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|DOUGLAS GRAY, A TRIBUTE TO J. A. W. BENNETT (1911-1981)||Medium Ævum Vol. 50, No. 2 (1981), 205-214||
A TRIBUTE TO J. A. W. BENNETT (1911-1981)*
JACK Bennett ended his Cambridge Inaugural Lecture, The Humane Medievalist, by quoting one of C. S. Lewis's favourite couplets from Dunbar:
Man, pleis thy makar and be mirry
I recall it here at the beginning because I do not think that Jack would have wanted this occasion to be a melancholy one. The text of his Requiem Mass handed out to the congregation of family and friends in Cambridge had on the outside cover, as a kind of motto, the words 'Be not sorrowful as men without hope: Vita mutatur non tollitur'. He was a man who had come to terms with the change and variance of the world and with the insistent whispers of Death. He fully shared C. S. Lewis's delight in 'the chiaroscuro of what Chaucer called "earnest" and "game"', and, if his frailer constitution meant that he could not match Lewis's hearty rumbustiousness, nonetheless he was a 'merry' man. When the news of his death came, one of his oldest friends remarked wryly, 'How infra dig to die in Los Angeles'. The spirit of the remark was entirely Bennettian, though he might have added an allusion to Browne: 'but who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?'. Jack was a marvellously entertaining companion, endlessly inventive in conversation, spontaneously witty. And he had a taste for the occasional outrageous piece of word-play, as when we heard in his Inaugural - introduced by a pause and a characteristic stammer - '... Pächt and Panofsky, the Warburg and - if I dare play lightly with a Reith Lecturer's name - the Wind who bloweth us where he listeth'. You always felt heartened and uplifted in spirit
*This tribute to the late editor was given by Douglas Gray, J. R. R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language, at the Open Meeting of the Society for the Study of Mediæval Languages and Literature on 14 March 1981 in St Edmund Hall, Oxford.
 whenever and wherever you met him. I am not sure that it is not the chance meetings that I remember with the greatest delight: you might meet him in Duke Humfrey, just come across from Cambridge, where, with a sweep of his hand round the room, he would say in a stage whisper, 'Isn't it splendid? You can feel the scholarship. There's nothing like this in Cambridge!'. And there were others, which I recall almost as apparitions. I once came upon him emerging from the river Cherwell, looking unbelievably bronzed and fit, to be met upon the towpath by Gwyneth, like an attendant nymph, with towel at the ready. And, even more surprisingly, on television. When Magdalene had a television film made about it, I remember wondering if the college would be bold enough to present Jack. As 'typical' scene succeeded 'typical' scene, interspersed with informative talks from various college men of authority, it seemed increasingly unlikely. But almost at the end, when the cameras were showing us that delightful court in which he used to have his room, from the side there emerged that well-known white-haired figure, which passed directly in front of the camera, suddenly stopped in its tracks, gazed directly at the lens with a mixture of surprise and horror, mouthed what appeared to be the words 'O goodness!', and fled just as rapidly, like an elderly startled faun. I am sure that we all share similar affectionate memories. Jack was a man who inspired enormous affection in that large and heterogeneous crowd of those who were proud to call themselves his friends. He was totally without venom, and, I think, without enemies; if there were any, they must have been either singularly curmudgeonly, or dull, or both. And that brings us to the rub - that this is a profoundly sad occasion, because it is still almost impossible to believe that his fine spirit has been extinguished. Moreover, the death of a great man almost inevitably makes us think that an era has come to its close.
...If in the conditions of a particular society men are born to be one thing rather than any other, Jack was a born scholar, one whose sympathies were wide and humane in inverse proportion to a narrow nonconformist background which it took determined courage for him to break away from. He was tender and generous and loved whatever is beautiful and excellent; unassertive, easily wounded, but with a quiet toughness of fibre as strong as his principles. He looked delicate and underfed, his pale brownish parchment skin went with weak eyesight and a slight scholarly stoop. But his brown hair grew thick and his fine voice came surprisingly deep and strong at times; his beautifully formed face with its perceptive generous mouth and candid glance showed delicacy but no weakness - a face to love and trust implicitly.
