Professor Francis Berry

Poet, critic and English scholar whose forthright manner was relished by his colleagues and students
Click to follow

Francis Berry, poet, critic and English scholar: born Ipoh, Malaya 23 March 1915; Assistant Lecturer in English, Sheffield University 1947-49, Lecturer 1949-59, Senior Lecturer 1959-63, Reader 1963-67, Professor 1967-70; FRSL 1968; Professor of English Language and Literature, Royal Holloway College, London University 1970-80 (Emeritus); married 1947 Nancy Graham (died 1967; one son, one daughter), 1970 Patricia Thomson (marriage dissolved 1975), 1979 Eileen Lear; died Winchester 10 October 2006.

Francis Berry was a poet, critic and inspiriting university teacher of independent-minded and thunderous-voiced distinction; he was relished by colleagues and students.

He once declared to a student interviewer at Sheffield University, where he taught English Literature from 1947 to 1970, "You'd be astonished to know how shy dons are. Any approach to any don at any time (within reason) and he would be delighted." The opposite tendency to shyness seemed uppermost in the personality Berry constructed for himself.

He was universally enjoyed for his bracing and forthright manner, his enthusiasm and his passion for declaiming poetry at tremendously high volume on every possible occasion. He put on in his garden a performance of Comus, featuring suitably attired colleagues and students. While Berry himself took the part of Comus, his wife Nancy made a severe-voiced Lady; and their twin children, Melloney and Scyld, also took part. Yet a distractingly amusing aspect of the show was that his neighbours would hurl colourful abuse at the plucky thespians. At intervals, one philistine local yelled: "Why don't you put a sock in it?"

Vigour, physical energy and virility were qualities he admired; and he described himself once as having "thighs like a bargeman". He was a lover of cricket, and in an interview he spoke of his need for "regular violent exercise", which would often take the form of mowing his small but sloping lawn. He was perhaps not as athletic as all this suggests. After a visit to Iceland in the 1960s a friend asked how he had got about the place; Nancy replied sarcastically, "Oh, he rode everywhere on shaggy ponies!" In fact, he had travelled by bus.

Berry's dramatising lessons would reverberate through the Department of English Literature, so penetratingly that other tutors would have to pause in their teaching with an indulgent smile while Berry finished off a mighty period. He had a powerful carrying voice, and an emotional style of delivery. According to one colleague, "It always sounded like The Wreck of the Deutschland. The effect could be thrilling." Berry himself declared: "Poetry is sound-waves - not printed signs for sound - and it would be exciting to discover whether A, B or C really understood a poem by asking him to say it aloud as it ought to be said."

In tune with his obsession with poetic utterance, two of his most notable critical studies, Poet's Grammar (1958) and Poetry and the Physical Voice (1962), variously analyse and celebrate grammatical forms and the authentic voicing of verse. The Shakespeare Inset: word and picture (1965) examines what Berry identifies as narrative "deposits" or "pockets" of poetry within the plays which create imagined spectacles that are at odds with the dramatic action on stage.

Several of Berry's own best poems find expressive power in the clash between narrative and dramatic action, passionately imagining and morally exploring historical occasions of high emotional moment. "The Iron Christ" (1938) dramatises the pact between Argentina and Chile not to go to war but to create out of their guns the Christ of the Andes. "Morant Bay" (1961) scrutinises the grotesquely shaming suppression of a Jamaican riot in the 19th century. "From the Red Fort" (1984) indirectly mourns Nancy (who died in 1967) through the prism of the moving story of Shah Jahan's construction of the Taj Mahal. His nine volumes of poetry were brought together in Collected Poems (1994); his several accomplished radio plays have not yet been collected.

Berry's mother died within a week of giving birth to Francis and his twin Rosemary in Malaya in 1915, where his father was working on a rubber plantation. Francis and his sister were despatched to the maternal grandparents in Cheltenham, and were visited only infrequently by their father, James, who had gone to work as a chief engineer for P&O. The insecurity of his earliest years may account in some part for Berry's response to a student's cheeky question, "Why are you so eccentric, then?":

Am I? - and whether I am or not, why the "then"? Explanation: I behave as I am or (which might equally be the case, I don't know) I behave as I do to conceal, armour or protect what I am.

He was educated at Hereford Cathedral School and at Dean Close School where he fell under the "vitalising" influence of the Shakespeare scholar G. Wilson Knight (whom he would revere throughout his life). Knight reciprocated his esteem, and would claim in his book Neglected Powers (1971) that "Berry . . . is the greatest of all who have written within the present century." Even in introducing Berry's first volume of poetry, Gospel of Fire (1933), published when the precocious author was just 18, Knight had saluted "the pressure of a new poetry" that was expressed "with a strange, sometimes almost naïve, but always significant assurance".

