Professor Mark Roberts

Distinguished literary critic


Mark Roberts, English scholar and critic: born Winchester 21 September 1923; Assistant Lecturer, Department of English, Sheffield University 1954-55, Lecturer 1955-64, Senior Lecturer 1964-68; Professor of English, Queen's University, Belfast 1968-75, Head of Department 1968-75; Professor of English, Keele University 1975-82 (Emeritus), Head of Department 1975-82; four times married (two sons); died Prees, Shropshire 10 July 2006.

Mark Roberts was a distinguished literary critic, an admirer of F.R. Leavis and I.A. Richards, both of whom he knew personally, as well as of William Empson, who was his head of department in the 1950s and 1960s when he taught at Sheffield University.

At Queen's University, Belfast, to which Roberts went as Professor and Head of the Department of English in 1968, his colleagues included Seamus Heaney, as well as John Cronin, Edna Longley and Peter Devlin, all of whom were in time to become professors in the same department. Another colleague at Queen's, the poet Philip Hobsbaum, had completed a PhD under Roberts's supervision at Sheffield, and dedicated the resulting monograph, A Theory of Communication (1970), to him.

Roberts was the author of three important books: The Tradition of Romantic Morality (1973), The Fundamentals of Literary Criticism (1974) and Browning's Men and Women (1967). The Tradition of Romantic Morality was guided by the argument that "despite the neo-classical aspirations of such influential figures as T.S. Eliot", we were still living in an essentially Romantic age, so that "as the Sixties wore on", Roberts watched, "feeling almost as though I were living with a prophecy, while the climate of opinion became steadily more Romantic".

He collaborated with many periodicals, especially with Essays in Literary Criticism and Notes and Queries, and was general editor of Collins Annotated Student Texts. His final project, unfortunately never completed, was an edition of the poems of Donne.

Mark Roberts was educated at Winchester and at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and saw war service in India between 1943 and 1947. His first academic post was as an assistant lecturer in English at King's College London. From Belfast, in 1975 Roberts went to Keele University, where he remained until his retirement in 1982.

Although his field was English literature, Roberts had a keen interest in Italian literature and culture, which became the basis of our friendship during his time in Belfast. He visited Italy with me twice, on one occasion coming with me to see the poet Eugenio Montale and the critic Sergio Solmi, both of whom were living in Milan. He also formed an enduring friendship with the distinguished Italian scholar Ettore Mazzali, and the two exchanged several visits after he had left Belfas.

In his general attitude to academic life and literary criticism, Roberts bore the unmistakable stamp of Winchester and of Cambridge. His book The Tradition of Romantic Morality brings out the best and the most characteristic Mark Roberts. It shows him in his capacity as a scholar, a critic and a moralist all rolled into one. In his personal life and conduct too, these three strains of his intellectual life and personality were never apart from one another. A gentleman in the true English sense of the term, he never lost sight of the fact that the values implicit in the literature he taught were values to be reflected also in one's own personal conduct.

In some respects he could be called Arnoldian in the true sense of the word - Arnold for whom three-fourths of life is conduct. As a comparatist too Mark Roberts was at his best in dealing, as he does in The Tradition of Romantic Morality, with Blake and Johnson, Carlyle and Browning, D.H. Lawrence and Nietzsche. What he says of Lawrence was, to a large extent, true of Mark Roberts himself as a teacher and a scholar.

"He is . . . not a wild extremist pressing a single idea to the last refinement of absurdity; on the contrary, he sees human nature as a complex organisation of contrasting aspects, which are involved at all times in subtle interactions, so that the activity of one entails the activity, so a greater or lesser extent, of all. "

G. Singh

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