Professor G. Singh: Poet and academic who established his reputation with translations of Montale

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The Independent Online

Ghan Shyam Singh, poet, critic and academic, was born a high-caste Hindu, in Jaipur, India, on 24 January 1929. Though he eventually specialised in Italian language and literature, he was an intensely anglicised Indian of his generation, formally courteous and courteously formal.

From 1944 to 1950 he studied English under Professor D.C. Datta at Maharajah's College, Jaipur, (affiliated to the University of Agra), and then taught at B.R. College in Agra for three years. While lecturing at Aligarh Moslem University he took a sabbatical year at the University of Perugia, Italy, to learn Italian.

From 1958 to 1965 he taught Hindu at the ISMEO in Milan as well as English at Bocconi University in the same city, where he met the poet Eugenio Montale. In 1965 he was appointed to teach Italian at Queen's University, Belfast, becoming Reader in 1968, and Professor in 1970. After retirement from the university in 1992 he returned to Italy, teaching for some years in Urbino.

His friendships with D.C. Datta, F.R. and Q.D. Leavis, Geoffrey and Kathleen Tillotson, Ezra Pound and his partner Olga Rudge, Martin Allwood and Eugino Montale, were all formative. He wrote prolifically: in criticism books on writers as diverse as Swinburne, Pound, Eliot, Montale, Leopardi and the Leavises; in poetry he translated Montale, and wrote several volumes of verse himself.

His poetry, which is directly autobiographical and though in free verse quite unlike the poets he revered, Pound and T.S. Eliot, lies more in the shadow of Hardy and the Victorians. Sometimes a version of the poems is offered in both English and Italian as original poems in both languages, and not mere translations. One volume of poems evokes strangely beguiling memories of Pound and Olga, vividly real and yet dreamy, both contemporaneous and elegiac. Another volume, Profiles in Verse: F.R. Leavis & Q.D. Leavis is a requiem for its subjects.

The alternation of images and events, strikingly recalled, with a more discursive and analytic statement of their meaning and significance for the poet and the reader, works with unexpected strength. The sensibility, subtle and intelligent, philosophic and even satiric, explores accumulated deposits of experience.

Other poems are devoted to friends, friendship being a key value for Singh. His literary biography of Leavis came out in 1995 and that of Mrs Leavis in 2002; his Eugenio Montale: A Critical Study of his Poetry, Prose and Criticism (published in America by the Yale University Press in 1973) bore a commendation from Leavis himself on the dust jacket: "The intelligent reader will see that Singh is not the ordinary academic compiler-surveyor. His style recommends him – the book recommends itself."

Leavis also wrote the introduction to Singh's translations of Montale's poems (1976), and it was Singh who arranged for the Leavises to lecture in Belfast. He was a favourite with Mrs Leavis and in her will she named him literary executor, along with her son Robin Leavis, and after her death he edited two volumes of Leavis's essays, and three volumes of hers.

In 2001 Singh was made Honorary Citizen of Recanati in Italy for his services to Leopardi scholarship. After retiring (for the last time) he lived partly in Belfast and at the Institute for Leopardi Studies in Recanati, but owing to a stroke recent years were spent in a gated apartment in Weybridge, Surrey, with a Somali maid. He could be prickly, and his philosophy of life was somewhat bleak, summed up by the haunting lines of his poem "Guest": "I realised that / even my house in Cadogan Park in Belfast / has me there only as a guest / life itself being a rented house / with the impending threat of eviction / that one cannot appeal against." Well, the landlord has arrived, and there is no appeal. Singh never married, but intense relationships with women were recorded in his poetry.

John Tasker

Ghan Shyam Singh, poet, critic and academic: born Jaipur, India 24 January 1929; died 13 September 2009.