Obituary: Professor Peter Butter

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The Independent Culture
MY FIRST meeting with Peter Butter occurred in 1962 when I was waiting to be interviewed by the Head of the English Department for a lectureship at Queen's University, Belfast. The waiting room was a gigantic hall full of velvet- and-mahogany chairs redolent of deceased professors. In came a slight, youngish man saying smilingly "Oh, the poor candidate!" and I was instantly shifted to a smaller and less intimidating room.

This is a first impression, but it is backed up by 37 years' knowledge of the man. Whether teaching in India, in Northern Ireland or in Glasgow, regard for others remained at the forefront of Butter's consideration.

Butter was born in Coldstream in 1921 to an upper-class Scottish family. He once told me that he could trace his family back to the Duke of Monmouth and beyond, but, he added, it hadn't done him the least bit of good. His education was fairly grand, too: his school was Charterhouse and his university Oxford - Balliol College. There he studied English Literature under M.R. Ridley, who tended not to return his pupils' essays, marked or otherwise, but who, Butter remarked charitably, never actually did anyone any harm.

Like so many others of his generation, Butter's higher education was interrupted by the Second World War. He served in the Royal Artillery, being made Captain in 1945, and returned to Oxford to gain a First Class degree. "I never did one of those PhD things," he once remarked, but this was quixotic. He may not have put in for a doctorate, but his first book, Shelley's Idols of the Cave (1954), has the full weight of a doctoral thesis, with a readability all too often denied such productions. It discusses the poems of Shelley as though they were structures of sense rather than bodiless bird-songs.

Butter's first academic appointment was in 1948 to Edinburgh University, an establishment for which he retained considerable affection. There he remained for a decade, until he was elected at the age of 37 to a Chair of English at Queen's University.

His election took place under unusual circumstances. There was already a Professor of English Language and Literature of long standing in post, but for some time both staff and students had found him a little difficult to get on with. One young professor had previously been appointed to help, but had left in something over a year. On hearing of Butter's succession to what was meant to be a second Chair, the original professor resigned, and, unexpectedly, Butter became Head of Department.

He immediately expanded the Department of English by enlisting unusually bright academics, often from overseas. Peter Dixon came in from Australia, Gamini Salgado from Ceylon via Singapore. Both were outstanding scholars and attained the status of professors in other institutions quite soon after arriving at Queen's. Indeed, so many of these talented young colleagues left for greener pastures that, most unfairly, Butter was at one time accused of failing to keep his staff happy.

The reverse was true. Butter had married, in 1958, Bridget Younger, a daughter of the distinguished Scottish brewing family. No one who knew them ever thought of Peter and Bridget as anything but a team. The Butters dispensed generous hospitality at their fine house in Finaghy, on the wooded outskirts of Belfast. They were particularly adept at making newcomers to the university feel at home.

Foreign students especially had a claim on their attention. Peter Butter's inaugural lecture was on the theme "English in India", based on his experience as an examiner overseas. The Butters sought to render themselves part of the community, a task made easier by the fact that Bridget was a trained musician, playing the piano and also strengthening the university choir with her rich contralto voice.

Nevertheless, Butter seemed slightly eccentric on the dour Belfast scene. It may have been his predilection for fox hunting, and horse riding generally; it may have been his propensity to bicycle about very fast, wearing a Tyrolean hat which bore a perky feather. However that may be, locally he was known as "the Squire" - a fact of which Bridget may have been aware, since one day she seized upon the hat and buried it. After this, Butter bought a car.

So in 1965, when a Chair came up in Scotland, he welcomed the opportunity. After all he had spent seven years at Queen's, and developed the department strikingly. It was not his beloved Edinburgh that offered, however, but Glasgow, and there were aspects of the university at that time, particularly its tendency to employ its own graduates, that he found less than attractive. However, he spent the rest of his working life there, as Regius Professor of English Literature and Language.

There were those who felt that his was a lightweight appointment after such previous Regius Professors as A.C. Bradley, Walter Raleigh and his most immediate predecessor, Peter Alexander. That could only have been said by those who did not know Butter's work. In addition to his first book and several articles on Shelley, he had been researching into Francis Thompson, Walter de la Mare and, most substantially, the Orkney poet Edwin Muir. A book in the Writers and Critics series came out in 1962, and a full biography in 1966.

Editions followed of Muir's letters (1974), poems (1991) and, most impressively, fugitive criticism (1988) - a compilation that, chosen with tact and intelligence, demonstrated that Edwin Muir was probably the finest reviewer of fiction ever in English. There were, also, editions of Blake (1971) and Shelley (1982), whose lucid notes were especially appreciated by those lecturing abroad.

Butter followed a positive policy in appointing women lecturers to a department that, hitherto, had only boasted one mandatory female at any given time. He instituted seminars for non-honours students who had previously experienced only the impersonal instruction of mass lectures. He was always open to compassionate pleas. Perhaps, at times, his kindness prolonged the careers of unsatisfactory students. However, many would have said that, if a fault at all, it was one in the right direction.

Only Butter's modesty prevented him being seen as the fine scholar and teacher he undoubtedly was. He genuinely was never a man to put himself forward. But sometimes the daemon took over, in spite of himself. It was a privilege, for example, to hear him lecture on Yeats. His normally rather light and nonchalant tones deepened and intensified when reading the poetry of that greatest of all Romantics. It is salutary to consider that such future writers as Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane and the late Stewart Parker were sitting at his feet at the time; as was I.

He is the only person I encountered who could answer to the epitaph bestowed by Yeats upon Major Robert Gregory: "soldier, scholar, horseman, he".

Peter Herbert Butter, English scholar and critic: born Coldstream, Borders 7 April 1921; Assistant in English, Edinburgh University 1948-51, Lecturer 1951-58; Professor of English, Queen's University of Belfast 1958-65; Regius Professor of English Language and Literature, Glasgow University 1965-86; married 1958 Bridget Younger (one son, two daughters); died Bridge of Weir, Renfrewshire 11 May 1999.