In his masterpiece Tintern Abbey, poet William Wordsworth describes returning to the banks of the River Wye in southeast Wales and experiencing an odd combination of his present impressions, the memory of a past visit, and the thought of how he’ll look back on this moment in years to come. For 2013 Distinguished Alumnus of the Year Dr. Robert J. H. Morrison (BA ’83), Wordsworth’s famous words have never resonated more deeply.
“That poem’s got it all,” he says as he starts reciting lines from memory in a performance that would captivate even the most dismissive of students.
His playful approach belies the seriousness of his endeavour. Morrison is a world-renowned scholar of 19th century English literature whose clear and thought-provoking approach to his subject matter has earned him international praise. Reflecting on everything that he’s accomplished, he adamantly maintains that none of it would have been possible if he hadn’t enrolled in a first-year English class with Dr. Paul Upton at the University of Lethbridge.
“That class changed my life,” says Morrison, who admits he arrived at the U of L in 1979 without much direction. “Upton’s class had a profound impact on me. I’ve been in universities from 1979 until today and have never encountered a teacher like him. He was conversational, impassioned and deeply caring about poetry."
Having discovered his passion, Morrison pursued a degree in English and completed a Bachelor of Arts in 1983.
“The University of Lethbridge was the perfect fit for me,” says Morrison, looking back on his undergraduate experience. “The fact that it was a small, vibrant university in my hometown made all the difference to the student I was back then.”
Heeding the advice of another influential professor, Dr. Bill Lambert, Morrison followed his passion for Romantic literature to the University of Oxford where he completed a Master of Philosophy under the tutelage of Jonathan Wordsworth, the great, great, great nephew of the poet who captured Morrison’s attention as an undergraduate student.
“It was Dr. Lambert who recommended I read Jonathan and think about Oxford,” says Morrison, who was again grateful for the connections he made at the U of L. “I wouldn’t have got there on my own.”
From there, he returned home and accepted a teaching position at the U of L. He taught full time in the Department of English in 1987-88, and then returned to the U.K. to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, which he completed in 1991. Morrison’s doctoral research examined the life and work of famed English essayist Thomas De Quincey, something he continues to do today.
“I’m always working on De Quincey,” says Morrison with a laugh. His book, The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, published in 2009, was a finalist for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography, Britain’s oldest literary award, and is recognized as the comprehensive source on the life and work of De Quincey.
“I have always tried to be an academic who took both sides of the job seriously – research and teaching,” says Morrison, echoing some of the same values that remain fundamental to the U of L today. “They cross-fertilize each other and I think that the people who do that make the university experience much more interesting.”
Using his own research interests as a guide, Morrison is helping ignite a passion for literature in the next generation. Currently a full professor in the Department of English at Queen’s University, he believes that works written hundreds of years ago have the power to shape today’s world.
“I try to impress on every single one of my students that these works are not just something that happened a hundred years ago,” says Morrison. “Literature shapes our consciousness. What Wordsworth wrote 200 years ago matters now.”
His impassioned approach has earned him the respect of both colleagues and students. He accepts the accolades humbly, but remains true to the love of literature that started it all.
“Paul Upton did an enduring job of impressing on me the importance of literature,” says Morrison, reflecting on how what started as a first-year university class evolved into a lifelong passion.
There’s no doubt Morrison’s students will be saying the same thing years from now.