Oxford launches search for next Professor of Poetry

22 January 2009 

'Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world' - Percy Bysshe Shelley

The world's top poets will be battling it out in 2009 to fill two of the most prestigious roles in poetry - the Poet Laureate and the University of Oxford's Professor of Poetry.
The University of Oxford is searching for its next Professor of Poetry to follow in the footsteps of Matthew Arnold, WH Auden and Seamus Heaney. Nominations are now open for a successor to acclaimed poet and academic Christopher Ricks, who steps down from his five-year term of office as Professor of Poetry at the end of September.
The appointment comes at the same time that the Poet Laureate and Oxford alumnus Andrew Motion is retiring from his post, in May 2009.
The duties of the Professor of Poetry include giving a public lecture each term and the Creweian Oration at the University's honorary degree ceremony every other year. The elected professor is one of the judges for the Newdigate Prize, the Chancellor's English Essay Prize, and the prize for an English poem on a sacred subject, and generally encourages the art of poetry in the University.
Professor of Poetry lectures were conceived in 1708 by Berkshire landowner Henry Birkhead and began after he bequeathed some money so it could be a valuable supplement to the curriculum. He believed 'the reading of the ancient poets gave keenness and polish to the minds of young men as well as to the advancement of more serious literature both sacred and human'.

The first poetry professor, Joseph Trapp, took as his subject poetry in general. He was mainly concerned with the classical poets - particularly Roman writers. William Hawkins, professor from 1751 to 1756, was interested in drama and more modern works, and was renowned for quoting extensively (in Latin) from the works of Shakespeare during his lectures.
Many distinguished men of letters held the Chair in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including two Thomas Wartons - both father and son - and the poet and religious leader John Keble. However, it was Keble´s godson, the great Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold, uniquely elected twice to the Professorship (in 1857 and 1862), who really created the Professorship in its modern form: Arnold spoke about literary matters of contemporary concern, and was the first Professor to deliver his lectures in English, as opposed to Latin.

Christopher Ricks was not the first Professor of Poetry to have been a scholar rather than a poet - the famous Shakespearean scholar A.C. Bradley was Professor from 1901-6. But many of the most celebrated holders of the Chair have been eminent poets, including W.H. Auden (1956-61), famous for holding court to young writers in the Cadena Café, and Robert Graves (1961-6), who lectured charismatically on occult theories of inspiration.

Dr Sally Mapstone, Chair of the English Faculty Board said, 'Christopher Ricks has been a brilliant Professor of Poetry, and will be a challenging act to follow. We hope that Convocation will want to elect a Professor who sees poetry as culturally central to modern society as well as one who values its traditions and history'.

Candidates, who must give written consent, have to be nominated by at least 12 members of the University's graduate body, Convocation. Nominations close at 4pm on 29 April 2009. If more than one eligible candidate comes forward, members of Convocation will again be able to exercise their right to vote in person. The election, if held, will take place in the Examination School, Oxford, on Saturday 16 May from 10am until 4pm.

More information about the nomination process, and a full list of the Professors of Poetry, can be found on the web at: www.admin.ox.ac.uk/councilsec/gov/poetry.shtml or contact the University Press Office on 01865 270046 or press.office@admin.ox.ac.uk

Notes for Editors

  • The current Professor of Poetry, Christopher Ricks, was elected to the Chair with 214 votes.
  • The Professor is elected for a period of five years, and is not eligible for re-election. The Professor receives a small stipend (currently £6,901), plus £40 for each Creweian Oration, plus, on one occasion, travel expenses for the Oration.
  •  According to the University Statutes, membership of Convocation is defined as 'all the former student members of the University who have been admitted to a degree (other than an honorary degree) of the University, and any other persons who are members of Congregation or who have retired having been members of Congregation on the date of their retirement'. A register of members of Congregation is published in the University Gazette.
  •  Details of the candidates will be published in the Gazette, and on the web at www.admin.ox.ac.uk/councilsec/gov/poetry.shtml, after the close of nominations.
  • Regulations for Convocation elections can be found at: www.admin.ox.ac.uk/statutes/regulations/1089-120.shtml