Obituary: Janet Seymour-Smith

JANET SEYMOUR-SMITH, wife of the poet Martin Seymour-Smith, has died two months after the sudden death of her husband. She died in her younger daughter Charlotte's arms, the official cause of death being pneumonia, but those who knew her will say that it is more a matter of completeness, and that this remarkable woman died not exactly of a broken heart but because her heart was spent.

Janet Seymour-Smith was many things besides being what she was first and foremost: Martin's muse. A classical scholar, she provided Robert Graves with the translations of original texts which formed the basis for his two- volume The Greek Myths (1955). She worked indefatigably to help her husband in the making of his Guide to Modern World Literature (1973, revised and expanded 1985), described by one reviewer as "an amazing feat of a book, about half a million words long; half the size of Proust, nearly as big as the Bible".

In fact when some expressed incredulity that Martin could actually have read all the authors on whom he passed judgement in that vast but so lively volume he used, cheerfully, to confess that he hadn't. Some were undoubtedly left to Janet. Her mind was his mind in such matters. And what a mind it was - as incandescent as it was delicate and particular. She was certainly, for instance, the Proustian in the family, and delighted in the complete edition of A la Recherche du temps perdu in the Pleiade text which had been given her for a birthday present, comparing Proust's prose with Monet's painting of water-lilies.

Proust's celebration of Combray, the long-lost paradisal place kept alive in love by remembrance, had deep personal significance for her. When Martin died, Janet's message in tribute to him at his funeral was "Car bien des annees ont passe depuis Combray" ("Many years have passed since Combray"). Her daughter Miranda repeated the words for her own passing rite.

She was born Janet de Glanville in 1930 in Exmouth, Devon, where her father was a GP. Her childhood was spent in the West Country and at school in north Wales before she went up to Somerville to read Greats (Latin, Greek, ancient history and philosophy). It was at Oxford that she met Martin, two years her senior, already a published poet and the centre of an admiring circle but at first just one of the many young men who were dazzled by her. Asked at this time by her lifelong friend the novelist Susan Chitty what she thought of the young poet, Janet replied: "Martin will always be around."

The words proved prophetic. For the rest of her life, with the exception of its last eight weeks, Martin was always around. The pair were indivisible and the vitality of their marriage saved Janet on more than one occasion over the next five decades when her own intellectual brilliance exacted its toll. She suffered all her life from episodes when she was overwhelmed by her own mind. At these times, above all, she relied on Martin's love and care and protection. But he relied equally on her as the mainspring of his being and the very pulse of his poetry, much of the best of which was about her, though never sentimentally:

Oh but compassion's gift is merciless,

Lover: delusion's ghost cannot forgive

That in its element, of my distress,

I cruelly make you, you unkindly, live.

"Unkindly", there, means against kind, or as some might say, unnaturally. There was never any lack of the other kind of kindness in Janet Seymour- Smith.

The couple were married at the British Consulate in Mallorca, in 1952. They had gone to the island to live with Robert Graves, who had been Martin's friend since his childhood and whose biography he was eventually to write (Robert Graves: his life and work, 1982, revised 1995) - a book which Janet rightly insisted was by far the best of the lives of that poet, as well as being the one which other biographers of Graves have relied on for primary material and because it is written with a fellow poet's inwardness.

As well as helping Graves with The Greek Myths, Janet taught Latin to his son, William. Martin and Janet's first child, Miranda, was born in 1953 while they were still living in Mallorca. Their second daughter, Charlotte, was born soon after their return to England a year later.

Some difficult years followed, during which they lived in various rented cottages in Sussex, while Martin laboured at uncongenial schoolmastering jobs, before he became a full-time writer in 1961. Three years before that they had moved to the rambling old house in Bexhill-on-Sea, originally a Working Men's Library, which was to be their home for the next 40 years. Here, when their daughters had grown up, the emblems of their love became a series of cats, all named after characters in novels by Thomas Hardy: Picotee, Tamsin, Sweetapple.

Martin worked harder than any other serious writer of his generation, pouring out (usually for little money) a stream of critical studies, as well as major biographies, most notably the Graves and his 1994 biography of Thomas Hardy, a true labour of love. Poetry, and the writing and reading of poems, was at the heart of the Seymour-Smith household. The last book Martin published in his lifetime was the volume of poems Wilderness, dedicated to Janet, which contains these lines from a poem entitled "To My Wife in Hospital":

Two people who were very old

Once loved each other so much

That a god decreed

That they should die at the same time

And become one tree.

That poem goes on, ironically, to lament the fact that he and Janet never even managed to walk the long hot way to visit such a tree when they were together in Umbria. "Too far, really, / We said".

Tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, Janet Seymour-Smith inspired such poems most notably from her husband, but also from others who fell under her spell. She was capable all her life of calling forth love and devotion from those with whom she came in contact, yet treated her admirers with intelligent amusement as well as tact and tenderness.

A lover of roses and Grand Opera (especially Verdi) and in her younger days of greyhound racing, this uniquely gifted woman who gave so generously of herself in nurturing and sustaining her husband's work was always as Graves called her "splendid Janet". I once heard her silence three drunken poets who had been denigrating Milton simply by reciting from memory the first two dozen lines of Lycidas and then saying, "Not that we have to like this stuff, but here we are 300 years on and I can't quite forget it, you see."

Robert Nye

Janet de Glanville, translator and classical scholar: born Exmouth, Devon 25 August 1930; married 1952 Martin Seymour-Smith (died 1998; two daughters); died Tunbridge Wells, Kent 2 September 1998.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth


Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee