Professor John Whale

Professor John Whale


I was an undergraduate and postgraduate student in the School of English here in the University of Leeds, obtaining my BA in 1977 and my PhD in 1982. I was Tutoral Fellow In Arts at University College Cardiff from 1979-1983 and returned to Leeds as a member of staff in 1984. I was promoted to a professorship in 2006 and was Head of the School of English from 2011-2016.


  • Director of the University of Leeds Poetry Centre

Research interests

My research has focused on the interface of literary aesthetics and politics in the Romantic period. British responses to the French Revolution have been a central concern and, like many other Romanticists, my work in the late 1980s and early nineties was considerably influenced by the bicentenary of the French Revolution. In my case, this meant reassessing the response of British writers to events across the Channel in France and in particular focusing on the role the creative faculty of the mind - the imagination - could play in political argument. I have also been concerned to widen the scope of critical activity in the period. In 1992, I co-edited Beyond Romanticism with Stephen Copley, a collection of essays by young British Romanticists at a significant turning-point in the study of Romanticism. 

In my first book, Thomas De Quincey's Reluctant Autobiography, I considered Romantic writings in relationship to their magazine context. At that early stage of my career, I was interested in challenging the isolated purity of a Romantic aesthetic which often divorced writing from its social and political contexts. I was particularly interested in the correlation between reluctance or recalcitrance and Romantic vision i.e. how vision proceeds from difficulty or pressure. 

William Hazlitt was the subject of my first sustained research after my work on De Quincey and provided me with my first insight into the complex way in which the aesthetic carried ideological baggage along with it. Hazlitt's admiration for Burke began a long-standing enquiry into the relationship between politics and aesthetics in Romantic prose. This culminated in the publication of Imagination Under Pressure: Politics, Aesthetics, and Utility 1789-1832 (CUP 2000) and in a collection of essays on Burke's Reflections for Manchester University Press's Texts in Culture series in the same year.

My more recent work has taken a new direction: Romantic masculinities. For example, my book on John Keats for Palgrave's Critical Issues series (2005) focuses on gender and sexuality. This strand of research grew from my interest in the autobiographical subject and the nature of male confession, but has now developed to include a historiography of boxing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a topic which has been a prominent feature of my conference presentations and guest lectures over the last five years.  

At the moment, then, I am working on Romantic period pugilism in relation to masculinity and national identity and have also begun research into the literary culture of Romantic period Liverpool, my home town, where I have a particular interest in William Roscoe and his circle.

I was Co-Investigator (with Dr David Higgins as Principal Investigator) of an AHRC-funded Research Network entitled 'Creative Communities, 1750-1830', which nvolved three workshops and related activities between 2013 and 2014. This developed previous work with colleagues at Leeds on the Creativity Project, which aimed to find ways of moving beyond concepts of genius, inspiration, and originality, and towards thinking about literary creativity in terms of collaboration, connection, and development. It comprised an international conference, Contesting Creativity, 1740-1830, a series of research seminars, and a special issue of the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, which I co-edited with Dr Higgins.

I also have a long-standing interest in contemporary English poetry. I am a poet and am Managing Editor of Stand magazine having been a co-editor on the magazine since 2001. My first collection, Waterloo Teeth, was published by Carcanet in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Forward Best First Collection Prize in 2011; my second, Frieze, was published in 2013 by Carcanet.

I have supervised PhDs on a wide variety of authors and topics, including: autobiography, women writers of the 1790s, poetry and the politics of landscape, cosmopolitanism, Godwin, William Wordsworth, Lamb, Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Keats, Geoffrey Hill, and Tony Harrison. I would be delighted to hear from PhD candidates intending to work on any of these or related topics in the Romantic period or contemporary English poetry.

Recent Activities


  • Director of the University of Leeds Poetry Centre 2017.
  • Head of the School of English, 2011-2016.
  • External Advisor for Validation (BA Creative and Professional Writing) University of Westminster, 2023.
  • External Reviewer, Periodic Review of the School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, 2015.
  • Australian Research Council (ARC) Panel Reviewer, 2007-.
  • Member of the Executive, British Association for Romantic Studies (BARS), 1992-2011.
  • External Examiner, undergraduate programmes in English, University of Glasgow, 2008-12.

Conference and workshop activity

  • ‘Pugilism in the Regency: Popularity and Cultural Appropriation’, Sports and Sociability in the Long Eighteenth Century Conference,
    13-14 October, Sorbonne Université Paris, FRANCE, October 2022.

  • ‘Fancy-ana: Pugilism, Sociability, and Popularity, 1780-1825’, Panel Paper in ‘Sociability beyond the Coffee-House’, ASECS Annual Conference, Orlando, FLORIDA, USA, March 2018.

  • Poetry Reading, 'Finding the Words' Series, York Libraries, November 2017.

  • Workshop Leader, 'PeaceJam', Leeds Trinity University, November 2017.

  • 'Branwell Bronte and Writing Under the Influence,' invited panellist, Ilkley Playhouse, Ilkley Festival, September 2017.

  • 'Answering for Myself: Hazlitt and Identity', invited lecture, Hazlitt Day School, University College London, September 2017.

  • 'Poetry & Birding: Creative Writing Workshop', RSPB Old Moor, as part of the Ted Hughes Festival, May 2017.

  • Judging Panel, 'Voices  of a New Generation Slam', Leeds Young Authors, Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, 27 June 2017. 

  •  'Tony Harrison: The Making of a Poet', invited speaker, Postgraduate Research Seminar, Queen Mary, University of London, February 2017. 

  • Poetry Reading, University of Sheffield, November 2016.

  • 'Ken Smith: A Case Study', Small Press Printing/Printing at Leeds, Sadler Series: Cultures of the Book, University of Leeds, October 2015.

  • 'The Culture of Eighteenth-century Pugilism', The Culture of Sport in the Eighteenth Century Panel, ASECS Annual Conference, Los Angeles, California, USA, March 2015.

  • 'Fighting Writing/Writing Fighting', plenary paper, Sport and Physical Culture Conference, De Montfort University, 10 and 11 April 2014.

  • 'Writing Fighting: Pugilism and Aesthetics, 1785-1830', invited speaker, Sporting Life: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Cultures of Sport in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Universite Paris Sorbonne, Paris, FRANCE, March 2014.
<h4>Research projects</h4> <p>Any research projects I'm currently working on will be listed below. Our list of all <a href="">research projects</a> allows you to view and search the full list of projects in the faculty.</p>

Professional memberships

  • British Association for Romantic Studies
  • American Society for Eighteenth-century Studies

Student education


  • Writing Nature


  • Romantic Identities

Research groups and institutes

  • Textual Histories Research Group
  • Creative Writing at Leeds

Current postgraduate researchers

<h4>Postgraduate research opportunities</h4> <p>We welcome enquiries from motivated and qualified applicants from all around the world who are interested in PhD study. Our <a href="">research opportunities</a> allow you to search for projects and scholarships.</p>