It was with genuine sadness that, on my return from holiday, I read the news of the recent death of the medievalist and former fellow of Balliol, Maurice Keen. It is several years since I have seen him — he often could be spied walking in his tweeds and cap, with a walking stick, a few steps apart from his wife, though with an invisible but perceptible thread of intimacy making the space between them one of proximity rather than distance. It is several more years since I last spoke to him. But, recalling now my earliest university days, I realise how formative an influence he was on me: his England in the Later Middle Ages was part of the reading I did in the summer months before coming up to Christ Church. And I remember his lecture series on the medieval nobility — given in the unlovely surroundings of Balliol’s concrete basement in Staircase XXIII, with (or is this memory playing tricks?) a pipe always hovering close but not meeting the lecturer’s mouth — as one of the very first that I attended as an undergraduate.
It was only after my first degree that I came to know Maurice better. One small incident remains particularly translucent in my mind. It must have been at some point early in 1991 that I had gone to see him to discuss the possible directions of my doctoral research. A few months later, at the end of Trinity, was the traditional time at which ‘Keen Drinks’ were held — when he would invite students, colleagues and people in between to have a glass of wine on Balliol’s lawn. I did not receive an invitation but I happened, one day, to be going into his college; he was in the lodge and, on seeing me, stopped his conversation with the porter and rushed after me to invite me to the event. I remember most clearly his raised hand and his invocation to gain my attention: ‘Sir, sir!’. He understandably did not remember the name of a naive student he had only talked to once and so addressed me in the only way a true gentleman could. And, indeed, that is how I remember Maurice Keen: above and beyond the prodigious scholarship, the ability to be an English historian while understanding England could only be studied in a wider European context — above and beyond all that, I will remember him simply as a true gentleman.
Work took me last week to Leiden, for the graduation of the latest cohort of the Europaeum MA. My schedule there allowed me a few moments in the peace of Pieterskerk — a space as high-vaulted as a Dominican convent, and with a serenity achieved only perhaps because of its deconsecration. There is some beauty in its pared-down aesthetic, and some sense of the tensions within the Calvinist tradition, as that simplicity contrasts with the ornate organ loft at the west end. Equally redolent of those tensions is the understated wall-plaque to one of Leiden’s most famous (or notorious) professors of theology, Jacobus Arminius. His re-thinking of Calvinist doctrine — which, itself, was more often Calvinist than Calvin — took him towards a language of redemption where human will once more might have some role. Arminian doctrine — which also was sometimes more Arminian than Arminius — was to set the Protestant world alight in conflict, both in the Netherlands and in England.
The plaque to Arminius is late — twentieth-century — and like most in the church, in the vernacular. It is topped with another inscription (its date not stated) which is worth quoting:
Fuit in Batavia vir quem qui norant non potuerunt satis aestimare
Qui non aestimaverunt nunquam satis cognoverant
In other words, those who knew him could not esteem him high enough, and those who did not esteem him, never knew him well enough. I found those words affecting, an irenic reflection on the tragedy of conflict that Arminius himself was not to see. One wishes its sentiment could be true.
Death stole away last Saturday, clutching to his breast the life of the man I most loved in the world. He was no mere prince among men; he was not in my eyes one of the mortals. He was my father, and nothing less.
In making the arrangements for the funeral, my instinct was that the service should include an appropriate poem. I thought of Dylan Thomas’ ‘And Death shall have no dominion’ but, with its description of bones picked clean, I felt it was, if you pardon the expression, too close to the bone. I decided instead on John Donne’s sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’ which you may consider a crassly obvious choice, though, to my surprise, the undertakers had not heard of it or known it to have been used.
Preparing for the day, I naturally read and re-read the verses, a process that I had forgotten can have an alchemical effect, transforming the words in your mouth as you recite them. In the circumstances, I think I will be forgiven for not researching the poem more deeply. A cursory glance across the internet now shows me there is a useful and detailed explication of the sonnet’s scansion, which would perhaps have saved me from some misplaced stresses. But a poem, even one of such artifice as a sonnet, is not formed only of its meter. Here is a brief comment of what this reader found as he prepared to speak before his father’s coffin.
For a modern recitation, the most problematic part of the poem is what appears to us to be the failed rhyme of the final couplet:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And Death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.
But I came to realise that the rhyme was not central to those lines. What matters is the final word of the penultimate line, which is like an explosion following the staccato gun-fire of the monosyllabics which precede it. Indeed, ‘eternally’ is one of only two four-syllable words in a poem dominated by monosyllables. The other occurs in the ninth line, where normal grammar seems nearly to break down:
And soonest our best men with thee shall go,
Rest of their bones and souls’ delivery.
Again, I began to understand that the point of the line was the breaking of single-syllable dominance with a final word that also provides an uplifting, imperfect cadence. In such circumstances, normal grammar need not apply.
I have not read Donne’s sonnets in detail but, from what I have seen, the preponderance of monosyllables in this poem is unusual even for him. Is it too much to sense in this word-selection part of the poet’s purpose? Death, the end, that brings life to a full stop, and falls on us like an enormous no — death is, in its form and its nature, monosyllabic. And, while acknowledging that, this sonnet also turns language against it, both using monosyllables to deny it — ‘be not proud, … thou art not so’ — and introducing polysyllables as if they were a form of release. Death’s grunt is pitted against man’s potential for eloquence and belief.
