Obituary: Professor L. C. Knights

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The Independent Online
F. R. Leavis and his wife are rightly thought of as the standard-bearers of Scrutiny, but it was L. C. Knights and a few friends who had the idea of creating such a literary quarterly, and took steps to bring it into being on 15 May 1932 - Knights's 26th birthday.

Knights was the only one of Scrutiny's editors who served in that role for every one of its 76 issues. For some time he had been only a nominal editor and he only learnt from a third person in 1953 of the decision to abandon publication. "I was hurt," he wrote later, "by this failure of communication."

I first met Lionel Knights when I was a sixth-former at Gresham's School in Norfolk. He was visiting his close friend, and co-editor of Scrutiny, Denys Thompson, who taught me English literature. Thompson invited me to join them for a walk over the sands at Wells, and I remember little of their conversation except that Knights managed to cap every one of our remarks with an appropriate quotation from Shakespeare, whose plays he apparently knew by heart. I found him a rather perplexing mixture of the severe and merry; but felt pleased with myself for choosing his recent pamphlet How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? (1933) as my school prize for literature.

Meeting him frequently over the subsequent years corrected both these first impressions. The apparent severity - a product of a high brow and rimless spectacles - was really a moral integrity which partially masked what Leavis described as an Eliot-like Christian gentleness; and his Elizabethan learning was accompanied by an excessive modesty which led him to conclude his Lady Macbeth pamphlet by insisting that he had "no illusions about the adequacy of [my] remarks as criticism; they are merely pointers". In the event his dismissal of the Bradleyan notion that Shakespeare was pre-eminently a creator of "living characters" and his insistence that the plays must be considered as dramatic poems became a central tenet of the Scrutiny movement.

Knights followed up How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? with his celebrated book, which earned him his PhD, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (1937). His Cambridge colleague the distinguished Elizabethan scholar Leo Salingar has described this as one of the first studies to relate the themes and quality of an author's style to the nature and traditions of his society. After the Jonson book came a stream of essays and books on 17th- century literature, including three volumes of what he typically called "explorations" (Explorations, 1946, Further Explorations, 1965, and Explorations 3, 1976) - in his later writings he often seems to be exploring what lies beneath a writer's skin. But it is revealing that his earliest as well as many of his later essays in Scrutiny were on educational themes, notably his "scrutinies" of modern universities, of training colleges and of examinations.

For Knights was a devoted teacher who flourished both in the lecture hall and in the intimacy of the seminar room. And he had the daunting vision of the central tasks facing a university and its teachers as being to cultivate four qualities: "A sensitive and flexible intelligence that can be brought to bear effectively upon the problems . . . of society"; "A potentially mature sense of values"; "A sense of the relativity of one's immediate standards"; and "An ability to use with precision the instruments of knowledge in some field of human effort". If such an ideal seems remote from today's educational world, it offers a good description of the education which Knights set out to offer his own students.

Ironically most of his teaching was carried out at the universities of Manchester, Sheffield and Bristol (in the latter two as Professor), and not at Cambridge where he had originally studied. When he first went as an undergraduate to Cambridge from his home in Grantham, he was apparently entranced by the cultural charm of life in the city. But his eight years at Cambridge as King Edward VII Professor of English Literature from 1965 to 1973 were to prove the least happy of all his teaching career. In a lecture, "Cambridge Criticism: what is it?", he said that the approach of the School of English "was concerned for the quality of life of individuals and therefore for the quality of the civilisation that shaped them and for which they were responsible". But it is doubtful if the faculty as he found it was fully articulating those ideas.

Moreover he discovered that, though a professor, he was not, for much of his time, Chairman of the Faculty Board and thus lacked the authority he had enjoyed at the provincial universities. Indeed, confronted by a faculty whose members wielded most of their power in their own colleges' fastnesses and who enjoyed no corporate life in the faculty, Knights felt frustrated and anxious, and he believed that he had managed to achieve very little to ensure "the smooth working of everyday teaching - the arrangement and revitalising of undergraduate courses, choice of set books, and so on".

