Thursday, 7 May 2009

Oxford Professors of Poetry

On Saturday May 16th 2009 the members of Convocation of Oxford University will be turning up at the Examination Schools building in the High Street to vote for the next Professor of Poetry, now that Christopher Ricks’s five-year term in the post has come to an end (so no more Bob Dylan analysis, alas). The contest always evokes a good deal of media interest, around certain predictable topics: will we get our first female Professor of Poetry (we now have our first female Poet Laureate, after all), or might we get our first black or Asian incumbent?

Early in 1877, as Matthew Arnold’s tenure as the Oxford Professor of Poetry came to its end, William Morris was mulling over an invitation from James Thursfield on behalf of some members of Convocation to stand for election to the post. After long deliberation he chose not to, doubting whether ‘the Professor of a wholly incommunicable art is not rather in a false position’, among other objections; and J.C. Shairp, whom J.W. Mackail coolly describes as ‘of some merit both as a critic and as a poet’, succeeded to Arnold.

But let us suppose, by virtue of a Star Trek-style rift in the space-time continuum, that Morris had accepted Thursfield’s invitation and had won the ensuing election. Could we speculatively reconstruct the lectures which he might have given in this prestigious Oxford post? I have suggested elsewhere in this blog (entry for 12.12.07) that there is a good deal more literary criticism, both in Morris’s early Pre-Raphaelite milieu and in his later Socialist one, than his own dismissive remarks about the critic’s profession might lead us to believe.

I therefore think we both could and should have a stab at reconstructing Morris’s career as the Oxford Professor of Poetry he never was, though I should be the first to admit that had he accepted a subsequent invitation in the late 1880s or early 1890s as a specifically socialist poet and critic he would have been a much more substantial figure in the post than he would have been in 1877. So in the long list of Morris’s unfinished or (in this case) unstarted works his ‘lost’ Oxford lectures as Professor of Poetry 1877-1882 might not be at the top of the list for reconstruction, but it would none the less be an illuminating task to attempt to sketch out how they might have gone. Watch this space!


Anonymous said...

See 'Poisoned Chalice' in todays Guardian newspaper (G2 section, p.14)for an account of the ructions around Derek Walcott's candidacy for the Professorship of Poetry.

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