Obituary: Professor W. W. Robson
Saturday 07 August 1993
The impact which Wallace Robson made as lecturer and tutor upon the post-war English School at Oxford was considerable. He brought critical controversy to the School and championed what was then in Oxford the new wave of the Scrutiny critics and the new American criticism so that his lectures (delivered without notes) brought an exhilarating and fresh breeze to the subject.
Younger critics and scholars of the late Forties and Fifties held Robson in enormous esteem and admiration. To them he set an example of total literary, intellectual and (then) radical commitment. Many books of the Fifties and Sixties received their first airing and encouragement and challenge at meetings organised by Robson and FW Bateson. He was also associated with the Founding of Essays and Criticism and the Cambridge Quarterly.
Robson went up to New College, Oxford, from Leeds Modern School on an RC Sherriff Scholarship to read English in 1941. He got a First in Finals in 1944 and taught for a short time at King's College, London, before returning to Oxford in 1946 as Lecturer and then Fellow of Lincoln College. Lincoln, a small college, was, after the war, significantly increasing the number of its undergraduates and fellows and Robson was one of the group of the new younger fellows who gave the college a new academic momentum. He left Oxford in 1970 to become Professor of English at Sussex University and in 1972 moved to Edinburgh as Masson Professor of English Literature. During his career he was Visiting Professor at various universities and colleges in America and Australia and in the last few years returned to Oxford for spells as a Visiting Fellow at All Souls and New College.
Robson had enormous intellectual range and seemed to be as much at home with history, philosophy and theology as with literature and was continually surprising one by showing considerable knowledge in areas where one had thought he had none. He had a marvellous memory and could gut a book in a few minutes.
His own most important critical work consisted of lectures, essays and reviews. These are gathered in Critical Essays (1966), The Defence of Literature (1982) and in a forthcoming volume, Critical Enquiries. His early concern with 'the words on the page', with nice discrimination and with close reading, came to seem too restrictive and he took up (against Leavis) the claims of historical criticism and scholarship. He also became concerned to carry literature out to the general reader. His Modern English Literature (1970) is an extensive survey of 20th-century writing, scattered with sharp insights and intelligent judgement. This book and the later survey, A Prologue to English Literature (1986), show his considerable gifts for exposition and summary working alongside those for evaluation and incisive comment and, significantly enough, are written in a style much more laconic than the style of his other work.
The detective novel and children's books also moved into Robson's critical frame. Essays on Treasure Island and The Wind in the Willows stand by essays on IA Richards and Yvor Winters. Towards the end of his life he found great pleasure in editing and annotation. He completed editions of Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes and was at the time of his death at work on an edition of The Innocence of Father Brown and on a selection of Edwardian poems. He also published a volume of poems, The Signs Among Us (1969).
Though sometimes handicapped by illness Robson was a strenuously productive writer. The critique was his ideal form in which he worked deliberately, scrupulously and persuasively to an assessment of the subject. He had no specialism: his interests ranged over the whole of English (and other) literature. His essays on Johnson's poetry, Byron, Robert Frost and CS Lewis show him at his best. Though writing with a very different temperament, tone and style he clearly owed a lot to his tutor, Lord David Cecil. Like Cecil he took great pleasure in literature, was generous in his judgement and showed especial sympathy for and understanding of the strengths rather than the limitations of minor writers.
He will also be remembered by friends, colleagues and pupils (many of whom followed him into teaching) for his personal qualities. He was an affectionate man, showing interest in and encouraging other poeple's work. From the time that I shared tutorials with him in 1942 I always found him the most stimulating companion. Many others, I know, found the same. He cared greatly for his family. His mother and sister (who died while still a young woman) spent their last years with him, and he found great comfort in his marriage.
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