Obituary: K. W. Gransden
Tuesday 04 August 1998
Ken Gransden was born in 1925 at Herne Bay in Kent, and educated at the City of London School. After military service he went up to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he took a double First in Classics. One of the brightest young graduates of his day, he was approached by the spy service, but declined, preferring instead to take up the post of assistant keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum, where he worked from 1951 until 1957. In these austere surroundings (like a monastery but without the consolations of religion, as it was once described) he met Antonia Harrison, whom he married in 1956.
He was simultaneously pursuing his literary interests, writing poems, reviews and occasional pieces; his first book, John Donne, was published in 1954, and a collection of his poems, Any Day, appeared in 1960. When he was invited to become literary editor of the Listener, he left the museum to immerse himself wholeheartedly in the vibrant life of literary London in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
There were numerous visits to the theatre (this was the period of Look Back in Anger and the revival of the British stage), glamorous parties, and the opportunity to meet and entertain the leading literary figures of the day. Edith Sitwell came to tea, and E.M. Forster, who came down from Cambridge to talk about his work, read Babar stories to Gransden's young daughter. Gransden kept up the connection with Forster, and later wrote a book about him, E.M. Forster, which Forster himself read in typescript. Another publication from this period was his study of Tennyson's In Memoriam (1962).
After such a dazzling early career it was fortunate indeed for the then new Warwick University that Gransden was persuaded, in 1965, to become one of the four founding members of the Department of English and Comparative Literature. With his classical training, his deep knowledge and love of English literature, and his experience outside the narrow confines of academic life, he was the perfect person to help create an interdisciplinary department, in which English would be studied in conjunction with other European literatures.
All English students were expected to study a foreign language, whether classical or modern, and a core course on the Epic Tradition (Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton) ensured that students were not ignorant of the primary influence of classical culture on the literatures of Europe. It was a brave vision, and one which has left its mark, despite the much changed circumstances of academic life in 1990s.
Gransden devised and taught a wide range of courses in classical and English literature, from Virgil and Horace, through Spenser and Donne, to Auden and Greene, a range which is also reflected in his publications. When the joint School of Classics was set up in 1976, largely through the efforts of Tom Winnifrith and Donald Charlton, Gransden served as Chairman, and played an active part in teaching for the degree in English and Latin Literature. One of the high points of my time at Warwick were the seminars which I taught together with Gransden, when for me, as for the students, his learning, sensitivity and enthusiasm brought life to the poems we were reading.
He continued to write poetry, and a collection, The Last Picnic, was published in 1981. For many years he was one of the judges of the Gregory awards for poetry, a role which he particularly valued, as he describes in the introduction to The Gregory Anthology 1987-1990, jointly edited with Alan Brownjohn.
In his later years he turned back more and more to the study of classical poetry, particularly Virgil. He published editions of Aeneid viii and xi, Virgil's Iliad (an intertextual study of Homer and Virgil), a volume on the Aeneid in the "Landmarks of World Literature" series, and finally Virgil in English (1996), an anthology of translations of Virgil from Chaucer to Seamus Heaney. This last book brought together in a peculiarly appropriate way the various strands of Gransden's intellectual life, the poetry, the scholarship and the keen critical judgement, which he exercised on classical and English literature alike. It also demonstrates that for him the study of classics was not simply an antiquarian indulgence, but part of a living literary tradition.
Ken Gransden's career was highly successful, but like many gifted people, he was a vulnerable human being. It was a great stroke of luck, the goddess Fortuna perhaps, which caused him to meet Maureen Daniels, with whom he shared many years of happiness. Her warmth and earthiness complemented his somewhat excitable and highly strung temperament. They were chalk and cheese, as she herself says, but they admired each other for their differing qualities, and together they enjoyed life's many pleasures: gardening, walking, and swimming, dancing, travelling, music, food and wine.
Music was a lifelong passion, particularly opera, and in his later years he also discovered that he could paint. Ken Gransden was a true Epicurean in the enjoyment of life, never advertising his talents, nor overly concerned with worldly success. He was a secular man, but with a spiritual side, which became increasingly evident in his long and often painful final illness. This he bore with remarkable equanimity and inner strength, sustained by the love of Maureen and the family. He continued to compose poetry, and when he could no longer write, he recorded his musings on tape. His wit, charm and elegance never left him, and he died as he had lived, a truly civilised man.
When I visited him in the hospice where he lay dying, he showed me his commonplace-book which he kept with him, now that he was no longer able to use his library. He had inscribed it with an epigraph in reminiscence of Horace: "lusisti satis, satis bibisti. Tempus abire est" ("you've enjoyed yourself, indulged yourself. It's time to go"). He had a good life, he said, and was happy with all that he had experienced and done.
Karl Watts Gransden, literary critic, scholar and poet: born Herne Bay, Kent 24 February 1925; Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts, British Museum 1951-57; Lecturer, then Reader in English and Comparative Literature, Warwick University 1965-91 (Emeritus); married 1958 Antonia Harrison (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1977); died Warwick 25 July 1998.
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