Jack also had some of the traditional characteristics of the scholar - and they were more than surface mannerisms. He was genuinely forgetful. I seem to remember Gwyneth saying that he even forgot to post his application for the Cambridge Chair, and it might never have gone at all if it had not been discovered in his jacket pocket. He was uneasy with machines, and the mechanical side of the modern world. He never learned to drive a car; and I recall vividly the first time that I went to visit him in his rooms in Magdalen, when he attempted, in the absence of Gwyneth, to boil a kettle and make a pot of tea. But more fundamental qualities are involved. It is easy to recognise in Brasch's description of the young Bennett the transparently good man whom we knew later in his life. Quid est scolaris? Est homo discens virtutes cum solicitudine... . He was what Dunbar adjured the clerks 'grytest of constance' of Oxford to be:
To us be mirrouris in yowr governance
He was a man of wisdom, to whom people turned for advice, and not only in matters of books and learning. His own scholarly work involved the whole man (there are traces, for instance, in his books of his own long religious quest). The whole achievement of his life shows in fact a remarkable coherence. The title 'humane medievalist', which he used of C. S. Lewis, fitted Jack exactly. He was 'humane' both in the strict sense, and also in a larger one, in that he had no small measure of that humanity which does not come from books. Much, however, did come from books. And of these he had thousands, shelved, stacked, piled, spilled on the floor among his notes, tucked everywhere in his various perches and roosting places. He obviously appreciated Gibbon's remark: 'laugh at the bookworm if you please, but excuse the nature of the animal'. From books came a humanitas, a lively sense of the worth of civilisation and of literary culture, and a profound enthusiasm for 'the inexhaustible wealth of the past'.
Yet outside the towns the primeval conditions remain much as they were. On the surrounding hills, forest and fern stand as if ready to resume dominion at the drop of a hatchet. Beyond them lie range after range of Erewhonian mountains, forbidding and majestic; desolate passes, peaks and glaciers; and even when far inland, we never lose the sense of that encircling and estranging sea that brought Cook and Wakefield hither.
Jack's very Romantic attachment to places, as well as his ability to evoke a sense of place (he had a particularly strong visual sense), becomes quite comprehensible in the light of the inner intensity which a passage like this reveals. Europe as well as New Zealand aroused these emotions, and especially some of his favourite haunts in Oxford. I remember hearing him say that he had come over for a Magdalen feast and that when very late at night he had walked round the cloisters in bright moonlight he had been moved to tears.
By now the road to Oxford was open. The later period of Jack's life from 1933 on is well known, and I do not propose to attempt to chronicle the effects on him of Merton, the English School, Tolkien, Lewis and other members of it. The lines of his development were confirmed, and his scholarship was deepened. I think it is worth pointing out, however, the significance of his choice of a D.Phil, subject: 'A History of Old English and Old Norse Studies in England from the Time of Francis Junius till the End of the 18th Century'. Not only did this give him the opportunity to work in a favourite period, with some very congenial literary and antiquarian figures, but from it came a very deep interest in the history of the study of early English and of mediaevalism in general. (One notable example later is a delightful paper he gave at the Reading Centre for Medieval Studies on 'Carlyle and the Medieval Past', which begins by drawing attention to the visual images involved - Ely Cathedral and the St Ives workhouse: 'the stark antithesis of the beautiful and spacious past and the harsh and grinding present' - and praises Carlyle's selection of 'scenes'. Carlyle, he says approvingly, 'though he dramatises and enlarges on Jocelin, does not embroider nor treat him with the superior archness that a modern writer might employ'). From this study of the Saxonists he acquired a historical view of the contemporary scholar's task, which he could use in a salutary way: 'by a kind of over-compensation the earlier American nostalgia for the Middle Ages has now developed into a stern anti-romanticism, a more than scholastic orthodoxy',  etc. The thesis ends, significantly, with a look forward to the nineteenth century, when Old Norse becomes an increasingly independent area of study, and a glance back to the earlier scholars with their encyclopaedic range:
Everywhere there has been increasing specialization, in which there have been losses as well as gains. It is to the Thesaurus ... that we must turn if we wish to recapture the co-ordination and breadth of interest which are the distinguishing features of OE and ON studies in their early stages, and which are essential if scholarship is to flourish and continue.
The War removed him from Oxford to what must have been a wearisome job with British Information Services in New York. (From this time comes a nice story which deserves to be true - that Jack was approached by the FBI, who were investigating the credentials of a British academic teaching in an American university. He had apparently been a member of the Left Book Club, and Jack was asked about this organisation. 'Left Book Club', he is alleged to have said, 'It's a club where you buy books that have been left by people who have finished with them'). As always he turned experience to advantage: he extended his reading of American literature, extended his contacts with American academics and his knowledge of American universities. I suspect that it was in this period that his opinions on education and especially on 'research', with its increasing specialisation, took final shape. His views were published later in a number of forthright talks and articles (e.g., 'Research: the Tyrant'). A typical remark is 'I think we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that research is the goal to which education must aspire. Otherwise, before long we shall be identifying culture with PMLA or the Review of English Studies'. He never achieved his plan for a kind of Erewhonian graduate centre in New Zealand, but he enjoyed some happy times at similar institutes in Toronto and Canberra (backslapping and balladry notwithstanding). He did, however, achieve a lasting educational memorial in the Oxford English Faculty in the B.Phil, degree in Medieval English Studies. From these years of exile comes a splendidly nostalgic account (1944) of a visit to wartime Oxford. His eye was caught by the bizarre effect of a security rule that erased placenames and had therefore 'blotted the central word in the goldlettered sign that advertises to every visitor "Cooper's ... Marmalade"'. 'Marmalade', he continues, 'is like a word out of a dim mythology ... the roses in the Fellows' Garden have given place to a hen-run, and the lawns to a reservoir..'. Only H. W. Garrod 'had somehow managed to retain pre-war ritual, and toasted buns for me by his own fire'.
