Obituary: H. A. Mason
Monday 27 December 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.
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