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The Living Stream

Warwick Gould

Essays in Memory of A. Norman Jeffares 1920-2005

Professor Alexander Norman Jeffares

11 August 1920-1 June 2005

Christopher Rush

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1IN 1937 A DUBLIN SCHOOLBOY approached no less a person than W. B. Yeats with a request that he write a poem for the school magazine of which he was the editor. He was informed rather haughtily that the poet was not at that moment writing anything that would be ‘suitable’ for mere schoolboys. The mere schoolboy persisted. In that case wasn’t it about time that he did write something suitable and let him have it? A week later one of Yeats’s finest poems, ‘What Then?’ arrived in the post and was duly published that April in the school magazine, The Erasmian.

2The High School was Yeats’s old school—he’d been a pupil there in the 1880s—and the schoolboy was Alexander Norman Jeffares, who went on to become one of the most distinguished Yeats scholars of the 20th century, although his first degree in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) was in Classics. This early pioneering spirit, seen in the enterprising adolescent, turned out to be typical. Here was a teenage boy telling the Nobel Prizewinner and the greatest living poet writing in English to get on with it and produce something appropriate to the occasion. Also typically, the person he was badgering obliged, to the benefit of Anglo-Irish letters. That was Derry Jeffares in a nutshell: a prodder and provoker, a facilitator, determined to stir things up and make them happen when they might have seemed moribund or extinct or resistant to change.

3Change was on the way when he was born, of southern county Protestant stock—on 11th August 1920—during the Irish War of Independence. That too was appropriate. Derry (as he was universally known) was destined to fight his own wars in changing the face of English and Anglo-Irish studies (the latter he practically invented) in Britain and Ireland and abroad during the next half century.

4After leaving the High School he entered TCD in 1939, opting for Classics partly because English was a split subject which had to be done with a Modern Language and his French was not up to it. After four years of turf fires and gowns worn over overcoats in freezing lecture halls and libraries, Derry graduated, glad to leave Classics behind him. (‘Classics? Too much work! All that bloody memorising! English by comparison was easy. You read a few books, you got across your ideas on them—and that was it!’). He could speak about the difference, having taken on English as well—for fun and for show, again typically. Classics, however, had groomed him in strenuous and disciplined stables and he was now ready for the chase.

5The first hurdle was not so much the PhD as the choice of subject. After some thrashing around, a friend read to him a poem by the now dead Yeats (he’d died soon after writing the required school mag piece) and asked him, ‘What the hell does it mean?’ Derry had no idea and his curiosity was aroused. So a dinner party was concocted at the Unicorn restaurant, Mount Street, at which it was arranged that he should meet Yeats’s widow. She told Derry that he was welcome to be let loose on her late husband’s books and papers at 46 Palmerston Road. Joe Hone, the official biographer, had been there before him, but in entering Yeats’s library with an impartial mind, Derry was the first scholar to begin to probe the mind of the poet, a man’s library being, after all, an index to his mind. ‘Take anything you like,’ Mrs Yeats said, though she was liable to ring at three o’clock in the morning and demand the immediate return of a diary or a manuscript. She was a good critic of her husband’s work, in spite of being eccentric and awkward.

6There were other difficulties. The Yeats texts were out of print and Macmillan didn’t reprint them during the war. The Collected Poems took him ages to obtain and cost a fabulous fifteen pounds. But Derry was always a swift worker and he set his life’s pattern by completing it in 1¼ years instead of three, submitting it for his doctorate at Easter 1945 (eventually it was to emerge as the Commentary on Yeats’s poems, published in 1968) and in April 1945 went to Oxford where he wrote the D. Phil thesis which was to see the light of day as his first major publication, W.B. Yeats: Man and Poet, in 1948.

7The following year Richard Ellmann published his book, Yeats: the Man and the Masks. There couldn’t have been a greater contrast. Ellmann’s was an over-determined thesis, written on the assumption that you can mine a life of a writer purely out of his works. Derry acknowledged that Yeats had a life as well as having written some poems, and his biography is much more faithful to the man and therefore, in the end, to his mind and his works. Ironically, the radically oversimplified and schematic Ellmann book had a better popular life than Derry’s because it gave students a key to Yeats and obviated any necessity to think for themselves about the answers to the difficult questions raised by a study of his poetry. A philosophy of making people explore rather than handing them something on a plate was central to Derry’s life as an academic.

8At Oriel he was supervised by David Nichol Smith, the kingmaker of his day, on whom to some extent he was to model himself. But in spite of his liking for lecturers such as Nevill Coghill, he found Oxford on the whole a dull and dreary institution, run by boring and complacent dons—or bad-mannered ones like C. S. Lewis (‘a northern boor’) who in Derry’s eyes at least treated staff and students alike with contempt. If there was one thing Derry Jeffares hated it was academic rudeness and pomposity. He had no time for it.

