Obituary: The Rev Professor W. Moelwyn Merchant

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The Independent Online
To say that W. Moelwyn Merchant was a good teacher would be like saying that Ian Botham knew how to hold a bat.

He delivered the first lecture I experienced as an undergraduate. It was inspirational. A small, stocky man in dog- collar and cardigan, he looked rather ordinary. But, perched informally on the edge of a table, he held his audience spellbound for an hour. Speaking without notes, and seemingly without effort, he delivered a masterly analysis of Shakespeare's Richard II which combined erudition and fluency, critical brilliance and impish humour in a performance the like of which I had never encountered before and rarely would again, outside Merchant's own lecture room. To him it was just what university teachers did. To me, it was unforgettable.

After 20 years at Cardiff he was appointed to the chair of English at Exeter. There he transformed the English Department from a sleepy backwater into a powerhouse of scholarship and learning. He invited his friend Ted Hughes to lead weekly poetry seminars with the undergraduates. He was also a co-founder of the Northcott Theatre in Exeter, which has developed into one of England's leading regional theatres.

As a preacher he was similarly compelling, Whether in the austere splendour of Salisbury Cathedral, where he spent four years as Chancellor, or preaching in his native Welsh in the charming little church at Llanddewi Brefi, Dyfed, where he became Vicar on retiring early from Exeter, he could electrify a congregation. His clear, conversational style made his intellectual rigour accessible to all. An expert broadcaster, he could be relied upon to complete a talk or a service exactly within the stipulated time: and again, to the consternation of his producers, he rarely used notes.

He could be awkward. He fought his corner in Senate with a tenacity and guile which made him enemies as well as friends. As is the way of great talkers, he could be opinionated, and dismissive of ideas he felt to be wrong: to some he could therefore seem overbearing. He enjoyed being provocative and never shunned controversy. But he could never be dull. On one occasion, when Mary Whitehouse was in the news, he used a major sermon to condemn all pop music as more dangerous pornography than anything on television. He then delighted in the resulting tabloid publicity despite the fact that he could barely name a single pop title.

Merchant's range of interests was amazing and he was dauntingly good at everything he undertook. Having achieved an international reputation as Shakespeare scholar and art critic, he became Chancellor of Salisbury. There he caused a stir in the Close by accepting from his friend Barbara Hepworth the gift of a large bronze Crucifixion which he controversially had placed near the door of the cathedral. To him it was an important expression of faith by a major contemporary artist; to some conservative Salisbury residents, it was threatening and sacrilegious. Again, he relished the debate.

He took up sculpture himself in his sixties and demonstrated an instinctive sense of form which was the envy of many a trained artist. He had some 30 one-man exhibitions, dominated by his trademark challenging figures precariously balanced. In his sculpture, as in other aspects of his life, he delighted in living near the edge, in querying received wisdom, in elegantly probing the limits of orthodoxy.

As his physical strength began to wane, Merchant returned to creative writing and published no fewer than 11 volumes of prose and poetry over his final decade. Full of energy and endlessly creative, he was a constant source of ideas and insights, one of those enriching beings who make you see things in a different, clearer light.

David Shaw

To live in proximity to my father, writes Paul Merchant, was to be caught up in the turbulence of his enthusiasms. As often as not, the involvement was practical: hand-setting and printing poetry on a small proofing-press that had once belonged to Arnold Bennett, or helping to steady blocks of Delabole slate as he began his sculptural experiments.

At other times, tracking his varied interests in art, music and literature would take one across a wide territory. His range is illustrated by those he interviewed in 1975 as a series for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Encore programme: Paul Scofield, Peter Pears, Olivia Manning, Peter O'Toole, John Piper, Christopher Fry, Josef Herman, Tanya Moiseiwitsch and Barbara Hepworth. He also worked creatively with Elisabeth Frink, Alun Hoddinott and Kyffin Williams.

His lecturing took him to many parts of the world: Germany, Russia, Spain, India and frequently to the United States. His visits to Spain and India both had a profound effect on him, and became the subjects later of memorable poetic sequences in Breaking the Code (1975) and sections of his novel Triple Heritage (1994). In the US he delivered named lecture series at Yale, Sewanee and Chicago and, during his time as Fellow of the Folger Library, visited Ezra Pound a number of times at St Elizabeth's. He was pleased to be able to supply Pound with information on Elizabethan common law during the writing of the Coke Cantos.

His last years were enriched by a close involvement with Eton College, where he shared his enthusiasms in literature and was rewarded with the kind of close and intelligent response that always made him eager to return there. The College Library houses his manuscripts and correspondence.

William Moelwyn Merchant, writer, teacher, sculptor and priest: born Port Talbot, Glamorgan 5 June 1913; Lecturer in English Language and Literature, University College, Cardiff 1939-50, Senior Lecturer 1950-61, Reader 1961; ordained deacon 1940, priest 1941; Professor of English, Exeter University 1961-74; Canon of Salisbury Cathedral 1967-73 (Emeritus), Chancellor 1967- 71; Vicar of Llandewi Brefi 1974-78; FRSL 1975; married 1938 Eluned (Lynne) Hughes (one son, one daughter); died Leamington Spa, Warwickshire 22 April 1997.