Eric Griffiths, 1953-2018

Tributes paid to Cambridge literary critic

November 8, 2018
Eric Griffiths
Source: Ruth MacKenzie

A famously incisive and combative literary critic has died.

Eric Griffiths was born into a Welsh-speaking family in Liverpool in 1953 and was educated at the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys. He studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge (1971-74) and, after a year at Princeton University, returned to Cambridge for a PhD on “Writing and speaking in the work of Eliot, Yeats and Pound”. He went on to spend his whole career at Cambridge and was appointed a teaching fellow at Trinity College in 1980, where he remained until he took early retirement in 2011 as a result of a stroke.

A hugely popular lecturer who once included the lyrics of a song by Amy Winehouse in a practical criticism exam, Dr Griffiths was the author of The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry (1989) and the editor of Dante in English (with Matthew Reynolds, 2005). A selection of his unpublished lectures was published as If Not Critical (edited by Freya Johnston) earlier this year.

His reviews were celebrated for their acerbic wit. Terry Eagleton was once dismissed as “a pith-artist” for his “quick-fire summary of issues and thinkers”. Yet Dr Griffiths was quite unrepentant, noting that “we pass legislation to encourage whistle-blowing and at the same time a culture is promoted which portrays whistle-blowing about any intellectual matters as usually an act of pathological spite”.

George Yeats, lecturer in English literature at Regent's University London, described Dr Griffiths as “caring, inspiring and endlessly entertaining” and said that he – like “countless other Cambridge students turned teachers” – would remember him as “the sharpest thinker and finest supervisor we ever met. In my memories of lectures, I see overflowing halls on the Sidgwick site where we hung from the rafters and on to his words. In tutorials, his occasionally cutting remarks were the flip side of the utterly scrupulous acuity that he brought to reading student work of all levels.

“His range of mind was simply extraordinary,” Dr Yeats went on. “To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes on his brother Mycroft – all other lecturers were specialists, but his specialism was omniscience. His expertise spanned the supposed boundaries between periods, art forms (prose, drama and poetry), languages (English, French, Italian and German), and disciplines (theology, linguistics, philosophy and of course literature)…On the podium, around the tutorial table, or – after the supervision had ended – over a drink, he was at once an intimidatingly brilliant intellect and yet, like his much-loved Shakespearean namesake [Yorick], ‘a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy’.”

Dr Griffiths died on 26 September.

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