Of course Knights exaggerated his lack of success at Cambridge, and he was not able to appreciate the subtle influence which he exerted as a profoundly civilised being. He was particularly glad that he managed to establish a joint Faculty-Student Committee which was not without influence.

But perhaps his most serious disappointment at Cambridge was his estrangement from the Leavises. At the end of his life he wrote that "Leavis was the most important intellectual influence of my life in young adulthood: without his influence a large part of me might have remained dormant." And he became a close friend of the Leavis family. But on his return to Cambridge he found himself being addressed by Leavis as "Professor Judas", and he gathered that Leavis believed "that he had in some way betrayed him and all he stood for". The specific charges were untrue, and Knights "was of course deeply hurt".

None the less, whatever the rights and wrongs of this matter, Knights was wonderfully forbearing. And when, in his later years, he lost much of his sight, he looked most stoically after his ailing wife Elizabeth, who survives him. But then, he was just such a person.

Boris Ford

Lionel Knights came to Bristol in 1953 from Sheffield, where William Empson succeeded him as Professor of English, writes Professor Henry Gifford. His association with Scrutiny made him in prospect a somewhat daunting figure.

However it did not take him very long to allay the anxieties of a department comfortable with itself, and having a potentially strong medieval and language side. That he overcame the prejudice of those who expected him to uproot Anglo-Saxon was largely due to his own patience and respect for those who differed from him, and to his regard for Susie Tucker, an upholder of Old English and Old Norse and a notable student of the English language. She was to become a good friend of Elizabeth, Lionel and their children.

When some 12 years later he was about to move on to Cambridge and had just finished the book Further Explorations, he dedicated it to his colleagues in the English department. A more balanced and flexible course had been achieved, and he was leaving them with high morale and some confidence in the future.

A professor, in Knights's view, should lead his department with authority tempered by gentle persuasion. His range of interests was wide, and the relation between literature and politics an abiding concern. He gave an example of critical thinking humane and sensitive, and by no means restricted. Like F. R. Leavis to whom he had owed much, Knights believed that English should stand at the very centre of an arts faculty. With his encouragement it developed new courses, such as in English with Classics, and English with Russian, a new subject nurtured at the beginning within the English department.

Knights was a gifted lecturer. Many of his essays in the three volumes of his Explorations had begun as lectures. This was a form that suited him very well. He had a finely controlled histrionic streak, reading Shakespeare's verse with animation and a delicate sense of rhythm. His conviction about the value of great literature appealed to his students. Like his close friend D. W. Harding he had a sensibility that was attracted by a religious way of life, although when his wife Elizabeth became a Christian he somewhat painfully remained outside the Church. Coleridge was always important to him, and Blake. His essay on George Herbert, with its blend of intimacy and a sense of exclusion, was what Eliot turned to before writing himself on the poet.

Knights has written about the significance for him of a boyhood in Grantham at the turn of the century. In that old-fashioned place he became "immersed in social problems" with those "nice distinctions of rank" belonging to Middlemarch. The escape from Grantham was, however, not without a backward and appreciative look. The world he lived to see produced a cultural shock so profound that it alerted him to the danger of "the cruel, the self- seeking and the unimaginative having a large share of control".

Those who knew Lionel Knights in his rewarding years at Bristol will remember with gratitude a humane scholar in a tradition that must not be allowed to die.

Lionel Charles Knights, teacher and critic: born 15 May 1906; Lecturer in English Literature, Manchester University 1933-34, 1935- 47; Professor of English Literature, Sheffield University 1947-52; Winterstoke Professor of English, Bristol University 1953-64; King Edward VII Professor of English Literature, Cambridge University 1965-73 (Emeritus); Fellow, Queens' College, Cambridge 1965-73; married 1936 Elizabeth Barnes (one son, one daughter); died Durham 8 March 1997.