Frank Kermode, 1919-2010

August 26, 2010

One of the most prominent, prolific and wide-ranging literary critics of his generation has died.

Sir Frank Kermode was born on the Isle of Man on 29 November 1919 and educated at Douglas High School, where his precise social status, as he once recalled, was marked by the fact that he "did not wear clogs and belonged to the leather-wearing classes".

After a scholarship to the University of Liverpool came wartime service in the Royal Navy, much of it based in Iceland, then a return to Liverpool for postgraduate work and a job as a lecturer at King's College in Newcastle.

After working at the University of Reading from 1949 to 1958, Sir Frank was appointed to four successive professorships: at the University of Manchester (1958), the University of Bristol (1965), University College London (1967) and finally the University of Cambridge (1974).

From his early edition of The Tempest (1954) to Shakespeare's Language (2000) and The Age of Shakespeare (2004), he constantly returned to the works of William Shakespeare and also wrote major books on John Donne, Andrew Marvell, John Milton and Edmund Spenser.

Yet Sir Frank always refused to be pigeonholed and also devoted much attention to the Romantic poets, 20th-century literature and interpretations of the Bible. One of his books of essays is titled Pleasing Myself: From Beowulf to Philip Roth (2002).

It was while at UCL that he helped pioneer in Britain the judicious application of French critical theory to the study of literature, at least at postgraduate level.

His time at Cambridge, as King Edward VII professor of English, however, was blighted by sharp disputes between traditionalists and a new generation led by Colin MacCabe.

Sir Frank's attempt to take a middle line pleased no one. He resigned in 1982 and briefly took up a part-time appointment at Columbia University in New York before retiring to write.

Well aware that major works of literature are reinterpreted by each generation, Sir Frank knew that the works of critics soon get superseded and once described writing a book as being "self-sentenced to a year or more of un-epiphanic hard labour, made worse by the suspicion that it's all a waste of time".

Late in life, he looked back with wry amusement at the lost ideals of his youth, when it had been widely believed that "the study of English had powerful ethical implications, powerful social implications".

His memoir, Not Entitled (1995), is also notably self-deprecating.

Sir Frank died on 17 August 2010 and is survived by his two children.

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