Thursday, 8 May 2014

On being Oxford Professor of Poetry

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.


Henry Smith said...

A less charitable interpretation of Geoffrey Hill’s lecture might be possible, Tony. You could equally say that one Oxford product (Hill does English at Keble from 1950) is lecturing on another (Hopkins does Classics at Balliol from 1863), so that the Professorship of Poetry has reverted to the hopelessly narrow Oxford incestuousness that used to characterise it until that welcome break into wider horizons with Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon. Let’s for goodness sake look outside Oxford for the next five-year appointment in 2015!

Tony Pinkney said...

Yes, Ruth Padel may have been the first woman elected to the Professorship of Poetry in 2009 (before resigning over the Derek Walcott scandal), but she too was in fact a thorough Oxford insider: studied Classics at Lady Margaret Hall, was later Research Fellow at Wadham. So we really do want to see the field seriously broadened out in the 2015 election.

Kotick said...

I was very much hoping that Benjamin Zephaniah would win the election when he was nominated for the Professorship of Poetry in 1989 - that would have livened things up considerably!

Tony Pinkney said...

I certainly agree with the need to expand the race and gender basis of the Poetry Professorship, but there's another area of expansion I'd welcome too. We've had many poets doing the job, and a good number of critics too (A.C.Bradley, Christopher Ricks, etc), but we haven't yet had a serious literary theorist reflecting on poetry in the post. So that's a goal for a future appointment too, perhaps.

Sadicyl said...

Certainly can't see Geoffrey Hill agreeing with Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman's claims that poetry ought to be easier and reach out to the masses!

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