Obituary: Professor John Holloway

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The Independent Culture
IN HIS later years John Holloway, poet, critic and teacher, said that his poetry was what meant most to him. The salience of this remark can be recognised only by recall of his 14 formidably intelligent critical books, not to mention his record of tireless teaching, in Cambridge and all over the world, before and after retirement.

To consider his whole printed record is to appreciate the exceptional reach of his mind. A reciprocal relation between critical and poetic practice goes without saying; obvious too is his range of subject matter, from Shakespeare to the later 20th century. Holloway was never a specialist, though many specialists would have been pleased to have authored his discussions of their areas. More remarkable was, on the one hand, his philosophical awareness of the nature of language, and his capacity to debate in generalities in a way which subjected generalities to interrogation; and, on the other hand, his tenacious and compassionate regard for the ordinary, local and particular: street ballads, epitaphs, verses on pitchers, on samplers and bells.

From his first book, Language and Intelligence (1951), a mandarin investigation of the philosophy of language, to the two volumes of Later English Ballads which he edited in 1975 and 1979 with his second wife, Joan Black, and to his Oxford Book of Local Verses (1987), this mental range and breadth of sensibility can be found.

John Holloway was born in 1920; his earliest years are described in his acutely detailed memoir, A London Childhood (1966). From the County High School at Beckenham, in Kent, he won an open scholarship to New College, Oxford, where he read Modern Greats, and took a First in 1941. In the Royal Artillery, then seconded to Intelligence during the war years of 1942-45, he went on to become a temporary lecturer in philosophy at New College, and a Fellow of All Souls in 1946.

At All Souls, if not before, he changed his academic vocation from Philosophy to English Literature, feeling that the fundamental human issues, certainly in ethics, possibly also in metaphysics, were being sidelined by the new linguistic philosophy. Begun at All Souls, completed during his lectureship in English at Aberdeen University, the book which made his name, The Victorian Sage (1953), revealed his new direction. Opening out into the full intellectual and religious world of the 19th century, it far outdid the lucid summary essays of Basil Willey, then the prevalent mode of intellectual history in the Cambridge English Faculty.

His appointment to a lectureship in English, and a Fellowship of Queens' College, Cambridge, in 1954, brought him, he told me, utter happiness, chiefly because of the physical and historical character of the place. His first book of poetry, The Minute (1956), was soon published; his critical collection The Charted Mirror (1960) and The Story of the Night: studies in Shakespeare's major tragedies (1961) soon followed. From 1961 to 1963 he was Byron Professor at the University of Athens, an appointment in which he felt great pride. It was with mixed feelings that he returned to Cambridge.

For an energetic and critical young don the English Faculty of those days must have been frustrating. Its senior figures saw little point in expansion, and were tardy in recommending promotions. On the latter score, an article by Holloway in the Cambridge Review seems to have contributed to new professorial promotions, notably of those who would soon be, if they were not already, his antagonists. It was more serious that the one relatively easy opportunity to appoint new university lecturers in English, in the 1960s, was missed. Holloway's own ambitious plans for expansion of the academic structure, most of which were adopted, rested on a presumption of expansion in posts which never took place.

Chairman of the faculty in 1970 and 1971, he faced great resistance, and indeed the personal antagonisms of that time were so bitter as to be scarcely credible. Yet no serious ideological divide in the faculty had yet opened. Holloway's method of procuring change was by high command (Raymond Williams's later efforts were by stealth), but his energetic demarche, followed up by the diplomatic skills of the next chairman, Graham Storey, did bring in a wider academic structure, more highly optionalised in Part II, which, with minor changes, survives to the present day. The successful American Paper was then introduced, while Holloway's other great priority, the study of later 20th-century literature, has recently developed as a consequence of the structural changes he then adopted.

It was, for Holloway's friends, hard to credit his relative unconcern with faculty affairs after his retirement in 1982, when poor rogues talked of court news: "who's in, who's out . . ." Reader since 1966, Professor of Modern English since 1972 (when his inaugural lecture The Establishment of English was published), he had, on his retirement, recently published Narrative and Structure (1979), his sympathetic but individual response to the current demand for a more theoretical approach to literary study. The Slumber of Apollo (1983) and The Oxford Book of Local Verses remained to come.

On one occasion, however, the 1990 debate about the honorary doctorate for Jacques Derrida, Holloway re-entered the university arena. By this time divisions within the arts faculties had gone beyond personal rivalry and concerned the fundamentals of education, teaching and research. The split between the anti- and pro-Derrida camps seemed to be between, respectively, those who thought knowledge was possible and those who thought it was not. Holloway was too well trained philosophically to think that "theory" which was all the rage in Western literature faculties had much to do with theory. He actively supported the non placet side and when (as many feel) Cambridge from sheer agnosticism shot itself in the foot he and his side showed there was nothing ineluctable in the honouring of Derrida. The decision settled nothing.

In 1994 Holloway published Civitatula, his poem about Cambridge. Its long historical perspective, from when "four thousand great years / back into space, you could still find a place for Cambridge", becomes a modernistic reprise of the different poetic modes, cultural forms, which entranced and sometimes transformed England. Between the Acts has nothing on this, and, far from a mere virtuoso display, what emerges is the poet's strong and delicate concern with the life of man in his historic landscape, vast change, particular detail. Some claim that Civitatula is the best long poem written out of England since Four Quartets.

On 19 March 1991 Holloway published in the London Review of Books his poem "Holy Mountain". I telephoned to congratulate him (though there are no doubt many other uncollected poems as good or better). The lyric exemplifies the theme of this obituary. The distant sacredness, the homely table from which it is seen, the wonderful angler's spin of syntax over the several stanzas, the allusion to Queen Grace O'Malley:

giant summer expanses, giant

and luminous over the tidal flow, she too

thought the Saint's mountain holy, but

now is dust, as which of us

will not be, you see it blink at you

show the reach and detail of his perception, humble knowledge as well as proud.

It is to be hoped that John Holloway's latest poems will be collected, and that his brilliant unpublished book on how to read poetry will soon find a publisher.

Howard Erskine-Hill

John Holloway, poet and critic: born Croydon, Surrey 1 August 1920; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1946-60; Lecturer in English, Aberdeen University 1949-54; Lecturer in English, Cambridge University 1954-66, Reader 1966-72, Professor of Modern English 1972-82; Fellow, Queens' College, Cambridge 1955-82, Life Fellow 1982; FRSL 1956; Byron Professor, University of Athens 1961-63; married 1946 Audrey Gooding (one son, one daughter), 1978 Joan Black; died Cambridge 29 August 1999.