Michael O’Neill (1953-2018)

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Michael O’Neill, Professor of English, who passed away on Friday, 21st December. Michael had come through the initial phase of his illness with immense courage, and continued to give lectures and supervise his PhD students until the week before his death.

Michael joined the University forty years ago, in 1979, and he was Head of the Department of English Studies from 1997 to 2000 and from 2002 to 2005. Michael was a driving force behind the establishment of the Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) at Durham University. He was a Director (Arts and Humanities) of the IAS from 2005 to 2011 and he served as the Acting Executive Director from January 2011 until May 2012.

Michael was a leading scholar of Romantic poetry and an expert of international standing on poetic influence, dialogues, and legacies. He is to be honoured as a Distinguished Scholar by the Keats-Shelley Association of America at the MLA Convention in Chicago this month. Michael will be remembered for his ground-breaking critical studies and definitive textual editing of the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. 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’s range was astonishing, publishing on English poetry from the late eighteenth century to the present day (with significant contributions, also, on Dante and Shakespeare). His editorship of The Cambridge History of English Poetry (2010) is an indicator of the breadth of his knowledge. Michael’s other books include, among so many others, The Human Mind’s Imaginings: Conflict and Achievement in Shelley’s Poetry (1989), Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem (1997), The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry (2007), all published with Oxford University Press. Shortly before his death, Michael completed the much-anticipated Shelleyan Reimaginings and Influence: New Relations, which is to be published with OUP this year.

Michael was also a prize-winning poet, publishing four collections of poems during his lifetime with a fifth collection to be 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.

The above only touches on Michael’s many achievements and his commitment to the University and the subject area. He was also, for instance, a Founding Fellow of the English Association and Chair of the International Byron Society’s Advisory Board.

He will be remembered by generations of students and scholars as an inspirational lecturer and mentor.

Our thoughts and deepest condolences are with Michael’s family at this extremely sad time. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him.

Donations, if desired, should be made to The Northern Oesophago-Gastric Cancer Unit at The Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, or to The Marie Curie Team at St Cuthbert’s Hospice, Durham.

Although Michael is no longer with us in person, his legacy lives on in his scholarship, poetry and academic publications, and generations of students who have been influenced by his teaching. As a reminder, here’s a video of Michael presenting the keynote lecture ‘We Live the Lives We Lead Because of the Thoughts We Think’ at the end of the Shelley Conference 2017. 

Michael can be heard reading from his final collection of poetry, Return of the Gift, in this podcast recorded in February 2018.

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