Prof. Ian Jack: Literary scholar who moved from Butler and the Brontës to the definitive edition of Browning

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The Independent Online

Ian Jack, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, was the author of a series of masterly studies and editions of English writers between 1660 and 1860. His critical discussion was careful and decisive, his editing learned and lucid. There is no reader of Keats, or of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, or of Robert Browning, but must reckon a debt to Ian Jack.

Ian Robert James Jack was born in 1923 in Edinburgh, and was educated at George Watson's (where he was John Welsh Classical Scholar) and Edinburgh University, taking a First in English in 1946. He was then appointed James Boswell Fellow. Having lost his mother when he was eight and his father when he was 18, and being afflicted with the chronic asthma which caught him in the end, he forced himself into resolution and independence. Like many a talented Scot he took the high road to England, gained his D.Phil from Merton College, Oxford, and became a Lecturer in English and Fellow of Brasenose. (He never lost his love of Scottish anglo-phone culture, however, as I realised when together we attended a reading in Cambridge by Douglas Dunn.)

Cambridge became the chief scene of his professional life. Originally an enthusiast for the "New Criticism", he was appointed Lecturer in English at Cambridge in 1961 and, encouraged by Professor Basil Willey, was elected Fellow of Pembroke College.

His first book, Augustan Satire (1952), had brought together writers from Samuel Butler (author of Hudibras) to Samuel Johnson in a well-calculated formalistic approach. His volume of the Oxford History of English Literature, on the period 1815-32 (1963), attested to his enthusiasm for the later Romantics, but certainly Keats and the Mirror of Art (1967), an exploration of Keats' sources in painting and sculpture, and their poetic transformation, is his finest work on any of these poets and marks an epoch in Romantic criticism.

Jack then turned to the Victorians and was General Editor of The Clarendon Edition of the novels of the Brontës (1969), and co-edited Wuthering Heights (1976), the most editorially problematic of the Brontë texts. For the first time we had an accurate, annotated text of Emily Brontë's great novel. Jack's collaborators in the series were Jane Jack, Robert Inglesfield, Hilda Marsden, Herbert Rosengarten and Margaret Smith.

As this work drew to an end Jack considered turning his attention to drama. It would have balanced his academic oeuvre but he soon turned away from the idea. For him poetry (non-dramatic poetry) was the best, the highest, most important thing. He published his valuable study The Poet and His Audience in 1984, which ranged from Dryden to Yeats but did not include Browning. Browning, the most voluminous and learned of 19th-century English poets, was now the subject of Jack's most ambitious and exacting editorial project, the Oxford edition of Browning's poetical works. Jack oversaw the first five volumes, after which the edition continued under the general editorship of Michael Meredith.

Once again collaboration (par for the course in modern scientific research) was the only way to make reasonable progress with an enormous academic task. Here his collaborators were Rowena Fowler, Robert Inglesfield and Margaret Smith, but Jack was also co-editor of each volume with its textual notes and learned and succinct annotation. Under his charge and in his hands, the edition forged ahead culminating, in 1995, in the fifth volume, "Men and Women", which contained Browning's best-known poems. "Jack is thorough, accurate, and has dug hard in published... and unpublished sources ... They are lovely books in the Oxford tradition..." commented one reviewer. Volume V was the completion, on a high note, of a learned labour of love. A congratulatory entry was made in the Pembroke Parlour Wine Book (such are the rewards of academe) and a volume of essays in his honour, Presenting Poetry (1995), just reprinted, was given to him. The visitor to Browning's house in Florence will find Jack's Browning volumes in the drawing room.

Jack had a further project, on poetic elegy. "Not the elegy of death," he said, "but the elegy of life". It is likely his love of Dylan Thomas would have found expression here, but the idea was only a gleam in his eye.

Jack is well-remembered as a tutor and supervisor. He was, it seems, tough and hard to please, the better to urge his pupils on, as they soon realised. They later saw that he was quick to perceive character, and the kindest of men. Former pupils and colleagues remember the hospitable suppers given by he and Elizabeth Jack in the garden and in the book-lined rooms of Highfield House, Fen Ditton.

Jack was not, perhaps, happy in Cambridge until the 1970s. True, during his later years, there were some dismaying ructions in the English Faculty and the University in the course of which the philosophic concept of truth was, incredibly, denied by some young-er colleagues. A learned bibliophile, he found David's antiquarian bookshop in St Edward's Passage very absorbing. So was cricket – he was a member of the MCC. So was his work.

For so blunt a speaker he had a liberal mind. For so traditional a scholar, he leaned to the left in politics. In his youth he saw and admired the foundation of the National Health Service. An agnostic, he told me: "If god is anywhere he is in the mind of man," possibly recalling the Scottish divine Henry Scougal's title: The Life of God in the Soul of Man (1677). Humanitas, in its widest sense, is what Ian Jack exemplified in his life.

Howard Erskine-Hill

Ian Robert James Jack, scholar of English: born Edinburgh 5 December 1923; Lecturer in English Literature, Brase-nose College, Oxford 1950-55, Senior Research Fellow 1955-61; Lecturer in English, Cambridge University 1961-73, Reader in English Poetry 1973-76, Professor of English Literature 1976-89 (Emeritus); FBA 1986; married 1948 Jane McDonald (marriage dissolved; two sons, one daughter), 1972 Margaret Elizabeth Crone (one son); died Cambridge 3 September 2008.

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