Obituary: Professor Ernest Stahl
ERNEST STAHL, who died in Oxford last week, was born nearly 90 years ago in the Orange Free State. His parents had gone there as settlers from Bavaria. Teachers at school, in Senekal, and at university, in Cape Town, directed him towards Britain, and his academic subject became the language and literature of the nation his parents had left.
He read Modern Languages at Oxford (taking First Class Honours in 1927) and Heidelberg, wrote a doctoral thesis (on the Bildungsroman) at Berne, and thereafter taught in Britain, first at Birmingham University then at Oxford, for the whole of his professional life.
He wrote mainly on German literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, on Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Kleist and Holderlin. He was one of the first to begin to make Holderlin known in England. He wrote as a teacher should, clearly and helpfully. He edited important texts, and made them accessible. He was a worthy exponent of a literature whose inspiration is the love of humanity and the longing for betterment in the life on earth. He was eminent in his subject. He had the Taylor Chair at Oxford, a D Litt from there, the Gold Medal of the Goethe Society, and visiting Professorships at five universities in the United States.
That is a large enough life, in one area of learning. Ernest Stahl was defined but not limited by his particular knowledge. He was an open-minded, well-travelled, widely cultured man. He loved music and all the arts and constantly developed his appreciation of them. It is a great pity that he never wrote any account of his own life. He could remember going backstage to meet Marlene Dietrich after her performance as Eliza Doolittle in Shaw's Pygmalion in Berlin. He knew Louis MacNeice well, translated Faust with him, played golf with him along the cliffs at Carrickfergus. When Dylan and Caitlin Thomas were living at South Leigh in Oxfordshire Ernest and Kathleen Stahl were their near neighbours and close friends. (He remembered seeing the floor of that farmhouse littered with Thomas's rough drafts.) He knew Auden, Stevie Smith, Pierre Emmanuel and many other writers, painters, musicians. And through his wife he had friends in the quite different world of African politics. His life, stretching almost the length of this century, was astonishing in its fullness and variety.
If Stahl never did write his memoirs that is largely because he was too modest to believe they would be of much interest to anyone else. In his teaching that modesty - really a true humility - became his natural method: he respected other views, deferred to them, tried seriously to understand opinions it would have been easiest to dismiss as plainly wrong. He was a most patient teacher; by his deference, by his serious listening, he would induce his pupils to correct or improve their own thoughts little by little. He was gentle, courteous and kind. Everyone felt this, wherever they came from, whatever they did in life. His enquiries were never merely polite. Though his latter years were difficult as his health worsened, he made little of that and asked after other people kindly and with real interest.
I had a conversation with him in hospital shortly before he died. Though he found it hard to talk, hard to gather his thoughts, hard to get the words together, all his sentences were properly shaped. He was asking me about teaching. It moved him greatly when I told him, as a matter of fact and not to flatter him, that undergraduates still read his books and are helped by them. I said something about the new term, about the novelty and recurrence every year. He was thinking back over 70 years as a student and a teacher. Then he said: 'Isn't that a wonderful thing: the continuity of professional belief.' That is just about the last thing I heard Ernest Stahl say, 'the continuity of professional belief', and it will do very well as his epitaph.
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