bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Good Night, Prof. Sharpe

Posted in Obituaries by bonaelitterae on 5 April, 2020

This site takes on at times the nature of a necrology. It already includes half a dozen reminiscences of departed scholars whose path I was lucky to cross. Now I have to add another, but with this one we move down another generation. It is a fortnight since Richard Sharpe, Professor of Diplomatic at Oxford, died of a heart attack. He was in post, a couple of years shy of retirement, and I for one anticipated that some of his most productive decades lay ahead of him.

I do not pretend to any special knowledge of him. He was, for all his ability to assert himself in public, a private man, and few, perhaps, can claim with truth to have known him well. At the same time, he did nurture a cohort of scholars, and any of them knew him much better than I did. He has, though, been part of my universe for all my adult life, and perhaps I can add to the richer recollections that others will provide by giving a few vignettes which may hint at some of the elements of his many-sided personality.

It happens that I saw him the morning before he died. I was walking through Oxford’s Covered Market and heard, over my shoulder, the greeting ‘Good Morning, Dr Rundle’. I turned to see Richard’s back, striding on, and so the last words I spoke to him were ‘Good Morning, Prof. Sharpe’. We might think the brevity of that contact was a symptom of the social distancing for which 2020 will be remembered, but from my experience I would say that such curt courtesy was characteristic of him.

Curt could undeniably at times be cutting. I never felt the full brunt of that but I still smile at the thought of one occasion when he was brutally honest with me. A couple of years ago, we were both attending a conference at the Bodleian and, in an interval, we talked of one of the projects he oversaw, the digital version of the classic Medieval Libraries of Great Britain. There was a technical issue about inputting a specific set of information, and I thought I had a solution for him. I explained for a few minutes until he stopped me with the sobering line: ‘I am not listening to a word you say’. I thanked him for his sincerity.

With that honesty came an absence of feigned praise. Richard prided himself on exacting standards of scholarship, and he saw as integral to that being sparse with words of encouragement. I once observed to him that he was readier to criticise than to compliment; I think the precise wording of his response was: ‘That’s right. If I see someone doing a good job, I think that best thing I can do is keep quiet and let them get on with it’. Something of this attitude is at the heart of my favourite anecdote about him. In the course of a bibulous college dinner, I revealed to him that some of his graduate students had given him the sobriquet Magister Acutus. His reply: ‘I would prefer to be Acer’.

That tale, however, is not the memory I cherish the most. That comes from several years earlier, when I was a young graduate student. I had already made his acquaintance when I was an undergraduate, but that was through his involvement in politics — while he worked at the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, he was also Liberal Democrat councillor for the main student area of the city, Central Ward. A couple of years later, he — alongside Malcolm Parkes — was the first to induct me into the arcana of palaeography, and also of diplomatic. He was an exacting tutor, but my most vivid recollection is not of a seminar. It was of a day in spring 1992 when I was sitting in one of the bays of Duke Humfrey’s squinting at a copy of William de Pagula’s Summa summarum. It was one of my first encounters with a manuscript, and I was attempting to deploy the skills I had been taught but was wondering at the mass of abbreviations that appeared to end each section of text. Richard happened to walk past and he stopped, came over and asked what I was studying. I showed him the manuscript and its challenges, and he began to unfurl the complexities of the canon law references which were bemusing me, even taking the time to lead me upstairs into the Upper Reading Room to show me where to find the Corpus Iuris Canonici and how to consult it.

As I write, the more I appreciate how he has informed my practice, for good or ill. I try in my own teaching to emulate those minutes of scholarly generosity, in the realisation that they can be more enlightening and encouraging than any number of hours in the classroom. I suspect I have also inherited from him a certain reticence about giving praise — and believe I sense the virtue he saw in it: its concomitant is to suppress one’s own desire to be praised and to seek instead to be spurred on always to do yet better.

What I also now realise is how much more I want to hear from him. As I said, I would not consider myself ever to have been close to him but he has been a constant of my adult life. Nearly a decade after the incident I have described in Duke Humfrey’s, he was appointed my mentor when I was J. P. R. Lyell Fellow in Palaeography. That role ended in 2004, but subsequently we found ourselves often at the same events. For one year (2017-18), we taught Oxford’s new graduate historians alongside each other, Richard dispensing his expertise in diplomatic and documentary scripts, while I introduced them to bookhands and codicology. The following year, I was able to attend only the first of his Lyell Lectures in person but watched the rest from afar by the wonders of podcasts (or aptly named Bodcasts); our last face-to-face conversation was about them and Richard’s plans for their publication. Most recently, he had agreed to speak this June at an event, on the Legacy of Oxford Palaeographers, which I am organising with Colleen Curran. He has left us in medias res, and my overwhelming sense now is of a conversation interrupted. We still have so much to learn from him.

These few memories also hint at something else about Richard. He was not shy of taking on ambitious projects: his listing of Anglo-Latin writers, his work on Medieval Libraries of Great Britain and his oversight of the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (on these last two, he was ably supported by James Willoughby) are only three examples from a longer list. I mention these because they signify something important about his intellectual career. He placed himself in a grand tradition of bibliography, one which had flourished particularly in Oxford in the mid-twentieth century through the work of Neil Ker, Roger Mynors and Richard Hunt. Their work had been continued by Andrew Watson, who was allowed to enjoy a long and productive retirement in Oxford, and to whom Richard was literary executor. To all these scholars, Richard was not only heir; he, more than anyone, ensured their tradition of learning progressed into the new millennium. It is a tradition which demonstrated how medieval studies needs to be based on precise study of the manuscript evidence, informed by the skills of palaeography, codicology and diplomatic. We look to others to continue that legacy. They will be standing in a long shadow.

Andrew Watson, scholar and gentleman

Posted in Obituaries, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 25 September, 2017

It was Saturday evening and I was standing in baggage reclaim at Heathrow, just returned from a holiday the restfulness of which was enhanced by a self-imposed purdah, with no access to e-mail or social media. Two weeks, in other words, of cold turkey — not, though, that it had cured me of the curse of internet addiction. Waiting for our suitcases, I could not resist scanning a fortnight’s worth of messages, and found among them the announcement of the death of Prof. Andrew Watson on 15th September. He had been ill for some time, so this could not considered a shock, but that did not reduce the immensity of the sadness. I felt the cavernous hall contract around me, a little air drawn out of the world. We have lost a scholar whose erudition was both remarkable and characteristically understated, for he exemplified a concept now hardly remembered: of Scottish birth, he was quintessentially an English gentleman.

Andrew was professor at University College, London, but he was also the torch-bearer for a grand Oxford tradition of scholarship in manuscript studies. Though most medievalists will have used at least one of his works at some point in their research, he is perhaps less lionised than Malcolm Parkes, who had a gift for programmatic expression (reflected in his last volume, Their Hands before Our Eyes) and for categorisation (witness his invention of ‘anglicana’). Andrew may also not have quite the international reputation of Tilly de la Mare (whose work on humanist script has made her legendary in Italy), though he was certainly highly regarded by continental colleagues in his field. His importance, however, is equal to both of them, encapsulating most fully the bibliographical scholarship of which Neil Ker was the acknowledged doyen of the mid-century. Andrew was Ker’s literary executor, editing his essays after his early death, and providing both the final volume of Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries (2002) and the valuable supplement to Medieval Libraries of Great Britain (1987), now incorporated into MLGB3.

This should not be taken to imply that he lived in Ker’s shadow. His own contributions to how we perceive scholarly study of manuscript culture are manifold. He was the first British promoter of the international enterprise to develop the precision of our palaeographical understanding by cataloguing dated and datable manuscripts: he provided the volumes for the British Library (1979) and Oxford (1984), both treasure-troves of succinctly expressed insights. He also produced the catalogues of the medieval manuscripts of two Oxford colleges, All Souls (1997) and Exeter (2000). These were not the first to replace Coxe’s mid-nineteenth century listings with fuller descriptions — they were preceded by R. A. B. Mynors for Balliol and Parkes for Keble — but they did provide a model for presentation which was followed by Ralph Hanna’s catalogue of St John’s and is also the inspiration for the volumes now being published by Oxford Bibliographical Society (Queen’s and Christ Church to date, with Trinity soon to follow).

These are substantial works but perhaps they are not as significant as his writings on the post-medieval lives of medieval manuscripts (to paraphrase the title of his collected essays, 2004). John Dee, Walter Cope, Matthew Parker, Everard Digby were among those who received his attention, often working with colleagues. He provided meticulous studies, editing catalogues and tracing the manuscripts where they still exist, but it is their cumulative effect which is of prime importance. What lies beneath the work is the realisation that we cannot fully appreciate the world of medieval manuscripts if we confine ourselves to the centuries which we call the Middle Ages. What exists for us has been shaped by later multiple destructions, intentional (as in the Dissolution of the Monasteries) or accidental (witness the fires that the Cottonian collection has suffered), and by the work of a few to save some of the artefacts from death. As we touch a codex we might feel an immediacy of contact with its creators and earliest readers but, Watson reminded us, we have also to understand how it has come to be available to us in the library where it now resides. Put most basically, he taught me that the first question to ask when working with a manuscript is: why is it here?

I say that he taught me; I cannot claim to have been fortunate enough to have been a formal pupil of his. But he was hugely helpful to me when I was working on my doctorate, and in subsequent years. I learned palaeography from Malcolm Parkes and Richard Sharpe, and Parkes also guided my first steps as I attempted to catalogue manuscripts, but it was Andrew who provided the closest attention to my attempts to describe a codex. He did most to shape my practice in this field, and, in so doing, he helped me appreciate the importance of studying the whole codex. It is important to add that he acted as my mentor without there being any duty to do so: by the time I knew him, he was already retired. He did it not because it was required but that it was in his character to be supportive. A generosity of spirit defined him.

Andrew will be remembered for his writings but they do not constitute the sum total of his legacy. Those of us who knew him cannot forget the kind heart that beat in his slender frame. We can only attempt to emulate the extent of his kindness — but try we must, to be true to the memory of a true gentleman.

 

 

In memoriam C. S. L. Davies

Posted in Obituaries by bonaelitterae on 29 September, 2016

It has been announced that this morning Cliff Davies, for forty years Fellow in History at Wadham College, Oxford, has died. He has been so much a presence in my life since I arrived in Oxford as an undergraduate that it has hard to imagine the place without him. It seems to me that today the city has lost part of itself — or that its map has become curtailed, and its intellectual geography reduced. He is no longer here to guide us through its memories.

Cliff, I recall, was an obituary-spotter, commenting on not just where a notice was published but how long after the deceased’s death. He himself deserves the full treatment, with the trajectory of his life outlined, from Wales to London, to Oxford, to Glasgow and back to Oxford, and with his many seminal articles noted in such a way that creates a profile of his impact as an historian. Perhaps that will be done in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography — I suspect that he would be honoured to be included. But I am not going to attempt this here: the news is too raw and my reaction too personal for that. All I can provide today are a few vignettes, through which might come a sense of how much we have lost.

First meeting Cliff

I knew of C. S. L. Davies before I came up to university: his Peace, Print and Protestantism was required reading at school. I vaguely remember thinking when seeing him that he was rather different from the image I had conjured up for him from his writing: different and, I was to find, rather more. It was, in my first year, at a meeting of the undergraduate history group, the Stubbs Society, that he introduced himself to me. He and Kathleen — that is something else about Cliff, the quiet warmth of his married life — were regular attenders. At perhaps the second or third evening seminar that I attended, he came up to me and said ‘well, you must be coming up to Finals soon’. I said he could not get rid of my quite yet; neither of us could have realised then how long I would hang around this place and around him.

Cliff as a teacher

I have in front of me the Festschrift dedicated to Cliff in 2002. An opening section describes him as a teacher by three of his former students, all now successful historians. What they write captures vividly what I also experienced in that room, at the top of the narrow staircase, overlooking Wadham’s back quad: the silences, followed by a sudden flow of incisive words, often accompanied by emphatic gestures which were all the more memorable for being less than graceful. Cliff, it is fair to say, did not attempt to effect physical poise; if you want your dons debonair, then he was not for you — and that would be your great loss. Being in his presence was a lesson in not being distracted by appearance and learning to concentrate, for what he had to say was both rich and fresh, a product of that moment.

I cannot claim to have had tutorials with Cliff: he took me in my third year of then undergraduate degree for Special Subject classes, run by him and by Jenny Wormald (who too is no longer with us: they have both departed within a year). I remember the awkward pauses and how I felt I needed to do something to break them, torn between thinking that saying something, however asinine, was better than nothing, and realising that, if I did, I would sink even lower in these tutors’ estimation. More than that, though, I recall the sense of challenge, the need to question and to re-think — and, by having both Jenny and Cliff in the room, the realisation that challenge did not take a single form but was incorrigibly plural: we should not just change perspective, we must multiply them.

