Obituary: H. A. Mason

Harold A. Mason, literary critic: born Hull 30 July 1911; Lecturer, Exeter University 1955-65; FR Leavis Lecturer, Cambridge University, and Fellow of Clare Hall 1965-78; married (three sons); died 25 November 1993.

H. A. MASON was one of the finest post-war literary critics, and arguably one of the finest critics of the century. Since really great literary critics are rare - not more than four or five every hundred years - Mason's ought by logic to have been a name on people's lips: a recognisable figure among the Great and the Good. Yet although appreciated by the happy few (his pupils and readers), in his career he was denied public honours, even a professorship.

For the last 25 years of his life Harold Mason was Fellow, and then Fellow Emeritus, of Clare Hall, Cambridge, which is perhaps not such a bad niche to occupy. His fellowship gave him time and space and the requisite economic independence to practise what he was exceptionally good at: the long discursive critical essay, with copious quotations in the original tongue. Over the years these found a home in the hospitable pages of the Cambridge Quarterly, successor to FR Leavis's Scrutiny, and one of the more rigorous (as well as one of the most elegantly written) of contemporary learned journals.

Mason owed much to Leavis, who had encouraged contributions from him to Scrutiny from the early 1930s. He inherited from this master an impressive moral seriousness that arose, slowly, out of profound and ever-deepening acquaintanceship with the great literary monuments of European civilisation. Like Leavis, Mason had a genius for quotation that makes his published writing sparkle with intelligence. Like Leavis too, Mason came up with some of his greatest flights of critical daring in old age. His extended tour through Dante, for example (contributed as one-off essays to the Cambridge Quarterly in the course of the 1980s), remains as exhilarating an exhibition of the critical method in action - sceptical, discursive, allusive, yet anchored fast to a rock-solid moral centre - as most readers will come across in a lifetime.

The main difference from Leavis was one of focus. Leavis's field was his native literature of English, whereas Mason, who trained in the Classics (he read Greats at Oxford), laid siege from an early age to the wider patrimony of Latin and German Europe. That does not necessarily make him a better critic of course, since sound criticism depends on depth not width. (In any case, there were certain areas, such as the novel, where Leavis's knowledge and insight were greater.) But it made Mason, among other things, a better and deeper critic of religion: better able than Leavis to interpret the momentous balance between paganism and Christianity that traditionally defines Western culture; or used to, before the advent of modernity.

Mason was not antimodernist; yet neither did he subscribe to the view, implicit in much modern critical practice, that the past can be deconstructed by access to fashionable contemporary secular mythologies. He believed that the relation of past to present is best understood as a single continuous dialogue between equals. It was the continuity that was the great - the miraculous - fact to bear in mind. And to have access to that needed no special jargon or orthodoxy. Starting from the late 1950s Mason successively published, over a 30-year period, magisterial studies on humanism and Tudor poetry, the satirist Juvenal, Shakespeare's comedies of love, Pope's translations of Homer, the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the nature of tragedy (in The Tragic Plane, 1985, Mason's own favourite among his works), as well as the commentary on Dante already mentioned.

Each of these studies is in turn underpinned by a vast array of reference to different corners of European history and literature; citations that are never introduced for show, but always, somehow, as constitutive of the argument itself: the proof of the richness of the tapestry. It is this range and erudition of Mason's (coupled to his Johnsonian obsession with 'what makes a classic') that warrants any claim for his greatness as a literary critic, though his aloofness from metropolitan life may make such a claim at first appear provocative. Plainly, most English writers gravitate, at some stage or another, towards London. In this sense Mason remained as studiously 'provincial' as Leavis was. Yet measured against this, the don's life at Cambridge granted him, as it has granted generations before him, crucial leisure in which to address enduring matters of culture and civilisation.

When all is said and done, however, Mason was not unaware of the temptations of fame - of fame's metaphysics, so to speak. That would have been impossible for someone as deeply versed in the classics as he was - someone who had 'studied fame' in writers like Juvenal, Martial and Virgil. His best literary criticism often seems to be delicately autobiographical. And what he seems to be meditating at such moments (they would include the last essay he ever published, on an epigram by Martial) is the cost of the literary life; its fortunes, its vagaries, its disappointments.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue