Jon Stallworthy: Poet and scholar acclaimed for his own work and championing the poets of the First World War

 

"I am a poet's poet", wrote Wilfred Owen on New Year's Day 1917. Jon Stallworthy, whose writing has brought Owen back to life, was the poet's poet of our time. A poet he became, first caught as other poets have been by nursery rhymes, and then by AA Milne and Kipling. Not much later he tried his own hand at it, and "discovered that what I most wanted to do in the world was to write poems."

Twelve books of his poetry now tell how well he did that, but with them went as many more books about other poets and their work: biography, criticism informed by practice, above all, line-by-line analysis that unravelled not just the meaning but the springs of inspiration.

He was born in London; his father came from New Zealand, becoming professor of obstetrics at Oxford. Jon grew up in Oxford, better first at the sound than the meaning of words: asked "What's your favourite college?" he said "Gynaecollege". The Dragon School opened his other senses and his mind filled with verse; from his father came forestry and rugby football – and Rugby School, where "acres of vegetable prose" led to a master who "saw a spark in the mind" and became his creative critic.

His father took him back to his NZ roots, and National Service to Nigeria in the Royal West African Frontier Force. Back at Oxford and Magdalen College he honed his rugby, while his ambition turned to the Newdigate Prize for poetry. Third time lucky, he won it in 1958 – and, more important, Jill Waldock, whom he married in 1960. Professor Helen Gardner told him to study Yeats for a graduate degree, and Maurice Bowra introduced him to Georgie Hyde-Lees, Yeats's widow. All this he wrote down in Singing School: The Making of a Poet (1998), an unsparing but joyous self-analysis.

The Oxford University Press offered him a job as an editor and published his first collection, The Astronomy of Love (1961). Publishing poetry proved as rewarding as writing it, and Stallworthy and John Bell built the best list of new poetry of the 1960s. An essay on "Poet and Publisher" in the Review of English Literature in 1967 showed him master of his new trade. A posting to the OUP office in Karachi made him new friends and opened his ears to a different kind of English, reflected in his next collection, Out of Bounds (1963).

His apprenticeship to Yeats continued. He passed the tests set by Mrs Yeats to those seeking access to the manuscripts. He learned first how to read the "execrable" hand, then how to follow thought in its reiterated snatches, leaf by leaf, to the final text. Eighteen poems tracked to their sources produced a new portrait of the poet at work, Between the Lines ((1963). It was also preparation for a cataclysm in his own life. The birth of his first-born son stirred new depths of emotion in a new long poem, often anthologised now, "The Almond Tree":

All the way to the hospital

the lights were green as peppermints...

I parked in an almond's

shadow blossom, for the tree

was waving, waving me

upstairs...

Wave

after wave beat

on the bone coast, bringing

ashore – whom?

New-minted, my bright farthing!...

Your son is a mongol

the doctor said.

How easily the word went in –

clean as a bullet

leaving no mark on the skin,

stopping the heart within it...

Root and Branch (1969) in the Phoenix Living Poets series introduced many to this new voice. The Penguin Book of Love Poetry (1973), unbuttoned and unhackneyed, shared a cover with the next collection, Hand in Hand (1974). Translation in partnership led to versions of Alexander Blok and Pasternak with Peter France, Polish poetry with Jerzy Peterkiewicz.

Harder stuff was on the way. A bystander to the Oxford Collected Letters of Wilfred Owen, Stallworthy was drawn to write his biography during a sabbatical as Visiting Fellow of All Souls. Wilfred Owen came out in 1974 to universal praise; written without sentiment but with deeper understanding, it won the Duff Cooper Prize, EM Forster Award and WH Smith Literary Award, and has remained in print since.

Stallworthy had become deputy head of the OUP's academic division, but in 1977 he accepted an invitation to Cornell as Professor of English Literature. Jill and he quickly acclimatised. The academic work was familiar; they found the perfect house, and explored the hills and lakes of upper New York state.

Best of all were new friends, not only in the university but among other poets. Absence stimulated exploration of old roots. A Familiar Tree (1978), illustrated by David Gentleman, followed generations of Stallworthys over two centuries in elliptical vignettes, terse yet vivid. The Anzac Sonata (1986) took its title from a longer meditation on nearer family history.

Stallworthy was next appointed first Reader then in 1992 Professor of English Literature at Oxford. He became a fellow of Wolfson College, and in 2006-08 acting President. Another biography, Louis MacNeice (1995), won more plaudits, as did his editions of Henry Reed and Owen; Rounding the Horn (1998) collected all his poems to date. Increasingly war engaged his mind, in Anthem for Doomed Youth (2002), Survivors' Songs from Maldon to the Somme (2008), Three Poets of the First World War (2011), and in The Oxford Book of War Poetry (1984; new edition 2014). His own last collection, also this year, was titled War Poet.

Instantly attractive, exceptionally handsome in youth, Jon Stallworthy was an electric presence. Verbal wit came easily; so did lighter as well as serious verse. From deep wells of reading his own distinctive poetic voice comes through clearly. He knew better than any poet of our time how paper-thin the barrier is between love and war. In his studies of other poets and of his own forbears, and always in his own poetry, he explored with a tender precision, just as his father did anatomy, the wounds and joys that love and war engender.

Jon Stallworthy, poet and scholar: born London 18 January 1935; married 1960 Gillian Meredith Waldock (one daughter, two sons); died Oxford 19 November 2014.

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