9In April 1946 he began his university career as a lector in English at the University of Groningen. After a year there he married the love of his life, Jeanne Calembert, whose Belgian father, a spy for British Intelligence in German-occupied Belgium during the First War, had married her Scottish mother in the Congo and died young, leaving mother and daughter to settle in Edinburgh, where Jeanne attended George Watson’s Ladies’ College and Edinburgh University. Derry had met her in 1942 when he was over from TCD taking part in an inter-university debate.

10When they left Holland at Christmas 1948 Jeanne was pregnant with their only daughter, Bo. Getting out was a bureaucratic nightmare. Derry had to swear an oath to the Dutch queen that he would take good care of his wife. Little did the Queen of Holland appreciate the extent and depth to which the swearer would keep his word. The final hurdle was Jeanne’s condition, which by Dutch law debarred her from flying. She got round this by tying a cushion to her behind, so as to look like all other Dutch women. The ruse worked and the couple arrived in Dublin.

11Bo was born on the first day of the new year and by that time Derry was now a lecturer in English at Edinburgh university, living on a salary of just over ten pounds a week. One day he spent some of his pittance (in Elliot’s bookshop at the Waverley end of Princes Street) on some second-hand books. They had belonged to the distinguished scholar Herbert Grierson, who had pioneered the study of Donne in much the same way as Derry was doing with Yeats. ‘But Professor Grierson is still alive,’ he said to the bookseller.’ ‘How on earth did you persuade him to part with his books?’ The bookseller laughed. ‘Persuade him? He comes down with a taxi full of them. You see, he likes his dram of an evening but he can’t afford it on the pension he gets.’ This incident had a profound effect on the young lecturer. Here was one of the most distinguished academics of his day whose pension didn’t even run to a bottle of whisky. Derry was determined not to come out of academia into penurious old age. The answer lay in publishing. By the time he died he had over three hundred publications to his name: scores of articles, dozens of books and editions, and a variety of influential series which he had engineered. What pupil hasn’t used York Notes? What student or general reader hasn’t encountered Writers and Critics?

12He also decided that Edinburgh University was not the place to establish financial security. The administration treated him shabbily and after two and a half years he left in July 1951 for a Chair in Adelaide, also leaving a salary of £600 for one of £1600. Here he stayed for six happy years, the Chair allowing him scope for his ideas, and the country and climate encouraging in him a taste for good wine, one which he continued to refine to the end of his life.

13In 1957 he received a letter from the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University asking if he’d be interested in taking over the Chair from Bonamy Dobrée. Derry was interested, but on one condition: expansion, backed by money. The promise was made and the Jeffares arrived in Leeds at the same time as Harold Macmillan entered 10 Downing Street. Change was in the air, in the country, in the Commonwealth, and in their universities. For the English Department in Leeds it was the start of an astonishing period of transformation. Derry built up the School of English into the biggest and one of the best in the country; brought Language and Literature together (they didn’t even co-operate at the time he took over the Chair); successfully reformed the timetable with a view to enhancing student performance and cutting the failure rate; created Chairs in American Literature, Commonwealth Literature and Contemporary English Language as well as having the usual Chairs in Language and Literature; organised the first Commonwealth Literature Conference ever held in the UK, well ahead of its time in 1964; introduced studies in Bibliography, Dialectology, Folklife, Irish Literature and Modern English Language, adding these to the core courses in Old and Middle English and Literature; founded a Workshop Theatre; introduced four main types of BA Honours so that students could concentrate on the areas that appealed to them; brought scholars and students to Leeds from all around the world and encouraged his own staff to gain experience and conduct research abroad; and he attracted luminaries to Leeds to lecture on their disciplines—Noam Chomsky, Iris Murdoch. Many Commonwealth writers of distinction were his students, such as the Nobel prize winner Wole Soyinka. In the areas of Literature and Language his influence on British and Commonwealth universities was incalculable. Not surprisingly he became known as The Kingmaker and Leeds was the royal matrix of many a shining career.

14Through all of this Yeats remained the centre of his own scholarly and critical focus. The original biography was revised, selections edited, commentaries, collections of essays, summer schools masterminded, and later a whole new complete edition and a new biography were to appear. But his many publications extend well beyond Yeats, covering Congreve, Farquhar, Swift, Gogarty, Moore, and range well beyond the field of Irish studies, embracing English, Commonwealth and American literature. He edited A Review of English Literature, ARIEL, and the Macmillan History of Literature series. Students and staff from that era speak of the ferment of intellectual excitement as akin to being around London when Shakespeare and his contemporaries were at their height. Leeds had become the university capital of the world and some felt that even Oxbridge was an antique shop by comparison.

