Howard Erskine-Hill, 1936-2014

A Cambridge professor of literary history has died

April 17, 2014

Howard Erskine-Hill was born in Wakefield on 19 June 1936. His mother came from a family of worsted spinners by the name of Poppleton, and his father was a Scottish architect who came close to designing the episcopal cathedral in Aberdeen.

A further religious influence came from his education at Ashville College, a Methodist boarding school in Harrogate, where he became interested in the hymnody of the evangelical revival. He had little time for the staff except for one English teacher, and so went on to study English with philosophy at the University of Nottingham. After graduating in 1957, he went on to complete a doctorate in 1961 on the subject of tradition and affinity in the poetry of Alexander Pope – a writer who remained at the heart of his academic interests for his whole career.

In 1969, after a series of posts at the University of Wales, Swansea, Professor Erskine-Hill was appointed lecturer in English at the University of Cambridge. He was promoted to reader in literary history in 1984 and professor in 1994, and retired in 2003. His major works included The Social Milieu of Alexander Pope (1975), The Augustan Idea (1983) and Poetry of Opposition and Revolution (1996) as well as an edition of Pope’s Selected Letters (2000). His biography of Pope was almost complete at the time of his death.

A man of strong and increasingly conservative views, Professor Erskine-Hill moved from radical atheism to Anglicanism and then, in protest at the ordination of women, Catholicism. He also led the opposition when Cambridge offered Jacques Derrida an honorary degree in 1992, calling the decision “symbolic suicide for a university”.

Tony Morgan, a research fellow in English at Anglia Ruskin University, knew Professor Erskine-Hill as a neighbour in Cambridge for 35 years. “He was liked and respected in the district for his civility, good humour and hospitality – he liked nothing more than sharing fine Scotch and discussing his prized collection of Jacobite memorabilia.”

Morgan added: “He cut an endearing figure in the neighbourhood when walking his pet dachshund Bounce – whimsically named after his hero Alexander Pope’s Great Dane of the same name, though of rather different proportions…Unfortunately, after Bounce deceased, Howard retired from dog ownership after having to be released from a lamppost outside his house where Bounce’s successor, a high-spirited female Border collie pup, had bound him by running frenzied circles around him with her lead.”

Professor Erskine-Hill was admitted to hospital with jaundice at the end of last year and died on 26 February.

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