Obituary: Professor Constantine Trypanis
Thursday 21 January 1993
CONSTANTINE TRYPANIS was a poet in English who interested Eliot and by a long chalk the best medieval and modern Greek scholar of his generation.
He was born in Chios, in 1909. His father insisted on his becoming a lawyer, but died at the last moment when it was possible for him to change to graduate studies in classics. Constantine went to Munich full of enthusiasm to study Hesiod and the Homeric hymns, but the cynical glances of German professional classicists pursued him for many years. He was an able classical scholar, but they were stunned by his patriotic enthusiasm for the language, since a Greek scholar of Greek was something new to them.
Trypanis' first book was written in Greek, a study of Theocritus, and he taught very successfully at Athens University, where he was the first and still perhaps the only lecturer to lead his students like a pied piper round such remote local monuments as the walls of the Piraeus and the Long Walls. In the war against Fascism he fought in the Chios Regiment and reached Athens again after many adventures, sheltering under the Bridge of Arta while the Germans crossed it. He passed Marathon a day or two after the battle, when it was held by Australians: the ground was still littered with the dead, with innumerable beer bottles and innumerable wild flowers.
During the occupation he used to brave the curfew to enjoy long, literary conversations with that famous Athenian character and friend of several generations of poets, George Katsimbalis, and it was then he laid the foundations of his mastery of early modern Greek literature, a mastery that in those days could not have been acquired from any other source. His first marriage was a disaster: the honeymoon was a fortnight in the Grande Bretagne Hotel, but the marriage lasted less long. Unfortunately his wife kept a successful night-club, at which she indoctrinated Osbert Lancaster and a long succession of others with monstrous stories about him, the echoes of which were believed in England. His second marriage was very happy indeed and he brought up the daughter in Norham Gardens, Oxford.
In 1947 he came to Oxford as an assistant to J. Mavrogordato, whom he soon replaced as Bywater and Sotheby Professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek Literature. His learned work was powerful and faultless: he edited the Kontakia of Romanos and those attributed to him, in three distinguished volumes. The first of these was attacked with extraordinary vigour and folly by a German Fellow of the British Academy, who lost his own reputation and added considerably to that of Constantine Trypanis. Trypanis won the unusual honour of D Litt. He had been an international tennis player and was good enough to be squash champion of Exeter College, Oxford, until he was 50.
Trypanis had in the past written poetry in Greek, though I know no one who has ever read his earliest work. In English poetry, which he began to write in the early Fifties, he made his way slowly as the member of the Group, which met in London on Wednesdays, and had his first collection, Pedasus (1955), published at Reading through these friends. Oxford undergraduate poets were suspicious of him, for his genuine love of poetry, his extraordinary generosity, and because he was older than they were, though many of them by now must recall him with gratitude. To me and to many of my friends in the mid-Fifties and the Sixties he was the most helpful and delightful of adult companions.
Some of his English poetry derived from Greek models, Cavafy or Elytis, and his critical taste never veered far from that of George Katsimbalis, but there is also sharp and clear verse by him which is brilliant and inimitable. His deepest inspirations were the sea, and Homer, and the war.
He left Oxford in 1968 and went as Professor of Classics to Chicago University. He was lured by the possibility of the production of Greek tragedies in his own translations, but for a few years he was unable to go to Chicago, since the Colonels in Greece refused at first to endorse his visa, in the hope of squeezing out of him some support for their regime. He behaved with an extreme integrity, showing interest at that time only in the work of Amnesty and of the Quakers for the relief of prisoners. Chance dinner conversation with Constantine Karamanlis before the elections led to his adoption as Minister of Culture in 1974 - the year he returned from Chicago - without standing for Parliament. His ministry controlled both education and archaeology, and he performed both tasks brilliantly, so far as circumstances permitted. From 1981 to 1985 he kept himself busy as secretary- general of the Academy of Athens.
One of Trypanis' later writings is an excellent textbook in Greek called Homer; two of his last were books of poems in Greek. He lived to within a few days of his 84th birthday. He was a man whose life was in some ways difficult, and who was sometimes misunderstood, but from beginning to end there runs through it a strain of decency and even of nobility.
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