Obituary: Professor Ronald Peacock

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The Independent Online
Ronald Peacock, scholar of German: born 22 November 1907; Assistant Lecturer in German, Leeds University 1931- 38, Lecturer 1938-39, Professor 1939-45; Henry Simon Professor of German Language and Literature, Manchester University 1945-62, Dean of the Faculty of Arts 1954-56, Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1958- 62; Professor of German Literature and Comparative Literature, University of Heidelberg 1960-61; Professor of German, Bedford College, London 1962-75 (Emeritus); Professor of Modern German Literature, University of Freiburg 1965, 1967-68; books include The Poet in the Theatre 1946, The Art of Drama 1957, Criticism and Personal Taste 1972, married 1933 Ilse Freiwald; died Wexham Park, Buckinghamshire 1 June 1993.

RONALD PEACOCK had a long and full life as one of the most distinguished practitioners of German studies in Britain and as a literary scholar with a vast knowledge of European literature of the last three centuries. He was a man whose prodigious academic career and ever youthful zest for life entitled him to be described, even at the age of 85, as 'ein Wunderkind'.

After a Double First in German and French at Leeds University, Peacock studied in Berlin and Innsbruck and gained a doctorate at Marburg, on one of the first theses ever to be written on Thomas Mann. Returning to a Lectureship at Leeds University in 1931, he was before very long, and at the ripe age of 32, appointed to the Chair of German there. In 1945 he crossed the Pennines to take up the Henry Simon Chair of German at Manchester University, and in 1962 he moved to the Chair of German at Bedford College, London, from which he retired in 1975. During these years he was frequently invited to lecture at European and American universities and held visiting professorships at Cornell, Heidelberg and Freiburg. Academic distinctions followed him into retirement, as Manchester University conferred on him an Honorary Doctorate of Letters (1977) and Bedford College elected him a Fellow (1981).

Those who worked with Peacock, whether as colleagues or as students, reaped the benefit of the philosophy of academic life which he himself expressed, with characteristic modesty and straightforwardness, as being 'interested in the whole job - not just a part of it'. Such interest meant active membership of a number of college and university committees and of professional organisations, national and international, as well as wholehearted devotion to his successive departments, which flourished accordingly. Many of his research students are now in university posts in Britain and abroad. The 'whole job' meant not only engaging in scholarship but also enabling others to do the same. Thus, as editor of the Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical Society (locally known as 'the Phil and Lit') he provided many young academics with the chance of publishing their first papers. At Manchester he served on the University Press Committee and was instrumental in establishing a new Department of Drama. In London he chaired the German Academic Exchange Service for 13 years.

Peacock's own research was both wide-ranging and central, and his publications have proved lastingly influential and repeatedly reprinted. His book on Holderlin (1938) was the first major study in English of this poet; it won the JG Robertson Prize. Goethe's Major Plays (1959) was awarded the Gold Medal of the Goethe Institute. He wrote on Novalis and Schopenhauer, on Buchner and Wedekind and many others, always with the Uberblick, or vision of the whole European context, which was his hallmark and which took him naturally into comparative literature. There are essays on Eliot, Yeats and other English poet-playwrights, as well as on German drama, in The Poet in the Theatre (1946); and with The Art of Drama he moved into general dramatic aesthetics. The references in his last book, Criticism and Personal Taste (1972), range from Arnold to Zola.

The spirit which informed Peacock's life and work seems to me epitomised in the inaugural lecture which he gave at Bedford College under the title 'Much is Comic in Thomas Mann'. He reminded his audience that Mann had a higher regard for 'das heraufquellende Lachen' - 'the warm surge of laughter from the heart' - than for 'the thin smile of intellectual irony'. The warm surge is now stilled, but its effects continue to be felt by students in and beyond the countries and institutions where Ronald Peacock lived and served.

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