Henry Gifford

Critic and literary scholar of far-reaching sympathies
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The Independent Online

Charles Henry Gifford, scholar of English and comparative literature: born London 17 June 1913; Assistant Lecturer, Bristol University 1946-55, Senior Lecturer 1955-63, Professor of Modern Literature 1963-67, Winterstoke Professor of English, Bristol University 1967-75, Professor of English and Comparative Literature 1976; General Editor, Cambridge Studies in Russian Literature 1980-84; FBA 1983; married 1938 Rosamond van Ingen (one son, one daughter); died Bristol 23 November 2003.

Henry Gifford proved himself a scholar-critic possessed of far- reaching sympathies, of precise discernment, of humane learning and of wisdom.

His death at the age of 90 brings home what a true piety is, in contemplation now of his supple stamina and of his own discriminating piety towards the literary geniuses whose presences he, in the best sense, owned: Tolstoy and Seferis, Pasternak and Samuel Johnson, Dante and T.S. Eliot. The turn of phrase that Eliot borrowed from A.E. Housman, "the mind of Europe", returns as that which most prompted Henry Gifford's powers of mind and of heart. He himself had called upon the deep resources of the phrase in his introduction in 1979 to a translation of Osip Mandelstam's Journey to Armenia.

He was a leader in bringing a sense not only of responsibility but of particular responsibilities to a field of literary study that - like all other studies - is always in danger of settling for some easy way out: comparative literature, or (aggrandising itself) Comparative Literature. Easy ways out can take many forms when it comes to pronouncing on the literature of the world: the apocalyptic sermon, the grand tour, the slavish compilation as against the masterly composing of differences.

With an excellent manner and with excellent manners, Gifford was unfailingly (that is, successfully, uncondescendingly) courteous - this, as teacher for 30 years at Bristol University (being Winterstoke Professor of English, 1967-75), as reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, as essayist for Grand Street magazine, and as general editor of a series for Cambridge University Press. Yet he was courteous in a form that was not only generous but stringent. Generous, as proffering unstintingly all the learning that he had accrued (and all that he had thought and felt). Stringent, as knowing that there is no substitute for knowledge, and - unignorably - no substitute for an intimate knowledge of the languages themselves if you are claiming to illuminate the literature itself.

Though he was himself a great respecter of translation, and an authority on its principles and practice, he never abandoned his scepticism as to the granting in Comparative Literature of higher degrees that did not come down to earth, that did not rest firmly upon a grounded mastery. Most of us have only a first language plus a modicum of a second one. There was something chastening about his exemplary commitments, but also heartening since he never let any of this become priggish or owlish.

He was very good at offering advice in a way that made you wish to take it. There is about all his writing, as there was about all his conversation and dealings, a magna-nimity, a self-abnegation, directly moving. He had, too, the sense of humour that is possible only to someone who has an exquisite sense of decorum and therefore of the apposite indecorum. He never made mischief but liked to be mischievous.

Born in 1913, he remembered the aftermath of the First World War. He was to serve in the Royal Armoured Corps during the Second World War, from 1940 to 1946, years in which his saddening separation from his family laid the unshakeable foundations of the love that bound together Henry and his wife, Rosamond, his son Nick and his daughter Anthea, and of late the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren whom every month his letters, so firm of hand, evoked so vivaciously.

In recent years, years of oppressive ill-health but also of warm gratitude for all that life had brought him, he would read anew the letters that he and Rosamond had exchanged during the war. Family feeling mattered most to him, and he valued its various realisations in the writers whom he loved. That he was related to Thomas Hardy's first wife, Emma Gifford, meant much, but it had its cross-currents, since he never ceased to marvel not only at Hardy's poems but at how greatly blessed he, Henry, was in comparison with Hardy when it came to marriage.

Educated at Harrow and then at Christ Church, Oxford, where he gained his BA in 1936 (the customary MA had to wait until 1946, the same year that he was appointed Assistant Lecturer at Bristol University), he secured those foundations in Classics that were once held to be indispensable to all humane literary studies. Gifford neither underrated nor overrated what his classical training made possible. If he changed his mind, as he did, as to whether he was cut out to be a poet, he never dispensed with the trained analytical and synthesising powers that his study of classical literature had helped to establish within him.

And in duly acquiring a wider range of languages, he strengthened not only his own creative and critical abilities but those of associates and friends. His collaboration with his greatly valued colleague Charles Tomlinson led to Gifford's introduction and advice in Versions from Fyodor Tyutchev (1960), and played its part within others of Tomlinson's fine translations, those from Machado and from Vallejo, all gratefully acknowledged by Tomlinson.

The understanding of Russian literature that had been shown in The Hero of his Time (1950) was widened and deepened in Gifford's admirably succinct and informative study, The Novel in Russia (1964). Henry James may or may not have been right to speak of Russian novels as loose baggy monsters, but Gifford's ways with them were never loose or baggy or monstrous. After bringing together a well-judged critical anthology on Tolstoy (1971), he moved to a full-length study, profoundly sane, of Tolstoy's troubled genius (Tolstoy, 1982).

But it is the critical study Pasternak, in 1977, that most manifests the imaginative centrality of Gifford's work as critic and literary historian. Strong-minded and fair-minded, it is a work of staying-power that demonstrates the hiding places of Pasternak's staying-power.

There followed in 1986 the publication of the Clark Lectures, Poetry in a Divided World, alive with political consciousness and conscience, and elegiac in its praise of heroism, the heroic bravery shown by such as Anna Akhamatova - but then there are, as Gifford makes clear, no "such-as-Anna-Akhamatova", only (fortunately) others who were no less brave. The very last thing that Henry Gifford would have wanted to do would have been to claim any such courage for himself, but he was attuned to the courage of those who suffered under oppression, and he demonstrated courage both professionally and personally. His achievements were further recognised when he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy 20 years ago.

Someone to whom Henry and Rosamond were dear has sent word to me of what many will feel in affectionate memory of Henry Gifford. That a quick wit is innate but needs cultivating. That a sunny disposition is easy to warm to without perhaps giving enough credit for what efforts may have gone towards it. That wide sympathies and undogmatic good sense (with anger reserved only for the really wicked, such as the BBC) are rarities, too.

Christopher Ricks