Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Teachers of Lore 3: John Burrow, Medievalist

Given the importance of the medieval period as a point of reference in Morris’s cultural and political thinking, I’ve often felt that the Morris Society should be offering public classes in medieval language and literature – particularly since such provision has been declining in universities in recent years.  I was lucky enough to benefit from such instruction as an undergraduate at Bristol University in the mid-1970s, and it certainly gives one a firsthand inwardness with aspects of the period which even the great cathedrals, so important for both Ruskin and Morris, can’t quite do.

One of my most inspiring medieval tutors back then was John Burrow, who had just arrived as Winterstoke Professor in the Department from Oxford. I worked my way breathlessly through his A Reading of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (1965) – what beautifully lucid, delicate and thoughtful criticism it was, not in the least weighed down by its copious learning. Nor was John Burrow in any way a narrow medievalist.  He also taught a course on ‘The Language of Literature’, and in what was then a militantly Leavisite department, in which D.H. Lawrence represented ‘life’ and James Joyce ‘death’, it was Burrow who first taught us some pages from Ulysses, absorbed as he was in that novel’s avantgarde linguistic experiments.

I came across John Burrow again in later years, when he chaired a Quality Assessment panel inspecting the Lancaster English Department.  He carried out his task professionally enough, but you could also tell, from his occasionally bemused and quizzical demeanour, that to an old-style Oxonian scholar-gentleman of his type all this bureaucratic bean-counting was ultimately completely beside the point.  So I’m saddened to have recently learnt of my former teacher’s death in October 2017 at the age of eighty-five.  A great scholar and critic has left us, and it seems all the more important that we continue to invent new ways of promoting the study of medieval language and literature in his wake.

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