Morag Morris Poetry Lecture

The University of Surrey has a very long and significant history of involvement in the post-war British poetry scene - and this is the result of one woman’s belief in the centrality of poetry to higher education, Morag Morris. So, each year we organise and host the Morag Morris poetry lecture to celebrate this.


This annual lecture, which began in 1974, is famous for welcoming leading contemporary poets to campus, such as:

  • Stephen Spender
  • Seamus Heaney
  • Roger McGough
  • Ian Hamilton
  • J.H. Prynne
  • Michael Horovitz
  • Iain Sinclair
  • Barbara Hardy
  • Rachel Blau Du Plessis
  • Gwyneth Lewis
  • Tiffany Atkinson
  • Isobel Armstrong
  • William Rowe.

Upcoming event

We don’t currently have any upcoming events. Check back soon for further announcements.

Previous guest speakers

YearSpeakerTitle of talk

Poems against death: Poetry as political struggle


Poetry and Empty Space. Caesurae, Modernity and the Poetics of Breaks

2017TIFFANY ATKINSONWhat Can I Say? Poetry and Embarrassment
2016RACHEL BLAU DUPLESSISCosmological Poetry
2015  GWYNETH LEWISThe Poetry Detective
2014  BARBARA HARDYA.E. Housman
2013  EDWARD LARRISSYSeeing Things: The Poetry of Seamus Heaney
2012  BERNARD O'DONOGHUEYeats: Early and Late
2011  ROD MENGHAMTwo Autumns: Revising Macneice
2010 MICHAEL HOROWITZSpiritual Partners: Memories of Allen Ginsenberg

YearSpeakerTitle of talk
2009  J.H. PRYNNE Undertones of War: The Poetry of Edmund Blunden
2008  IAIN SINCLAIRThe Poet John Clare and the Great North Road
2006  PETER PORTERThe Poetry of W.H. Auden
2005 DAVID CONSTANTINEThe Poetry of Thomas Hardy
2004  SEAN O’BRIENThe Late Work of Ted Hughes
2003DAVID CONSTANTINEThe Poetry of R.S. Thomas
2002  BERNARD O’DONOGHUEThe Love Poetry of W.B. Yeats
2001 MICHAEL DONAGHYThe Poetry of Dylan Thomas
2000  JON STALLWORTHYThe Poetry of the Second World War

YearSpeakerTitle of talk
1999  STEPHAN REGANSiegfried Sassoon – War Poems and Others
1998  WILLIAM SCAMMELLThe Fox Thinks Twice – Plath and Hughes
1997U.A. FANTHORPEKipling and the Poet’s Trade
1996  BLAKE MORRISONWalking on Air – Seamus Heaney
1995  MICK IMLAHThe Poetry of Robert Graves
1994  JON STALLWORTHYThe Irish Genius for Poetry
1993  GAVIN EWARTA Poet’s Poet – Wilfred Owen
1992  DONALD DAVIEThe Sacred Poetry of Jack Clemo
1991  ROGER McGOUGHThe Liverpool Poets
1990  IRINA RATUSHINSKAYAPoetry and Censorship in Russia

YearSpeakerTitle of talk
1989  JOHN WAINThe Poetry of John Larkin
1988  JON STALLWORTHYEnds and Beginnings: Poetry of Louis MacNeice
1987 IAN HAMILTONThe Making of The Waste Land
1986 TED WALKERThe Poetry of John Betjeman
1985  BLAKE MORRISONThe Movement
1984  JOHN SILKINThe Poetry of D.H. Lawrence
1983ANDREW MOTIONThe Poetry of Edward Thomas
1982PETER LEVIThe Poetry of Dylan Thomas
1981P.J. KAVANAGHThe Poetry of Robert Frost
1980PATRICIA BEERThe Poetry of Thomas Hardy

YearSpeakerTitle of talk
1979JOHN WAINThe Poetry of Robert Graves
1978SEAMUS HEANEYYeats as an Example?
1977ANTHONY THWAITEOut of the Quarrel – Sylvia Plath
1975JON STALLWORTHYWilfred Owen’s Descent into Hell
1974STEPHEN SPENDERT.S. Eliot: Before The Waste Land

History of Morag Morris

The early years

Morag Morris was born in Glasgow and studied Science, French and Philosophy at the University there from 1940. Having taken the unusual step of enrolling at aged sixteen, in response to fears of an imminent German invasion, Morag’s time at the University was much disrupted by wartime conditions, and her passion for making Higher Education the adventure it should be can in part be explained by her sense of what she had missed during her own time as a undergraduate.