Patrick Gillespie, the American poet who gives us the intelligent dissection of the sonnet’s scansion on-line, describes ‘Death be not proud’ as a poem of defiance. I understand that reading of it, though I defy anyone to make the last line sound like a resounding challenge. ‘Death, thou shalt die’ — that wonderful oxymoron — is a phrase simply not made to be shouted or expressed in anger; if it were, it would fall limp, giving Death a final victory in the silence that followed. It seems to me, instead, that what Donne has given us is a poem of confidence, where unshakeable Christian belief in the resurrection of the body allows the reader to step close to Death and whisper in his ear: ‘why swell’st thou then?’ The words ‘we wake eternally’ are a celebration, which leave us with no need for gloating. The final line that follows is a recognition of the magnitude of the miracle that lies at the heart of Christian faith, to be spoken in quiet wonder.
As I have written on a couple of earlier occasions about the passing of George Holmes, I should draw attention a further announcement. A memorial service to George, organised by his old college, St Catherine’s, will take place in the University Church (so Anglican in its understated charm) on High Street, Oxford on Saturday 30th May 2009 at 2:30pm. Keith Thomas will be giving the address. Perhaps I will see you there.
Soon after Prof. Holmes’ death, I wrote a few words. At the time, I lamented that there had not been any obituaries of him in the broadsheets. That has now been rectified by columns in both The Times and The Telegraph. There will, in the fullness of time, one assumes, be a memoir to him in the Papers of the British Academy, of which he was a Fellow. Similarly, I can state with some certainty that Renaissance Studies, which unusually for a learned journal demonstrates its humanity by including obituaries of leading scholars in the field, will devote a few pages to a description of his life and work. I have been asked to write that piece.
If you know of any other obits that have or will appear, please do add a comment to this post.
It was 29th January 2009 when Prof. George Holmes died. I was in Rome at the time – one of George’s favourite cities – and so I did not have the chance to attend his funeral or to mark his passing. When he was Chichele Professor of Medieval History in Oxford, organising and chairing seminars for new graduates I was starting my doctorate, and, a few years later, he was the internal examiner for my doctorate, so I remember him with real respect and affection. I have not seen the standard type of obituaries in the broadsheet newspapers. Presumably there will be a memoir to him eventually in the Proceedings of the British Academy, of which he was a Fellow. But it occurs to me that, now, in the months immediately after his death, we should reflect on the loss of not only a very human scholar but also of a style of historical writing which he represented. With him, I sense, there dies something of a particularly British tradition of Renaissance scholarship. I am not competent to write on his personal life so what follows are simply some thoughts on an intellectual obituary.
George’s wide-ranging publication record reflected the way his life was a mental odyssey. He began his academic career, in Cambridge, as an historian of late medieval England, his doctoral work published as The Estates of the Higher Nobility in fourteenth-century England (Cambridge, 1957). That research continued, with a text-book on later medieval England (Edinburgh, 1962) and, a decade later, his dissection of The Good Parliament (Oxford, 1975). At the same time, however, his interests broadened beyond the Channel, inspired originally (I think) by his interest in the Italian bankers whose reach – to their own peril – stretched to England. The mercantile connexions between Italy and England was to become a topic he would return to on several occasions in significant articles. Those studies inspired an interest in Florentine history and, now based in Oxford, he set about learning Italian, for which he showed an enviable facility. His fascination led him to produce the work for which he is probably best remembered, his writings on the Italian Renaissance. These included his tellingly-titled The Florentine Enlightenment, 1400 – 1450 (Oxford, 1969) and Florence, Rome and the origins of the Renaissance (Oxford, 1986). He was not to be confined in either one country or one century.
Even this brief summary does not do justice to his interests. One of his works that I certainly still find useful in teaching was his text-book on late medieval Europe in the Fontana series, Europe: Hierarchy and Revolt, 1320 – 1450 (London, 1975 [2nd ed: Oxford, 2000]). The study for that book kindled an interest in the Hussites, an interest which is reflected in the space given to them in that work.
What strikes me about George’s learned publications is the combination of detailed, specific articles alongside books in which he provided a lucid overview of a subject. A volume like Florentine Enlightenment or his later Renaissance (London, 1996) provide readable texts with forceful (if understated) arguments driving them forward. These seem to me to sit at the end of a tradition of British historical writing that goes back to Addington Symonds or even Roscoe: the ability to make accessible to an English-speaking audience a broad vista of Italian history. As his articles demonstrated, George could present a forensic analysis of a tightly-defined topic – what is now the main mode of academic writing – but that other style is perhaps less appreciated. It is less recognised as a mode of presentation because it is a particularly British style, a specifically British contribution to the understanding of the Renaissance.
George remained active until his last days. He had suffered two bouts of serious ill health in the previous decades – experiences that shaped and perhaps mellowed his view of the world. He was a regular presence in the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian. The disappearance of his jacketed, open-necked, blue-shirted figure will leave the library a colder place.