2 june 2011

Andrew Motion defends humanities in the 2011 Romanes Lecture

University | Arts

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Professor Sir Andrew Motion described how the arts gave him ‘his life’ as he presented a staunch defence of the arts and humanities at Oxford University’s historic Romanes Lecture on Thursday 2 June 2011.

 The full video of the lecture is now available.

Sir Andrew, who served as Poet Laureate from 1999 to 2009 and is currently professor of creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London, gave an hour-long lecture entitled ‘The Bonfire of the Humanities: Why the Humanities matter’, in which he assessed the likely impact of the government’s policy on arts and humanities on the future social, economic and cultural well-being of the nation.

Having been introduced by Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Andrew Hamilton, Sir Andrew said: ‘The arts, and the humanities associated with them, provide us with the paradoxes that we depend on for the realisation and fulfilment of ourselves as human beings. Nothing less. They are the means by which we learn to live more deeply as ourselves, but they are also the echo-chambers in which we begin to understand what it means to live in history.’

He added: ‘The humanities in general and the arts in particular might often gain their authority to speak about life by coming at it from a surprising angle, but they belonged within it. They are a vital and vitalising part of the existence we all share.’

Sir Andrew, who studied at University College in Oxford, read out four short poems to demonstrate why the arts and humanities should matter in the twenty-first century. Reading lines from Wordworth’s Lucy poem, Seamus Heaney’s ‘Postscript’, Alice Oswald’s ‘Wedding’ and ‘The Self-Unseeing’ by Thomas Hardy, he urged the audience to use these as ‘reminders, in fact, of what happens when we read all good poems, and all good novels, which is akin to what happens when we see something good at the theatre, or the ballet, or the movies, which is in turn the foundation of why we care about the arts in general.’

Bonfire of the Humanities

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Recording of Andrew Motion's Romanes Lecture
Andrew Motion
Andrew Motion, Oxford's Romanes lecturer for 2011

The former Poet Laureate described his own upbringing and introduction to English, poetry and the humanities, telling the audience that ‘the humanities have decisively shaped the life I lead.’ Having not been surrounded by books as a child, Sir Andrew said that when he was 16, his English teacher Peter Way ‘walked straight into my head and turned the lights on.’

The Romanes Lecture is an annual public lecture at Oxford University. The first was given in 1892 by William Gladstone. Subsequent speakers have included Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Sir Isaiah Berlin, Iris Murdoch, Edward Heath, AJP Taylor, Tony Blair and Sir Paul Nurse.

Professor Sally Shuttleworth, Head of the Humanities Division, said: ‘Andrew Motion has made an outstanding contribution to British poetry and its role within contemporary culture and we are delighted he agreed to give this year’s Romanes Lecture.’

Professor Sir Andrew Motion has received numerous awards for his poetry, published four biographies and is co-founder of the online Poetry Archive. He received a knighthood for his services to poetry in 2009.