Looking back over Jack's achievement, one is chiefly struck by two things - its uniform level of distinction and originality, and its coherence. His stature as a scholar of the Middle Ages probably first became obvious to the academic world at large in his study of Chaucer's Parlement of Foules (1957). This is notable in several ways. First, and most importantly, it showed the full extent of Jack's literary range and sensibility, the eloquence of his writing (with its echoes sometimes of the mannered cadences of the seventeenth century) and, especially, the quality of his imagination, in the scope and the bold conception of the whole book. Jack took Chaucer seriously, as a 'philosophical' poet, but without being heavy-handed. In particular, he made us see the importance and the autonomy of Chaucer's work outside Troilus and the Canterbury Tales. (The general tradition in the English- speaking academic world - Wolfgang Clemen's Der Junge Chaucer of 1938 is a notable European exception - had been to treat Chaucer's early poems and dream visions simply as a first, and extremely humble and inadequate, step in a gradually ascending pattern of development which culminated in the Canterbury Tales). He showed himself to be especially at ease in his discussion of the way the poem handled 'ideas'; but his sensitivity to its literary texture and tone meant that his analysis never degenerated into one of those clod-hopping exercises in the so-called 'History of Ideas'. He wrote particularly well on Nature (Jack shared Chaucer's delight in the variety and the 'thisness' of created things) and at the end of the book in an Envoy he boldly - and triumphantly - attempted to state in brief compass Chaucer's 'own maturing doctrines of love' - 'a view of the place of love in human life which is balanced, harmonious, and satisfying, yet which does not ignore the paradoxes and dilemmas that are as old as human society'. The book was original, too, in the way it made illuminating use of Jack's long interest in the visual arts and in iconography. Finally, it suggested a whole method of approach to mediaeval authors, which had the co-ordination and breadth of interest he saw in Hickes, which avoided the crude cataloguing of the older Quellenforschung, and which illuminated the creative and imaginative use that a great poet made of his reading. Jack's heroes among earlier English mediaevalists were W. P. Ker and C. S. Lewis; this book showed that he was worthy to be ranked with them.
But the wheels of fiction that his tale sets in motion will turn to different effect. Simkin will give place to a miller and maltster called Tulliver (who yet talks the Reeve's language: ‘Wakem knows meal from bran; the gray colt may kick like his black sire'). And in the fullness of time the mill on the Cam will give place to the Mill on the Floss.
Jack wrote on a great range of topics, but in all we can see this creative convergence of the various strands of his interests - antiquarian, bibliophile, man of letters, philologist.
Possibly nothing brought them together quite so effectively as the editing of Medium AEvum from 1957 to 1980. It is a matter of especial sadness that he is not here himself - in Hearne's college - to speak on the journal's first 50 years. Both the process and the achievement of Jack's editing were remarkable. No-one who helped him with it is ever likely to forget the experience. It was a kind of liberal education in itself (though one did tend to pick up some of his more wicked practices, like leaving corrections to the proof stage). But the whole thing sometimes seemed like a sort of inspired chaos - a sea of notes addressed to himself and others in that incredible script which his assistants and his printers had to learn to read, the bulging file stuffed with letters to and from scholars all over the world. As the time of going to press approached, crises proliferated, but they were always with us. Notes were blown away by the wind down Hinksey Hill, books were lost, reviews were lost - and on one occasion we even lost a reviewer: he had rashly sent in an unsigned review, and the file seemed to have devoured without trace all indication of his existence and the book's. Jack brooded for some time on the question of whether it was ever intended for us in the first place. Having decided regretfully that it probably was, he said, 'There's no need to worry. He'll get agitated and write to me'. As far as I know he never did. Others did, however, and I suspect that any tiffs Jack had were usually over contributions to Medium AEvum. He was a firm editor, and was quite prepared to correct and change. He also did not always move quite with the dispatch of some of his colleagues in Fleet Street; but when a number finally appeared it was good. He maintained and indeed raised the very high standards set by C. T. Onions. He said in a tribute to C.T.O. in 1957 that Onions had made Medium AEvum 'a meeting ground for astringent scholarship and humane learning, a place where academic barriers between subjects disappeared,  and where criticism was careful and untrammelled'. I think that we may say with pride that, thanks to them both, Medium AEvum is just that.
Jack Bennett was certainly a 'grete clerke'. But, like other clerks, Death brought him to a short conclusion. And in Los Angeles - though perhaps in the end it was not altogether unfitting that he should die in America on a return journey to New Zealand. Death has taken the man, but his work will remain, and so will his memory in all those of us who knew him:
Howevir this warld do change and vary,
Lady Margaret Hall, DOUGLAS GRAY