It’s hard to sum up the achievement of Jon Stallworthy in a word or a phrase. He was a poet, biographer of Wilfred Owen and Louis MacNeice, Professor of English Literature at Oxford, a translator of Russian poetry, an inspired editor and anthologist and an enabler of other writers. I am still saddened by his death, which occurred in November, and can only mention some of his services to literature.
As a young man in the 1960s he worked with the widow of W.B. Yeats on the poet’s manuscripts. Afterwards, as an editor at Oxford University Press, he presided over a distinguished poetry list which, much against his will, was closed in 1998. He made friends with Harold Owen, the younger brother of Wilfred, and wrote Wilfred Owen (1974) with Harold’s help. This was the first true biography, and is lavishly illustrated with family photographs and the poet’s manuscripts. From having been half-forgotten, Owen became almost a cult figure and it now seems impossible to discuss the First World War without mentioning him.
This biography would not be the only one. Dominic Hibberd, who died in 2012, also wrote some pioneering books about Owen and the two great scholars didn’t always agree. But anyone who wants to learn about him, and the other poets of WW1, should read them both. A good starting-place is Stallworthy’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, published in 2002 in association with the Imperial War Museum, which focusses on twelve of these poets, their lives and work. His Oxford Book of War Poetry, revised and reissued in 2014, is a superb selection of poets from Homer to the present day.
Along with all this attention to other people’s work, Jon Stallworthy was a wonderful poet himself. I last heard him read less than a year ago. The poems were ‘The Almond Tree’, much anthologised, about the birth of a son with Down’s syndrome and ‘A Letter from Berlin’, written in the voice of his gynaecologist father, which describes a sinister incident in 1938:
Returning your letter to an envelope
yellower by years than when you sealed it up,
darkly the omens emerge. A ritual wound
yellow at the lip yawns in my hand;
a turbulent crater; a trench,
filled not with snow only, east of Buchenwald.
He was a kind and charming man who will be very much missed.
. Merryn Williams