8 december 2009

Oxford begins search for next Professor of Poetry

Arts | University

Christopher Ricks, Oxford Professor of Poetry from 2004 to 2009
The election will identify a successor to Professor Sir Christopher Ricks, whose five-year term ended last year.

Plans to elect a new Professor of Poetry at Oxford University have now been drawn up, with the successful candidate scheduled to be in post for the new academic year in autumn 2010.

The election will identify a successor to Professor Sir Christopher Ricks, whose highly-acclaimed five-year term ended last year.

Voting is by members of Convocation – all former Oxford University students who have graduated, as well as current and retired members of Congregation (the University’s ‘parliament’).  Whereas at present, voting is only possible in person in Oxford on a single day, for the forthcoming election, the voting system will be updated, subject to approval by Congregation. 

Under the proposed arrangements, online voting will be introduced and voting by ballot box will be available over a period of time, rather than on one day. It is envisaged that the ballot servicing arm of the Electoral Reform Society will provide the voter registration and balloting services for the election.

Dr Seamus Perry, Deputy Chair of the English Faculty Board, which hosts the chair, said, 'It is good news that the election will be so much more accessible to the large community of graduates of the University that have the chance to vote for Oxford's Professor of Poetry. We hope that they will want to elect a Professor who sees poetry as a vital part of what the Humanities contribute to modern society.’

An election to the Professorship of Poetry was held in summer 2009 but the winning candidate, Ruth Padel, stood down before taking up the appointment.

It is good news that the election will be so much more accessible to the large community of graduates of the University.

Dr Seamus Perry

Candidates for election have to be nominated by at least 12 members of Convocation and to accept their nomination in writing. An opening date for nominations will be announced once the new voting arrangements have been approved. They are due to be considered early in the new year.

Former Professors of Poetry include Matthew Arnold, WH Auden and Seamus Heaney. 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.