andrew Marvell
  • Herrick, Lovelace and the 'Cavalier' Poets
  • Swift and eighteenth-century satire

Contribution to discipline

Professor McDowell is a contributing editor of Critical Quarterly, on the editorial board of Milton Studies and a founding member of the editorial board of Marvell Studies. He was previously editor of the early modern section of Literature Compass.

He was external examiner of the Masters degree in English (1550-1700) at the University of Oxford from 2012-15, and external examiner of the Masters degree in Early Modern Studies (1300-1700) at Queen Mary, University of London, from 2015-19. From 2021-24 he is external examiner of Part II of the English Tripos at Cambridge University.

He has examined dissertations and doctorates at Royal Holloway, London (on Marvell and justice), Trinity College Dublin (on Restoration plague literature), University College Cork (on Milton and romance), the University of Leicester (on Marvell and privacy), the University of Oxford (on turncoat poets in the English Revolution), the University of Edinburgh (on religious poetry and state formation in the 17th-century), the University of Oslo (on conversion narratives in Cromwellian England), the University of Sydney (on Marvell and the New World), and the University of East Anglia (Lucy Hutchinson's manuscript writings).

He is a member of the Peer Review College for the UKRI Talent Scheme.


Professor McDowell has spoken on several occasions on BBC Radio Ulster on the subject of Milton and Ireland (one interview can be accessed here) and an extensive interview with The Guardian about Professor McDowell's career and research can be accessed here. A recent story in The Sunday Telegraph about his new biography of Milton, Poet of Revolution, can be accessed here (behind a pay wall).

Topics on which he is available to provide expertise include the English Civil War; literature, politics and religion in 17th-century Britain; radical ideas in the English Civil War and the origins of liberal democracy; religion and secularism in early modern Britain and its modern legacy; the legacy of 17th-century conflict in modern Ireland; the life and works of John Milton; the Cavalier poets; Northern Irish poetry.


Nicholas McDowell was born and brought up in Belfast, where he was educated at a city-centre grammar school, The Royal Belfast Academical Institution. The first in his family to go to university, he read English at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, graduating with a first-class BA degree and the title of Scholar in 1994. He then moved to Oriel College, Oxford, to complete M.Phil. (1996) and D.Phil. degrees (2000), during which time he also held the posiiton of Lecturer in English at St. Anne's College, Oxford (1997-8).

In 1998 he was elected to a stipendiary Research Fellowship of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. He left this position in 2001 to take up a lectureship in the Department of English at the University of Exeter, where he has since been Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor. He was promoted to a Personal Chair in 2012. 

He has held visiting interdisciplinary research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (2009-10), where he was the Herodotus Fund Member of the School of Historical Studies, and the Centre for Research into the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, Cambridge (2010-11), where he was a 'Future University' Visiting Fellow and also a Visiting Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

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