On Tuesday evening the sonorous tones of Geoffrey Hill rang around the Oxford University Examinations Schools as he delivered his latest lecture as Professor of Poetry. Hill read out to us Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’ and then meditated searchingly upon its linguistic and religious complexities – his own splendid lecture style being (to borrow a phrase he applied to the poem itself) ‘vaticised beyond the reach of commonplace propriety’. There are political as well as religious implications to Hopkins’s unique practice of language, as when the poet informed Robert Bridges on 2 August 1871 that ‘I am always thinking of the Communist future … Horrible to say, in a manner I am a Communist’; but these Hill didn’t explore. None the less, this was a marvellous offering in what is clearly intended as a coherent five-year lecture sequence devoted to the proposition that ‘the grammar of a poem decides the grammar of belief’.
It was on 16 February 1877 that William Morris wrote to James Thursfield of Oxford University declining to let his name go forward for the Professor of Poetry election of that year. I’ve always felt that, as a valuable exercise at the critical-creative frontier where so much important work is being done in literary studies today (not least by my Lancaster colleague John Schad), someone should have a stab at writing the sequence of lectures that Morris might have given had he accepted the nomination and won the election. In the nineteenth century the Professorship of Poetry was a ten-year stint rather than today’s five, so Morris’s tenure – 1877-1887 – would have covered his conversion to socialism in 1883. We would thus see a Pre-Raphaelite Professor of Poetry maturing into a full-bloodedly Communist one across that decade, and reworking his views of poetry and literature accordingly. So I look forward one day to reading the volume of William Morris’s lost Oxford lectures.