How I became Cliff’s doctoral student

That Cliff was the long-suffering supervisor of my doctoral thesis was an act of supreme kindness. When I began to think about my research, I wanted to focus on the concept of tyranny in the late Middle Ages. I visited the Professor of Medieval History at the time, George Holmes (he too is gone: this blog sometimes has the feel of a necrology). It was his task to seek a supervisor for me. I remember one response: ‘of course I am happy to supervise Mr Rundle, but does he really want to study tyranny? After all, as Fortescue tells us, there could be no tyranny in England. Would Mr Rundle not prefer to study local government?’ Mr Rundle did not prefer and Cliff offered himself to be my supervisor, on the understanding that there would be a second, who was George Garnett. As my research developed, it transmogrified: tyranny led me to an interest in civic humanism at a time when I was also discovering the delights (thanks to Malcolm Parkes and Richard Sharpe) of manuscripts. The result was that my studies moved yet further away from Cliff’s own specialism — I should say, specialisms, they were so varied — but he persevered and continued to have telling comments at every stage. He was a devoted supervisor, attending each paper I gave as a graduate student, and reading over the 150,000-word draft in a weekend. I hope he realised how eternally grateful I am to him.

In the process, our relationship changed: he encouraged me to think of myself as becoming a colleague. His article, ‘Tournai and Tyranny’, was the first one he sent me in draft, soliciting my comments. He taught me the collegiality of scholarship.

Indeed, possibly collegiality is a key word for him, for he was dedicated to Wadham and to his students. He encapsulated the virtues of a college life which put the fellowship and the teaching before one’s own ambitions — or, rather, they were his ambition. How old-fashioned that now sounds. If he does stand for another era, he himself would be the first to warn against any nostalgia. Every age has it warts and worse. Perhaps, though, that is what I sense Oxford is losing with his passing: not so much part of its map as a stage in its own life.

Conversations with Cliff

After his retirement, Cliff continued to be a visible presence, researching in the Bodleian and breaking for lunch when he would meet with a friend. I was sometimes his companion on those occasions and, as always, the conversation would range widely, across centuries of history and a sweep of Europe, but with the centrepoint always being Oxford’s past and present. In the last year, those conversations moved to his home. What has proven to be the final time I saw him there was just under a fortnight ago: though he was physically weaker, his mind was fearsomely alert and precise in its recollections. I enjoyed my visits and learnt from them as I had always done in my encounters with Cliff. I was expecting those occasions to continue in the coming months and years. It is difficult to come to terms with the realisation that the opportunity has died.

Re-reading what I have just written, I appreciate how much of it is about the momentary: the pattern of speech or the style of gestures. That, of course, is the bulk of life and it is what history can capture only rarely. But that is, fundamentally, what I believe I learnt from Cliff: to construct history from life, not from abstractions or from theories. He instilled that by his writings and his teaching but also by how he lived. How much we and Oxford have lost.

 

Remembering Jenny Wormald

Posted in Obituaries by bonaelitterae on 14 December, 2015

E-mail is such an impersonal way to learn of someone’s death. The very distance it creates makes the realisation of the loss of a human – someone you heard speak and laugh – all the more bitter. It was by opening of my inbox this morning that I learnt of the death of Jenny Wormald.

Jenny Wormald, historian of Scotland and of early modern Britain, tutor at St Hilda’s College, Oxford – I owe her so much. I remember the seminars I had with her in my final year as an undergraduate: one set in Cliff Davies’s rooms in Wadham, the other looking out over the gardens in her own college. What was a constant in those sessions was her willingness to provoke, to encourage reticent students into conversation and debate. I was to learn that this was a characteristic of her scholarship, a gift of making us continually re-think our assumptions, much as she insisted she herself must do. One of the last times I heard her speak I remember the author of the justly celebrated ‘James VI and I, one king or two?’ shock her audience by announcing that she had changed her mind: ‘he was a terrible king’.

It is also to Jenny that I owe my first job, standing in for her at St Hilda’s for a term. I remember well her room there, which I occupied for that Michaelmas, and its impressive range of books. My knowledge of her – I can hear her now being strident with me when I hesitate to assume it was friendship – was deepened by the fact that I was also at Christ Church with her then husband, Patrick. As that marriage collapsed, I heard both sides. And, at Patrick’s untimely funeral in Oxford’s Catholic Chaplaincy, I – like so many – could not hold back the tears as Jenny gave the eulogy with such eloquence and dignity.

