Graduation week, celebrating Honorands: Great thinkers and writers

Tuesday 20 June 2017

As we congratulate our students across the Divinity, English, Psychology and International Relations subject areas who graduate today at undergraduate and postgraduate level, we present a selection of distinguished individuals who have received honorary degrees from the University of St Andrews.

Karl Barth, LLD 1937 in St Andrews (third from the right)

The Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) is considered one of the greatest thinkers within the history of the Christian tradition. Barth gave new impulses to Protestant theology during a critical phase. As the principal author of The Barmen Declaration, he was the intellectual leader of the German Confessing Church, the Protestant group that vigorously repudiated Nazi ideology.

From 1925-1930, Barth worked as a Professor of Dogmatics and New Testament Exegesis in Münster and from 1930-1935 as a Professor of Systematic Theology in Bonn. In 1935, Barth lost his position in Bonn and was forced to leave Germany. He was appointed Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Basel. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by St Andrews in 1937. Barth described St Andrews as ‘a quaint miniature university in a glorious setting’. He stayed at Basel until his retirement in 1962.

CS Lewis, DD 1946

St Andrews awarded Clive Staples Lewis an honorary Doctor of Divinity in June 1946. At the ceremony, Professor D. M. Baillie, Dean of the Faculty of Divinity, announced that Lewis had ‘succeeded in capturing the attention of many who will not readily listen to professional theologians,’ and that he ‘has arranged a new kind of marriage between theological reflection and poetic imagination’.

C.S. Lewis (1898 – 1963) was a prolific writer, poet, scholar of English literature and defender of Christianity. Lewis wrote more than thirty books. His most famous book is perhaps The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first published of his Chronicles of Narnia. To date, the Narnia books have sold over 100 million copies worldwide and been adapted for screen and stage.

Larkin’s letter of thanks to Principal J Steven Watson, 9 July 1974

Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985) was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters in 1974. With poems like ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and ‘This Be The Verse’ – which contains his famous musings on “your mum and dad” – Larkin is widely regarded as one of Britain’s finest 20th century poets. Philip Larkin studied at Oxford and had his first poems published in 1940. He took up the position of librarian at the University of Hull in 1955 and, in the same year, published his acclaimed collection The Less Deceived. His last collection High Windows was published in 1974.

Larkin’s letter of thanks to J Steven Watson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor 1966- 1986 is held in Special Collections. In the letter, Larkin refers to the kindness extended to ‘Miss Jones’. Monica Jones was the most consistently important figure in Larkin’s life. She was his confidante and frequent—and finally sole—companion, from the late 1940s until his death.

JK Rowling, DLitt 2000

The creator of the hugely successful Harry Potter book series, Joanne Kathleen Rowling was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters in 2000. Rowling reported that she was on a train when she began to imagine the first book of the series. She later said,

“All of a sudden the idea for Harry just appeared in my mind’s eye. I can’t tell you why or what triggered it. But I saw the idea of Harry and the wizard school very plainly… I have never been so excited by an idea.”

J.K. Rowling moved to Scotland in 1994 and finished her first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in 1995. The book was published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books in 1997. Rowling went on to write six more Harry Potter books. The Harry Potter books have been a worldwide publishing phenomenon with new editions greeted by millions of fans. JK Rowling was awarded the OBE in 2001 for services to literature and has been made a Companion of Honour for her services to literature and philanthropy in the recent Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

Seamus Heaney, DLitt 2005 with Professor Douglas Dunn

Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013) was internationally recognised as the greatest Irish poet since WB Yeats. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters in 2005.

In his laureation address at the time, Professor Douglas Dunn (School of English) spoke of Heaney’s ‘amazingly productive poetic career’, describing him as a ‘wise commentator’ who displayed ‘an exemplary loyalty to the principles of poetry’ in spite of facing political turbulence and prejudice. In his closing comments, Professor Dunn said the ‘great Irish poet’ was

“a poet who surpasses the usual limits. He can perceive the imperceptible in given phenomena, and say what hitherto was thought unsayable, and say it memorably.”

Heaney’s first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), contained rich depictions of his rural upbringing but by the 1970s, as Ireland’s troubles increased, his work took a more political turn. Fascinated by folklore, he also published an award-winning translation of Beowulf.

Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”.

Dame Antonia Byatt, DLitt 2012

Dame Antonia Byatt was awarded an honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters in recognition of her major contribution to the fields of literature and literary criticism. Having published several novels, as well as critical studies of Iris Murdoch and Wordsworth and Coleridge, she left academia to write full-time. Byatt’s first novel, Shadow of the Sun, was published in 1964. Other novels followed, including Possession: A Romance, published in 1990 and The Biographer’s Tale, published in 2000.

A.S. Byatt has been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1983. A writer of international repute, Byatt was awarded the Shakespeare Prize in Germany in 2002 and the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France in 2003.

Gabriel Sewell
Assistant Director of Library Services (Special Collections)

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