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  • Professor Michael O’Neill (1953–2018)
  • Sarah Wootton

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Michael O’Neill, Professor of English at Durham University, died on 21 December 2018 at the age of 65. He passed away peacefully at home with his beloved family beside him—his wife, Posy, his children, Daniel and Melanie, and his granddaughter, Millie. Many readers of The Byron Journal will have known Michael personally and been captivated by his lectures at conferences, while others will be familiar with his criticism and award-winning poetry.

Michael was a world-renowned authority on Romantic poetry and made pioneering interventions on the subject of poetic influence, dialogues, and legacies. He was honoured as a Distinguished Scholar by the Keats-Shelley Association of America at the MLA Convention earlier this year, an award which Professor Mark Sandy collected on his behalf. Michael O’Neill will be remembered, first and foremost, as an authority on the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Early publications, such as The Human Mind’s Imaginings: Conflict and Achievement in Shelley’s Poetry and Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Literary Life (both 1989), alongside his contribution to the Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts series, established him as one of the leading Shelley scholars of his age. In recent years, he was an associate editor on the multi-volume Johns Hopkins edition of Shelley’s poetry, the third volume of which received the 2013 Richard J. Finneran Award from the Society for Textual Scholarship. Michael completed the much-anticipated Shelleyan Reimaginings and Influence: New Relations shortly before his death, a monograph, published by Oxford University Press, which will shape the field for the foreseeable future.

Michael’s passion for poetry and his range were remarkable. He published on English poetry from the late eighteenth century to the present day, with significant contributions, also, on Dante and Shakespeare. His editing of The Cambridge History of English Poetry (2010) was a monumental achievement; this extensive volume gives an indication [End Page 1] of the breadth of his expertise and his ability to see through a project with nearly fifty contributors. Other major and lasting contributions to our understanding of Romantic and post-Romantic poetry include 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), both published by Oxford University Press. Michael also edited two collections of essays on John Keats, published twenty years apart—Keats: Bicentenary Readings (1997) and John Keats in Context (2017)—which are a constant source of reference for anyone working on this poet.

Michael published widely on Lord Byron, with some of his most significant criticism on the poet appearing in The Byron Journal. He redirected current thinking on Byron and the Ode in an article of 2006, for example, teasing out the ‘imaginative nourishment’ the poet received from this form. For Michael, Byron was a poet of mobility, endlessly double, and ‘full of restless energy’, memorably describing ‘So, we’ll go no more a roving’ as ‘sparkling with lyric glitter on the dark lagoon-waters of melancholy’ (2008), and finding in the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, ‘the abundant recompense of a poetic language straining to mediate between tones, moods, identities, cultures, and allowing that strain to find expression in a poetry that flinches as it encounters, retreats as it moves forwards, and conquers as it yields’ (2013).

Michael was also an acclaimed poet, publishing four collections of poems during his lifetime, with a fifth collection, Crash & Burn, published posthumously in 2019. He received the Eric Gregory Award in 1983 and a Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors in 1990. His fourth collection of poems, Return of the Gift, published in 2018, received a Special Commendation from the Poetry Book Society. Of this volume, William Boyd writes: ‘These are wonderful poems—wry, moving, wise—and written with a beautiful precision of language’.

Any obituary can only touch on Michael’s many achievements and his lifelong commitment to English Literature as a subject area, to the generations of students he taught, and the fellow academics he inspired. Michael joined Durham University in 1979 and served as Head of...


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