In his preface to the 1953 second edition of The Literature of the Spanish People Gerald Brenan wrote: "A young Hispanist scholar, Mr Pring-Mill, has suggested to me that the key to a great deal of what I found obscure [in 17th-century Spanish drama] lies in the Jesuit-Dominican controversy over free-will and predestination, and I think it probable that he is right." That young scholar would go on to become one of the outstanding members of a richly talented generation of post-war university teachers of Spanish in Britain, and to be held in the highest regard in the international community of scholars.
In 1931 the Pring-Mill family moved from Essex, where Robert had been born in 1924, to Majorca, where he received his first education at the Jesuit school of Montesión in Palma, his father, a Scottish professional soldier, having sought a warmer climate to alleviate the effects of severe wounds received during the First World War. After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War the family was evacuated to Italy, returning to Palma after a few months, then to Britain on the outbreak of the Second World War.
Robert, who spoke little about his war service, enlisted, under age, in the Black Watch in 1941, serving as an intelligence officer with the 25th Indian Division through India and Burma, before reaching Malaya a month after the Japanese surrender. By the end of the war he had risen to the rank of captain, and was mentioned in despatches in 1947.
He read Modern Languages at New College, Oxford, and graduated with first class honours in December 1949, under the special arrangements for returning servicemen. Spanish was his forte; he would sometimes recall, with wry amusement, the low mark he had received in the French prose translation paper. Earlier that year he had visited Argentina, Uruguay and Chile with a group of students, under the auspices of the diplomat Sir Eugen Millington-Drake, and first became aware of the work of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
In 1950, the year he was elected to a Senior Demyship at Magdalen College, he married Brigitte Heinsheimer, and there followed an extraordinary partnership between two talented individuals who perfectly complemented one another. Brigitte was a tower of strength to Robert throughout their married life, providing the necessary counterweight to a man whose only fault was to drive himself too hard. The hospitality of their homes in Oxford and Brill flowed from their generous and unstinting natures.
Robert Pring-Mill's academic talents were quickly recognised. In 1952 he was appointed to a University Lecturership in Spanish, and in 1965 elected to a Tutorial Fellowship in Spanish at St Catherine's College (three years after the new college opened to students), holding both posts until his retirement in 1988. He also served as Spanish Lecturer at New College from 1956 to 1988, and at Exeter College from 1963 to 1981.
He was in no sense a narrow specialist. He wrote with equal authority across a wide range of Iberian literature, with a particular interest in the relationship between thought and the forms of expression which conveyed it. His early years inspired a love for all things Catalan, and he published widely on the medieval philosopher Ramón Llull. The subtlety and incisiveness of his mind was nowhere better demonstrated that in his work on 16th- and 17th-century Spain, especially the drama of Pedro de Calderón, and poets and prose-writers whose works were informed by the theory of wit (conceptismo). His work on Calderón was collected in what proved to be his final book, Calderón: estructura y ejemplaridad (2001).
An epic journey with Brigitte across Latin America in 1967 in a Land Rover has become almost the stuff of legend; Brigitte had trained as an aircraft mechanic during the Second World War, and it was she who kept the vehicle on the road. Two years earlier Neruda, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, had been honoured with a DLitt by Oxford, largely at the instigation of Robert Pring-Mill, whose work as disseminator and interpreter of Neruda remained central to his scholarship. He maintained contact with Neruda's widow after the poet's death, in the difficult years that followed the overthrow of the Allende government.
In 1972 he went to work with the Nicaraguan poet and liberation theologian Ernesto Cardenal, who was to become Minister of Culture in the Sandinista government, an experience which took Pring-Mill's work in new directions, collecting and analysing popular protest poetry and song.
Many honours came his way, but he remained at heart a humble and self-effacing man. He was given a DLitt himself by Oxford in 1986. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1988, and a Corresponding Member of the Institut d'Estudis Catalans (1966) and the Reial Academia de Bones Lletres, Barcelona (2002). Among the prizes which came his way were the Premi Pompeu Fabra (1956), the Premi Citat de Palma (1979), and the Premi Catalònia (1991). He was awarded the Cross of St George by the Generalitat de Catalunya in 1990 and in the same year was made a Commander of the Order of Isabel la Católica (Spain). The Chilean government honoured him by making him an Officer of the Order of Bernardo O'Higgins in 1992 and, only last year, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Honour for Neruda's centenary.
Pring-Mill's colleagues and former pupils remember him as a man of transparent goodness, kindness and generosity of spirit. Those who thought of themselves as early birds would often find that Pring-Mill had reached college long before them, usually for a session at the photocopier. One colleague recalls asking him at breakfast if he was making an early start. "No," came the reply, "I'm having my mid-morning break."
He was an exemplary tutor, giving unstintingly of his time and wisdom, committed to the belief that the tutorial system involved learning through dialogue, not knowledge imparted from on high. He remained a faithful Roman Catholic, though one sensed that his true spiritual home was the Church of the Second Vatican Council, rather than its more recent conservative incarnation. Despite increasing bouts of ill-health, he continued to write and to research almost to the end. He died in Oxford, surrounded by his family, after a short final illness borne with customary stoicism and good grace.
Colin ThompsonReuse content