It is perhaps that event which I remember most, though it was not the last time I saw her. I think that was in the run-up to the 2010 General Election when she was in Oxford for a while, and was palpably excited about the prospect of a LibDem break-through in the forthcoming vote. She was, I fear, disappointed both with the outcome and with the inglorious aftermath. Perhaps, though, there is something fitting about that memory and fear: she would be the first to remind us (as she took a drag on her cigarette and eyed you sideways) that you have to take all that comes and, through it all, survive. She no longer does but, in us, the memory of her and the traits we learnt from her will live. That is, I hope, no small legacy.

 

Malcolm Parkes RIP

Posted in Obituaries, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 27 May, 2013

I will not pretend to have known Malcolm Parkes well but, like so many, I owe him such a debt of gratitude that I cannot leave his passing on 10th May unremarked: he was a giant of palaeography. The breadth of his learning was always on display in his writings – indeed, he disdained those who concentrate solely on one script or one chronological period (and, so, presumably, I fail his high standards). This was a scholar who could range across the centuries, as comfortable with the Chanson de Roland as with the manuscripts of Chaucer and Gower, and who could make associations which few would have had the eye to see. What, though, I will most remember him for is his generosity of spirit.

When I began my graduate studies in Oxford, I went to two sets of palaeographical classes, one in my own Faculty of History, by Richard Sharpe, and one in English, by Malcolm Parkes; later in my doctoral work (and less formally), I was to learn much as well from Andrew Watson. Most student medievalists considered the task of palaeography as a matter of comprehension – what Richard Sharpe describes as ‘adult literacy skills’; some of us left the lectures, however, inspired by the possibilities of what palaeography in its widest sense (including codicology) can teach us about the book itself. The ability to hold a manuscript in your hands, to turn it over and to take all the elements of its construction to create a vivid history of its production, use and journey from creation to present – that is an invigorating and potent skill which Malcolm Parkes could convey with wit and clarity.

Central to learning how to do that is being able to write a technical description of a manuscript and, addition to his palaeography classes, Prof. Parkes provided instruction in that practice. Fired with interest by what I had half-learnt, I went off to describe some manuscripts and sent my rough attempts to him. I was not in his Faculty and there was no reason why he should have given me attention; all I could offer him was dinner in my student house in Jericho. But he accepted the invitation and sent me back my descriptions covered by pencil notes which I can still recollect twenty years later and which, in their wise advice, have informed how I developed my own practices of cataloguing.

I also remember him as an engaging lecturer, a master of the vignette and also of the obiter dictum. One, in particular, I recall from his Lyell lectures: ‘it is easy to imitate another’s letter-forms, it is much more difficult to imitate their spaces’. It is an insight suggestive of his own way of working, his own sense of the practicalities or technology of script that enabled him to provide such lucid analysis of (in the title of those Lectures) their hands before our eyes.

There are two other details that come to my mind. One involves an occasion early on in my graduate life when I was working in Duke Humfrey’s – so this was, perhaps, in 1992 and from my memory’s image of the light streaming into Selden End, late summer or early autumn – and Prof. Parkes walked in, cap in hand, to meet a lady sitting opposite me. They proceeded to converse without any attempt to lower their voices, so angering me that I walked out, little appreciating that, if I had had the sense to stay and listen, I would have learnt about the latest discoveries each of them had made, and not realising that the lady in question was destined eventually to be one of my doctoral examiners: the Professor of Palaeography at King’s London and former doyenne of Duke Humfrey’s, Tilly de la Mare.

I mention this tale because of the insouciance it suggests Malcolm Parkes had in the places that were his natural habitat. It extended also to dealing with manuscripts – no white-glove man, this, he would fairly plonk a volume down on its foam-rest. For those of us beginning our career and so daintly touching these half-hallowed objects, this was a liberating revelation. I rationalised his practice in my mind as a recognition that manuscripts, written on parchment and bound in leather over wooden boards, are fairly sturdy things – sturdier, it must be said, than the frail human body. And so, indeed, Professor Malcolm Beckwith Parkes has left us, but there survive many manuscripts which will outlive you or I, and which can say that they have been touched, enlightened and enlivened by him.

Maurice Keen RIP

Posted in Obituaries by bonaelitterae on 24 September, 2012

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.

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To know is to esteem

Posted in Obituaries by bonaelitterae on 5 September, 2011

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 be not proud

Posted in Obituaries, Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 26 July, 2009

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.

Memorial Service for George Holmes

Posted in Obituaries by bonaelitterae on 12 May, 2009

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.

Obituaries to George Holmes

Posted in Obituaries by bonaelitterae on 14 April, 2009

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.

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