15Then in 1974 he left—to take up a Chair in Stirling. His departure stunned and puzzled many people. The truth is that he was not burnt out but bored. Bored with Leeds. ‘It couldn’t have been pushed any further. I’d done it all. There would have been nothing left but sterile repetition. And after I left, it reverted to the little provincial place it was before.’ This was said without bitterness as an impartial acknowledgement of what in fact happened. Nobody could be found to fill his shoes and the political Philistines of the Thatcher era were soon to be upon us. Not that he had any illusions about any of the other political camps. He left Stirling in 1986, having already set up Academic Advisory Services and retired to Craighead Cottage at Fife Ness where he and Jeanne had spent almost twenty years at the time of his death.

16It was not twenty years of retirement, however. The stream of publications continued: Notes on Yeats’s Poems in 1986, two volumes of his own poems in 1987, the New Biography in 1988, Images of Invention (a collection of essays on Irish writing) in 1995, A Pocket History of Irish Literature in 1997, The Irish Literary Movement in 1998 and another Yeats selection in 2000. There were editions of Swift, Joyce, Irish Childhoods, Irish love poems, Victorian love poems, The Gonne-Yeats letters in 1993 and the Iseult Gonne Letters in 2004 —to name but some. And there was the monumental Collected Poems and Plays of Oliver St John Gogarty in 2001. One week before his death he had just completed the Homeric task of co-editing (with Dr Peter Van De Kamp) four anthologies of Irish Literature of the 18th and 19th centuries and he was working on his Anecdotes, of which he had many. Indeed he saw life as an endless anecdote, a continuous story. As his latest of many collaborators said, ‘he died in harness’. He would have had it no other way.

17When book lovers crowd into the great tent in Charlotte Square in August for the Edinburgh Book Festival, few if any of them have any idea how it originated. But if you look through the papers of Professor A. Norman Jeffares you will find one entitled A Proposal For An Edinburgh Book Fair. It was a modest proposal but it led to great things. That was again typical of the schoolboy who went personally to Yeats. He made things happen. But for Derry we might never have had our Book Festival. We would never have had the Maud Gonne letters or the Iseult letters. Indeed we would never have understood Yeats as well as we do. It was the young Derry who made Mrs Yeats and Maud Gonne talk about aspects of Yeats and his poetry about which they would have been silent, and so illuminate areas which would have remained obscure. He was in fact the closest link any of us living now could have had with Yeats—the last of the Yeatsians and now that link has snapped. He was the one with the hands-on knowledge. He didn’t just read himself into it like most academics—he’d been there.

18Does this powerhouse of energy and innovation sound like a bookish and humourless work-horse? Those who knew him will laugh the question to scorn. He was a laughing titan of a man, at home with anybody who was not costive or pretentious. He hated ceremony, vanity, pomposity, hypocrisy, narrowness, meanness and obscurity whether in the academic world or the one around him. Candour, compassion, humanity, warmth, undogmatic diversity, eagerness to help and the expertise to accompany it—these were his best virtues. Undisfigured by narrow academic axe-strokes, he valued directness and simplicity in life as in his writing. Needless to say he remained cheerfully scornful of the drift into the arid arena of theory and over-cleverness, which left him open to the charge of being a populariser, an explicator rather than a critic, an editor rather than an evaluator. Those who failed to understand that to select and edit is to evaluate, that everything seems simple that is practised to perfection, were the sort who would take an entire book to say badly what Derry had the facility to say simply in a few sentences. Modern commentators equate simplicity with simple-mindedness and scatter clouds of unreadable erudition over everything they have to say. In going the opposite way from obfuscation he went the way of his nature: he was as down to earth as a giant could possibly be. He was also a democrat. As Chairman of the Literature Panel of the Arts Council he helped writers such as Liz Lochhead, James Kelman and more recently J. K. Rowling for whose work he did not have much personal regard. But he never imposed his opinions and ideas. He was a great listener. He was also a great draughtsman, a devoted son, husband, brother and father, a bon viveur, an inveterate tinkerer with and buyer of cars (one for every year of his life), a concerned neighbour, a carer for the community, and the best, the most unbendingly loyal, the most generous friend anyone could ever hope to have.

19Fife Ness juts out to sea off the edge of Scotland like a terrier’s muzzle. That’s how it looks on the map. To those who live there or thereabouts it’s almost an island. The island has now lost its Prospero, its Nestor, its Ulysses. He could quote you more than chapter and verse on literature. He could tell you who smoked the best fish, sold the best bacon, where to find a good mechanic, accountant, bottle of wine. His hand was always open, the eyes twinkling, the smile on his face. God, how I miss that hand, that smile, that face! I think Derry will forgive me if I try to sum him up by quoting not from an Irish writer but from Sir Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, who wrote that ‘it may be said of angling what the late Dr Boteler says of strawberries: “Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did”!’ The name Jeffares may originate in ‘Dieu Freres’ brothers of God. And so, to re-vamp Izaak Walton, doubtless God could have made a better gentleman-scholar and loving friend than Derry Jeffares—but doubtless God never did.


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