Obituary: R. W. B. Burton

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The Independent Online
R. W. B. Burton taught Greek and Latin literature at Oxford and was a Fellow of Oriel College for over 40 years.

The vocation he chose was not that of family tradition. His father, Brigadier R.G. Burton, together with his father's eight brothers, and his grandfather, were all officers in the British army in India, where Burton himself was born in 1908. But he was not of the military type, although later in the Second World War he served as Flight Lieutenant in the RAF, Coastal Command, and was twice mentioned in dispatches for intelligence work.

Educated at Cheltenham College and Balliol College, Oxford, he won the Craven Scholarship in 1929 for prowess in composing Latin and Greek prose and verse, and on that account was given a teaching post at Oriel immediately after graduation, and elected a Fellow in 1932. In those days no apprenticeship in research was thought necessary. Teaching always remained his chief scholarly occupation, and he took a keen interest in all his pupils, whatever their abilities.

He never pretended to vast erudition, but an eminent Hellenist of the present time tells me that "he must be almost the last of that generation which knew so much more Greek with so much less parade than most of his successors".

He published two books. Pindar's Pythian Odes (1962) remains a recommended introduction to a difficult subject. In his preface, while laying little claim to originality, he wrote that he had "tried to steel himself against subjective judgements, freak interpretations and obsessive theories"; surveying previous views, he treated the odes with lucidity, common sense, and sensitivity to the language. Similar qualities are revealed in The Chorus in Sophocles' Tragedies (1980), which demonstrated that the chorus has a role distinct from those of the dramatis personae.

He was endeared to younger classicists at Oxford by his kindness to them, as he was to colleagues and undergraduates at Oriel. There he presided for two decades over the Senior Common Room, stocking its cellars as a connoisseur in wine, and welcoming guests with the charm and courtesy of a gentleman of the old style. He enjoyed finding out what all sorts of other people are like, and could relish their foibles too; a certain gravity of manner and solemnity of voice, quite unassumed, overlay a keen sense of fun. His serenity was a stabilising influence in the college. Self-seeking and malice were foreign to him, and if a traditionalist by nature, he could make new ideas his own.

Reggie Burton was a man who had music in himself, and was an accomplished pianist while his fingers were still supple. In early years he had made a collection of British butterflies, which lacked only five specimens for completeness; he was expert in bird-song, and an amateur botanist. He delighted in cultivating the large garden of his old house, set in a rural nook of Kidlington, outside Oxford.

There he lived continuously from 1939, two years after his marriage to Hester Wood-Hill, who was to become the successful author of many carefully researched historical tales for children. It was an ideal setting for their three daughters to grow up in and for the holidays of their many grandchildren, and for hospitality to friends. Not least among the delights they provided for their guests was a sense of the deep affection bonding the whole family. Reggie was himself a loving man, and he was rewarded by the love of all who came to know him well.

Reginald William Boteler Burton, classicist: born 5 December 1908; Fellow, Oriel College, Oxford 1932-76 (Emeritus); married 1937 Hester Wood-Hill (three daughters); died Oxford 4 June 1997.