After graduating in 1943, Morag working at Bletchley Park with a team of code-breakers led by Alan Turing, participating in one of the most secretive, and most important, operations in the fight against Fascism. Morag worked in the now famous Hut 6, with a team of young women on Enigma Machines, looking for crucial patterns in units of five-letter blocks. The messages Morag helped to decode would have been sent by the Luftwaffe, and were therefore of great significance for the defence of the United Kingdom, and for the formulation of Allied plans to invade Nazi-occupied Europe.

After the War, Morag worked for the Director of the Features Department at BBC Radio in Rothwell House. Here Morag would meet and support prominent writers such as Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas. She was present when Dylan Thomas handed over his sole copy of the script for the radioplay Under Milk Wood before leaving for America never to return. Here Morag was immersed in an environment that was committed to exploit the full cultural potential of radio-broadcasting and in so doing rediscovered / reinvented the performative aspects of poetry.

No dead letter on the page poetry was meant to be read aloud; if poetry was to be a living force again the text could no longer be seen as the end-product – but as a musical score intended to facilitate performance. This insight would underpin everything Morag would later do at the University of Surrey. In this, as in many things, Morag was well ahead of her time.

Joining the University of Surrey

Morag started working for the University of Surrey shortly after its establishment in the early Sixties. Morag had been appointed “Poetry Tutor” within the General Studies Department by the first Vice-Chancellor, Peter Leggett, apparently stung into action after Morag had suggested (as a guest at an evening soiree to launch the new university) that the University would not last very long – if it had no soul.

On starting in that rainy summer, Morag took the daring step of committing herself to teaching only twentieth-century poetry in the belief that only an innovative and up-to-the-minute syllabus was appropriate in a scientific university, one that ought to look forward not back. It is hard to realise just how radical her decision to focus on poetry of WWI, interwar poetry, and the Movement, must have appeared back in the Sixties, because Morag had precisely anticipated and to some extent helped to mould the public’s perception of what happened in twentieth-century poetry in the UK.

Her approach

To see how original Morag’s approach in fact was, one need only compare it with that of F.R.Leavis, for instance, a famous pioneer of the study of twentieth-century verse, who had no place on his syllabus for poetry of WWI or W.H. Auden. Together with guest-speakers John Stallworthy and Ted Hughes, Morag did much to promote the former. In the thirties Wilfred Owen had been considered a poet’s poet. In the sixties, thanks in no small part to enthusiasts based around Guildford, the poetry of Wilfred Owen entered the public consciousness and is a staple on all reading-lists at GCSE and A-level. The impact that this may have had on the British perception of war – and the willingness of the British electorate to endorse armed conflict – should not be underestimated.

Morag also took the novel step of inviting contemporary poets to come and read their poetry and to present lectures on the work of other poets. The list of those invited now reads like a Who’s Who of late-twentieth-century poetry. Her guests include Stephen Spender, Christopher Fry, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Bernard O’Donoghue, U.A. Fanthorpe, Paul Muldoon, Andrew Motion, David Constantine, Sean O’Brian – and many many more. Working closely with the Guildford School of Acting, Morag would train students to read poetry at these events and invite visiting poets to present prizes for the most successful performance. She would also collaborate with the Music Department, exploring the performative potential of poetic texts by having these set these to music.

Another particularly far-sighted project begun in her later role as Literature Coordinator for the Arts Committee is the exchange program negotiated with the universities of Moscow and Leningrad in Soviet Russia. At the very height of the Cold War, Morag worked hard to ensure that channels of communication, crucial if catastrophic conflict was to be averted, remained open. Morag would travel beyond the Iron Curtain to Leningrad to tell Russian students about modern poetry in English, and professors and poets from Russia would come to Guildford to deliver lectures and readings. Among the most famous of these visitors was celebrated poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the poet remains a favourite with Morag.

Becoming an inspiration

Sadly, Morag died in December 2013, but she has remained very much the inspiration behind everything that the new School of English and Modern Languages at the University of Surrey do in relation to poetry. Morag’s October Lecture is still a regular event, and speakers in recent years include: – Iain Sinclair, Michael Horovitz, J.H. Prynne, Rod Mengham and Edward Larissy. Poetry is a strong component in our overall teaching program and is taught in an innovative and adventurous way that seeks to build upon the spirit of Morag’s syllabus and approach to teaching.

In recent years the English School has been able to expand its calendar of poetry events. In addition to the October Lecture there is a New Year Poetry Event, and, in May, the Surrey Poetry Festival. A new poet-in-residence is also appointed annually and the position has attracted two of the most exciting and inventive young poets currently operating in the UK.

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University of Surrey