Obituary: Professor Malcolm Smith
Thursday 27 October 1994
Malcolm Smith was a great, a loved and a colourful scholar. How many are the librarians who will remember with affection that gangly ginger-haired man with the mischievous grin who had cycled from afar to consult their rarest books. Smith was not simply an outstanding Renaissance scholar, he was an excellent teacher, a man given to warm friendships, to happy laughter and to a gentle sense of fun. He was also deeply and joyfully religious: Christianity finely tinted everything he did.
As an undergraduate at University College London he had sought out the distinguished scholar DP Walker to study the works of Pierre de Ronsard as a special subject: a handful of undergraduates - in this case two - followed a three-hour seminar with Walker every Friday for four terms, plus a year abroad. Walker introduced him to the ideals of the cultural breadth and depth of the Warburg Institute in London. After a brilliant First in 1962 he came to me for his thesis: he had little to learn and much to contribute. He was regularly in the North Library of the British Museum, surrounded by rare books, notes bulging out of an army gas-mask case, as he followed some learned trail.
The fruits of his Ronsard scholarship include the standard editions of the Sonnets pour Helene (1970) and the Discours des Miseres (1979). They are models of the exacting art of editing Renaissance texts in French. (Isidore Silver, the leading Ronsard scholar of his day, immediately greeted Smith as his equal and successor.) Smith threw new light on to the Regrets of Joachim Du Bellay - no mean feat. Recently French colleagues, in my presence, judged him to be the foremost British scholar of his generation. His work on Michel de Montaigne and his circle led him, as did Ronsard, into theology. He enjoyed Renaissance Latin literature; however his scholarly articles and papers show that he remembered those who had less Latin than he or no access to the riches of the British Library.
He loved cycling. As a postgraduate in London, when he found he needed to consult works in Italy, he jumped on his bike and did so. He was happily lecturing at Leeds University when in 1974 he was elected to Bedford College London, declining expenses since he had bicycled down for the interview. He was tireless.
Smith soon became a Reader, and after Bedford College was merged with Royal Holloway College he rose to the challenge, becoming Professor and Head of Department in 1986. His colleagues admired him: generous and just, he influenced through example. Those who knew only his writings, which give precedence to philology and history, were in for a surprise when they heard him teach, evoking the beauty and music of Ronsard - truly for him le prince des poetes - or showing how Montaigne or his friend Estienne de La Boetie mattered as artists.
His Oeuvres Completes de La Boetie for the Editions de la Pleiade was submitted last December when he already knew that his cancer was terminal.
His edition of Du Bellay's Antiquitez de Rome with Edmund Spenser's Ruines of Rome was printed and bound in America days before he died.
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