Sir Frank Kermode, who died on August 17 aged 90, was the most eminent critic of English literature since FR Leavis; his teaching career culminated in the senior English professorship at Cambridge University, a post he surrendered in 1982 in the aftermath of a widely reported doctrinal rift within the faculty.
He continued thereafter to combine Renaissance and modern studies, but in both his preoccupations remained broadly the same – the relationship between art and order, and that between writers and the changing world of which they had tried to form a coherent vision. He also came to be keenly interested in the obverse of this latter theme, namely whether the changing sensibilities of the world renders the vision of some past writers redundant.
As well as noteworthy studies of Milton (1960) and the American poet Wallace Stevens (also 1960) – a particular influence on Kermode's sometimes oblique style – his most important criticism included The Classic (1975), which explored the response of modern writers to a secularised world; The Genesis of Secrecy (1979), which examined the nature of narrative; and The Sense of an Ending (1967).
This last was a brilliant investigation of the idea that the longing for an ending brings order to both life and literature, giving shape to the endless flux of time. Kermode, who was also a considerable cultural historian, used apocalyptic fiction as his model, and showed none of the lack of stamina in argument that sometimes undermined his broadest criticism.
The Sense of an Ending gave notice of Kermode's increasing tolerance of modern literary criticism and of its interest less in the content of a work than in its form and structure. From 1967 to 1974 he taught at University College, London, a period that witnessed the birth of new literary theories, notably structuralism and deconstruction. These held that readers should no longer study a text with a view to discerning an objective meaning, since in the modern world texts might have an infinite number of equally valid meanings, each of equal cultural weight, each peculiar to the reader.
Although Kermode was later capable of castigating the gibberish written by many proponents of these ideas, he was always open-minded, and in the late 1960s was an important supporter of the further investigation of these new theories. In a celebrated coup, he arranged for the structuralist Roland Barthes to lecture at UCL.
Such contemporaneity of attitude soon brought Kermode, who consistently disclaimed such ambitions, a clutch of public appointments. Already a stalwart of higher journalism as a reviewer for the New Statesman and The Guardian, in 1967 he took part in that most Sixties of events: giving evidence that a book (in this case Last Exit to Brooklyn) was not obscene. By the early 1970s he had judged the first Booker Prize, was on the Arts Council, had run an Arts Lab at the South Bank and was editing a series of guides to Masters of Modern Thought. His career moved a wryly jealous Philip Larkin to doggerel:
If I could talk, I'd be a worthless prof
Every other year off
Just a jetset egghead, TLS toff
Not old toad: Frank Kermode
Less kindly ridicule had greeted Kermode's earlier incarnation as a leading light of fashionable thought. In 1966, he had been persuaded to take on, with Stephen Spender, the co-editorship of Encounter, a forum for political and literary thought and the best-funded monthly in Britain. Unhappily, it emerged that most of its funding came not from literati but from Langley, Virginia; the magazine was effectively owned by the CIA.
Having been told by Encounter's publisher, Melvin Lasky, that the periodical was not in the front line of the Cold War, Kermode was for some time duped into giving false assurances about his magazine's neutrality. He and Spender duly resigned when the truth was revealed in 1967.
For despite his worldly success, Kermode was not politically astute. He was genuinely more interested in ideas than in infighting, and it was the absence of like-minded colleagues that finally wearied him of Cambridge.
When he was offered the Regius Professorship in 1974, he hesitated to accept, as he was happy in London and had been warned about the atmosphere at Cambridge. Once there, he found a badly-organised faculty which was ill-disposed to change. Kermode later said that the happiest of his eight years at Cambridge was the one he spent as a visiting professor at Harvard.
The row that brought about his resignation in 1982 was presented in the press as a conflict in teaching methods between the traditionalists and the modernists, among whose ranks was Kermode. In reality, the dispute revolved around a junior lecturer, the structuralist Colin MacCabe, whose promotion the traditionalists had tried to block. Kermode's support was not so much for a dogma as for a talented colleague he thought had been unjustly treated; but his arguments did not carry the day. Shortly afterwards he resigned his post and fled Cambridge for a post in New York.
John Frank Kermode was born at Douglas, Isle of Man, on November 29 1919. His father was a harbourside storekeeper, his mother a former waitress who had been abandoned at the age of a week by her parents, who were emigrating to America. This sense of not being wanted, of alienation, passed to her son, whose feeling of exclusion was exacerbated by a narrowly provincial childhood on an island separated by 80 miles of water from the mainland.
The perception that he was an outsider remained with him throughout his career, and was the guiding tone of his more than usually ruminative memoirs, Not Entitled (1996).
Frank was educated at Douglas High School, where he overcame undiagnosed short-sightedness and a nervous breakdown brought on by parental expectations. At Liverpool University he was convinced that he was less intellectually developed than his peers, a belief that prompted him to write his first book at 20. This was a study of Aaron Hill, the 18th-century theatre manager who introduced castrato singing to England.
On graduating in 1940, Kermode joined the Navy, spending much of the war making ever more futile attempts to lay booms off the stormy coast of Iceland. He also served as secretary to an increasingly lunatic series of superannuated captains.
One of Kermode's commanding officers attended the funeral of his first officer while drunk. He assured the widow that her husband was not really dead, otherwise he, the captain, would have been informed of the fact by the Admiralty. Kermode was later the last visitor to have lunch on Hood before she was destroyed by Bismarck. On being demobbed in 1946, Kermode decided that he lacked the imagination to be a writer and decided on a career as a critic. After being pipped for a post at Leeds by two rivals named Kettle and Fisch, he began steadily to climb the ranks of English lectureships. In 1949 he took a job at Reading.
His seven years there were among the happiest and most fruitful of his career. He began to review for the Third Programme on the BBC and profited from the influence of John Wain, who was also teaching at the university. Having edited only a volume of pastoral poetry and an edition of The Tempest, Kermode then made his name in critical circles with Romantic Image.
This and a study of Donne secured him a professorship at Manchester in 1958, whence he moved first to Bristol in 1965 and then, as Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature, to UCL in 1967. While there, and at Cambridge, he contributed a fortnightly literary causerie to The Daily Telegraph.
After leaving Cambridge, he continued to review books, notably for the London Review of Books, which he had helped to found. Kermode was no unthinking dogmatist, and his reviews showed a characteristic willingness to give ideas a run for their money, as well as a grasp of when to question them.
He retired in 1989, and in his last years became a critic of the grip exerted on academic thought by the modern theories that had once interested him. He championed instead the idea that a work had inherent value and argued that the study of a text must not be elevated above the text itself. The content of the literary canon could be questioned, but there must continue to be a canon. It was a view that informed, among others, his book Shakespeare's Language (2000), which dealt, unfashionably, with the playwright as a writer.
He continued to publish into old age, producing eight books in his eighties, including a collection of his own essays, Pieces of My Mind (2003), and a new edition of The Duchess of Malfi (2005), which he edited. His final book, Concerning EM Forster, was timed to coincide with his 90th birthday last year. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1973 and knighted for his services to literature in 1991.
Frank Kermode was in private a genial man, fond of a good pipe, and many felt for him when he was the victim of a highly unfortunate incident in 1996. Expecting the arrival of some men to help him move house, he blithely handed the 50 cardboard boxes containing his library of 2,500 books, including many rare volumes, to the two burly types who knocked on his door. The entire collection was duly lost to the compressor of the municipal dustcart.
He married first, in 1947 (dissolved 1970), Maureen Eccles; they had a twin son and daughter. His second marriage, in 1976, to Anita Van Vactor, was also dissolved.