Michael O’Neill, 1953-2018

Tributes paid to expert on Romanticism who was also a powerful poet in his own right

January 10, 2019

A leading academic expert on Romanticism, who was also a powerful poet in his own right, has died.

Michael O’Neill was born in Aldershot, Hampshire in 1953, grew up in Liverpool and studied English at undergraduate, master’s and doctoral level at Exeter College, Oxford. He spent his whole career, from 1979 until his death, at Durham University, latterly as professor of English. He served as head of department from 1997 to 2000 and again from 2002 to 2005 and also played a major role in the university’s Institute of Advanced Study, both as director (arts and humanities) from 2005 to 2011 and then as acting executive director (2011-12).

A highly accomplished literary scholar, Professor O’Neill was described by Duncan Wu, Raymond Wagner professor in literary studies at Georgetown University, as “one of the most distinguished and productive Romantic scholars of his generation. As an academic editor, he was responsible for one of the most useful student editions of Shelley’s work (published in paperback by Oxford University Press [in 2003]), and as a literary critic he wrote some of the most perceptive commentary not only on the Romantics but also on modern writers.”

Notable monographs by Professor O’Neill include Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Literary Life (1989), Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem (1997) and The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry since 1900 (2007). He remained prolific until the end of his life, publishing both the edited collection John Keats in Context and, with Madeleine Callaghan, The Romantic Poetry Handbook in 2017. Projects in the pipeline at the time of his death include an edition of Coleridge for the 21st Century Oxford Authors series, a book on Shakespeare and English poetry and Shelleyan Reimaginings and Influence: New Relations (due for publication in 2019).

In addition to lauding his scholarly achievements, Professor Wu praised Professor O’Neill for “the affection he inspired in those who knew him. There are, simply, very few people in our profession who were so loved by so many teachers and students alike.” Furthermore, as the author of The Stripped Bed (1990), Wheel (2008), Gang of Shadows (2014) and, finally, Return of the Gift, launched at Durham last February, he was also “one of the most accomplished writers of poetry of his generation”. His poetry was honoured with both an Eric Gregory Award and a Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors.

Professor O’Neill died of oesophageal cancer on 21 December 2018 and is survived by his wife Rosemary McKendrick, known as Posy, two children, and a granddaughter.


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