Obituary: Professor Ernest Stahl

Ernest Ludwig Stahl, German scholar, born Senekal Orange Free State 10 December 1902, Assistant Lecturer in German Birmingham University 1932-35, Lecturer in German Oxford University 1935-45, Reader in German Literature 1945- 59, Taylor Professor of Language and Literature 1959-69, Student Christ Church Oxford 1945-59 (Student Emeritus 1960), Fellow Queen's College Oxford 1959-69 (Supernumerary Fellow 1969-92), books include Holderlin's Madness 1944, The Dramas of Heinrich von Kleist 1948, Schiller's Drama: theory and practice 1954, Oxford Book of German Verse (revised edition) 1967, married 1942 Kathleen Hudson, died Oxford 14 September 1992.

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.

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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

East15 Acting School: Finance and Contracts Officer

£20,781 to £24,057 per annum: East15 Acting School: The post involves general ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A mainstream Secondary school in C...

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company provides global satellite communi...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks