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JON STALLWORTHY (1935–2014)

Nicolas Barker

© Nicolas Barker, CC BY 4.0 http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0081.15

‘I am a poet’s poet’, wrote Wilfred Owen on New Year’s Day 1917. Jon Stallworthy, whose writing has brought Owen back to life, was the poet’s poet of our time. A poet he became, first caught as other poets have been by nursery rhymes, and then by A. A. Milne and Kipling. Not much later he tried his own hand at it, and ‘discovered that what I most wanted to do in the world was to write poems’. Twelve books of his poetry now tell how well he did that, but along with them went as many more books about other poets and their work: biography, criticism informed by practice, above all, line by line analysis that unravelled not just the meaning but the springs of inspiration.

He was born in London, his father come from New Zealand to further his career in medicine, eventually becoming professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Oxford. Jon grew up in Oxford, better first at the sound than the meaning of words: asked ‘What’s your favourite college?’ he said ‘Gynaecollege’. The Dragon School opened his other senses, and his mind filled with other verse; from his father came forestry and rugby football, and from that Rugby School, where ‘acres of vegetable prose’ led to a master who ‘saw a spark in the mind’ and became his creative critic. His father took him back to his New Zealand roots, and national service to Nigeria in the Royal West African Frontier Force. Back at Oxford and Magdalen College, he honed his rugby, and ambition turned to the Newdigate Prize for poetry. Third time lucky, he won it in 1958, and, more important, Jill Waldock, whom he married in 1960. Helen Gardner told him to study Yeats for a graduate degree, and Maurice Bowra introduced him to Mrs Yeats.

Over forty years, he found in poetry a vocation, but also a livelihood. All this he wrote down in Singing School (1998), an unsparing but joyous self-analysis of ‘The Making of a Poet’. The Oxford University Press offered him a job as an editor and also published his first collection, The Astronomy of Love (1961). Publishing poetry proved as rewarding as writing it, and Jon and his colleague John Bell quickly built the best list of new poetry in the 1960s. An essay on ‘Poet and Publisher’ in the Review of English Literature in 1967 showed him master of his new trade. Posting to the Oxford University Press branch at Karachi made him new friends and opened his ears to a different kind of English, reflected in his next collection, Out of Bounds (1963).

Concurrently, his apprenticeship to Yeats continued. He passed the tests set by Mrs Yeats to those seeking access to the manuscripts. He learned first how to read the ‘execrable’ hand, then how to follow thought in its reiterated snatches, leaf by leaf, to the final text. Eighteen poems thus tracked to their sources produced a new portrait of the poet at work, published as Between the Lines (1963). It was also preparation for a cataclysm in his own life. The birth of his first-born son stirred new depths of emotion in a new long poem, often anthologized now, ‘The Almond Tree’:

All the way to the hospital

the lights were green as peppermints

I parked in an almond’s

shadow blossom, for the tree

was waving, waving me

upstairs…

wave

after wave beat

on the bone coast, bringing

ashore—whom?

New-

minted, my bright farthing!

your son is a mongol

the doctor said.

How easily the word went in—

clean as a bullet

leaving no mark on the skin,

stopping the heart within it

locked in

your body you will remain.

Well, I have been locked in mine.

We will tunnel each other out…1

Root and Branch (1969) in the Phoenix Living Poets series introduced many to this new voice. The Penguin Book of Love Poetry (1973), unbuttoned and unhackneyed, shared a cover with the next collection, Hand in Hand (1974). Translation in partnership led to versions of Alexander Blok and Pasternak with Peter France, Polish poetry with Jerzy Peterkiewicz. Harder stuff was on the way. A bystander to the Oxford Collected Letters of Wilfred Owen, Jon was drawn in to write his biography during a sabbatical as Visiting Fellow of All Souls. Wilfred Owen came out in 1974 to universal praise; written without sentiment but with deeper understanding, it won the Duff Cooper Prize, the E.M. Forster Award and the W.H. Smith Literary Award, and has remained in print since.

Clouds were now drawing over the Oxford University Press, where Stallworthy had become deputy head of the Press’s academic division, but in 1977 he was thankful to accept an invitation to Cornell as Professor of English Literature. Jill and he quickly acclimatized. The academic work was familiar; they found the perfect house, and explored the hills and lakes of upper New York State. Best of all were new friends, not only in the University but among other poets. Absence stimulated new exploration of old roots. A Familiar Tree (1978), illustrated by David Gentleman, followed generations of Stallworthys (from England to the Marquesas, to New Zealand and back to England again) over two centuries, in elliptical vignettes, terse yet vivid. The Anzac Sonata (1986) took its title from a longer meditation on nearer family history.

By now the Stallworthys were themselves returning to Oxford. Jon was next appointed first Reader then, in 1992, Professor of English Literature. He became a fellow of Wolfson College, and in 2006–08 acting President. Another biography, Louis MacNeice (London: Faber & Faber, 1995) won more plaudits, as did his editions of Henry Reed and Owen; Rounding the Horn (1998) collected all his poems to date. Increasingly war engaged his mind, in Anthem for Doomed Youth (2002), Survivors’ Songs from Maldon to the Somme (2008), Three Poets of the First World War (2011), and in The Oxford Book of War Poetry (1984; new ed. 2014). His own last collection was titled War Poet (Manchester: Carcanet, 2014).

Instantly attractive, exceptionally handsome in youth, Jon Stallworthy was an electric presence in any gathering. Verbal wit came easily; so did lighter as well as serious verse. From deep wells of reading his own distinctive poetic voice comes through clearly. Like Henry Reed, he knew better than any poet of our time how paper-thin the barrier is between love and war. In his studies of other poets and of his own forbears in the past, and always in his own poetry, he explored with a tender precision, just as his father did anatomy, the wounds and joys that love and war engender.

Jon Stallworthy, poet and scholar of poetry, born London, 18 January 1935; married Gillian Meredith Waldock, 1960, two sons and one daughter; died Oxford, 19 November 2014.

1 From ‘The Almond Tree’, in The Almond Tree (London: Turret Books, 1967), 7–12.