At 16 Berry started work as an articled clerk, and he also did a spell as an actor at the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich, founded in 1923 as the first modern open-air theatre for Shakespeare productions. When asked in later life whether he had acted by living the part or by technique, he said he used to live the part, but "I couldn't do it now".

In 1937, feeling at odds with a life in the law, he began studying English at the University College of the South West (accredited by London University), now Exeter University, but his education was interrupted by wartime service in the Army. An ill-assorted soldier, he was permitted while caught up in the siege of Malta to start teaching as an English master at St Edward's College (the so-called "Maltese Eton"), where his pupils included John Manduca, later to be Malta's High Commissioner to London. He proved a terrific success in the role. At the age of 90, a year before his death, he would return to Malta for the publication of a play he had written for Maltese radio during the war, Bride of Mosta, which was based on a Christian-and-Muslim folktale on the lines of Romeo and Juliet.

At war's end Berry completed his studies at Exeter, gaining a first class degree, and was appointed lecturer at Sheffield, where he was successively Senior Lecturer and Reader before attaining a personal chair. His Head of Department, the equally but differently eccentric William Empson, took to Berry's frank and exuberant personality and reliability, and came to place trust in their solid mutual support.

Quite like Empson, Berry was conspicuously scruffy and dirty, with food often staining his clothes and his nails grime-rimmed, so Empson may have found him all the more sympathetic. Empson depended on the Berry household for the occasional use of a bath. Berry helped Empson to pull chestnuts from a number of bureaucratic fires.

They made a formidable duo. Deidre Heeton (later Sanders), future professional journalist and successful agony aunt, remembers being given a "serious bollocking" by Berry and Empson together for having wasted her time, as they saw it, pursuing student journalism. Berry could be decisive and oftentimes effective. When a junior colleague asked at one examiners' meeting why a certain candidate's mark was so low, Berry riposted, "Because it was no higher!" and offered a crocodile grin, and that disposed of the matter.

One of Berry's favourite tricks in class was to identify the (invariably female) student who would have, as he suspected, the lowest boredom threshold. Striding to and fro while declaiming poetry, he would scrutinise the suspected student for the tell-tale moment when she would try to glance at her watch, whereupon he would pounce upon her like a lunging fencer and ask with no abatement of volume: "Pray, Madam, what doth the tick-tock say?"

In 1957, when Berry first put in for a chair elsewhere, Empson supported him with a full-hearted reference including these comments:

He is generous to his students in time and energy, and has frequently helped them in readings and dramatic performances, sometimes in the garden of his own house. In lectures and tutorials he lays stress on "delivery" and brings out the impact of the sound of the poem under consideration in an impressive manner. He is thus a stimulating teacher with a very definite point of view; but also a man of wide interests and intelligence, not inclined to impose his point of view. He is a reliable and friendly colleague, and would be found an asset in social activities.

Empson noted too: "He is a poet and critic of distinction . . . I see the appointment is for an expert on 16th- and 17th-century literature, and thus so certainly his main field. He is a Roman Catholic, with a great sense of the tension of paradox in Christian doctrine; and I take it admires the metaphysical poets chiefly because their methods bring that out. He is also much interested in late medieval work, as his publications show. I arrange a voluntary course every year for Honours Students in English Literature on the other major literatures, and he does an hour on Dante very well."

Berry had become a Roman Catholic in adult life, and he declared to a colleague that the most important thing in life was to save his soul. Lunching in the staff club one Friday, he complained loudly "Why isn't there any fish? It's Friday, but no fish! NO FISH!" (Even in conversation he would emphasise points by loud repetition.) Unavoidably overhearing him, a cradle Catholic from the French Department sighed, "Oh, these converts!"

From 1970 to 1980 Berry was Professor of English at Royal Holloway College, London University; and in retirement he was much in demand as a visitor at overseas universities including Malawi, India, Japan and New Zealand. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1968, and was awarded a Royal Literary Fund pension in 2003. His last years were passed in a nursing home.

Berry's second marriage, to Patricia Thomson, was dissolved in 1975. His third wife, Eileen, whom he married in 1978, survives him, along with the twin children of his first marriage, Melloney and Scyld. His son is a travel writer and cricket correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph.

Berry was genuinely gifted as poet and critic, but perhaps his lasting legacy is the generations of students whom he infused with his deep love of literature and the noble sound of words.

John Haffenden