Bernard Bergonzi, poet, literary critic and novelist, died on 20 September at the age of 87. He was born in the Southeast London suburb of Lewisham into a lower middle-class family, and after a childhood bedeviled by illness, began working as a clerk while pursuing his literary interests. A year at Newbattle Abbey, an adult education centre, then run by the poet Edwin Muir, helped him make up for missed schooling. He made a promising debut as a poet with Descartes and the Animals (1954), a collection in a cool, Movement style, before going up to Oxford on a scholarship as a mature student. He read English at Wadham College, where his tutor was the legendary F. W. Bateson.
Seduced by John Wain's example of combining literary creativity with an academic life, he went on to take a research degree (B.Litt.) and embark on a career as a university teacher of English literature, first at Manchester University and then at Warwick. Generations of students benefited from his genial guidance and lightly worn scholarship until he opted for the mantle of Emeritus Professor. I remember going up to Warwick University with rather inchoate ideas about Great War Literature and being gently nudged into taking a close at the sadly neglected Frederic Manning, on whom I then completed a PhD comfortably within a scholarship-imposed deadline. We kept in touch, became friends, and I too adopted the first-name form of address – at Bernard's nudging.
While in academia Bernard published a couple of interesting poetry chapbooks and a novel that deserves to be better known: The Roman Persuasion (1979), centred on a Catholic family caught up in the ideological conflicts of the Spanish Civil War. But it is as a critic that he rose to eminence, reviewers often mentioning him alongside Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge as being representative of a very English brand of modern criticism.
Writers, major and minor, and poets and novelists in particular, from those of the fin-de-siecle to those of, roughly, his generation have been the focus of his studies, which, it has been rightly pointed out, add up to an engaging critical history of modern literature. Bernard's graduate dissertation became The Early H. G. Wells (1961), a study of the author's scientific romances, followed four years later by Heroes' Twilight, a pioneering study of the literature of the First World War; years later it was supplemented by War Poets and Other Subjects (1999); and in Wartime and Aftermath: English Literature and its Background 1939-60 he took in the Second World War and what followed. Reading the Thirties (1978) studies the varied aspects of the decade, including popular culture, in a way that at least one reviewer has dubbed 'structuralist'; the appellation isn't quite accurate since the book owes more to Raymond Williams and his notion of 'structures of feeling' than to anyone across the English Channel. The Situation of the Novel (1970) takes a wryly detached look at the fiction of a much-hyped decade. The Turn of a Century (1973) includes essays on late Victorian and modern literature, an area further explored in the essays in The Myth of Modernism and Twentieth century Literature (1986), which includes a note on Sons and Lovers first published in Form: A Magazine of the Arts, with which I was associated.
Bernard published a number of studies of individual authors, Eliot, Hopkins, David Lodge and Graham Greene, and a biography of Thomas Arnold the Younger, brother of the poet-critic Matthew Arnold. He is perhaps at his critical best in Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture (1990), where he takes a dispassionate look at the Humanistic discipline of English, which was under threat from various forms of Critical Theory. The threat has diminished as Theory itself has fragmented, though the damage that has been done may well be irreparable. In the heyday of Theory Bernard might have seemed defensive in describing his method as a revisionist form of New Critical close reading, complemented with historical awareness (and biographical illumination, one might add) but such a method is still eminently serviceable, as his work as well as those of his peers, Kermode, Lodge, Bradbury, illustrates.
The last time I saw Bernard was in 2003. My wife and I visited the Warwick campus and Stratford, and stayed with Bernard and Anne, his psychotherapist wife. They pointed proudly at the spread on the dinner table and said all the vegetables were from their back garden. Knowing this made them taste more delicious.
As the last century was drawing to a close Bernard computer-printed and ring-bound an autobiography for distribution among friends. I helped place a chapter with London Magazine ('Friends from the Fifties'), and another, ('Oxford Days') with Six Seasons Review, of which I was an editorial board member. Reading his memoir and his criticism one realizes how well he exemplified the classic man of letters, and cannot help wondering if it is a critically endangered species.