Professor Charles Tomlinson

Doctor of Laws

Madame Chancellor: Charles Tomlinson

A university like Bristol, aspiring to establish a truly world-class reputation, knows that to achieve its goals it must be both local and global in its outlook. The University must serve and engage with the people of Bristol, who founded it, and by doing this it derives the strength to establish its reputation on the world stage through the excellence of its teaching and research.

Charles Tomlinson is emblematic of this strength that derives from being both local and global in outlook. If you are lucky enough to find the narrow lane that threads its way along the beautiful and hidden Ozleworth valley, just a few miles north of Bristol, and bold enough to proceed beyond the sign that says, ‘unsuitable for motor vehicles’, there, where the track fades and nature reasserts its sovereignty, is Brook Cottage, the home of England’s most internationally acclaimed, and most internationally-minded, poet. This quintessentially Cotswold country is Charles and Brenda Tomlinson’s home, but it is also the source of much of his inspiration and the subject of many poems regarded around the world as representing the best poetry written in English today.

Charles Tomlinson was born in 1927 and grew up in the very different, urban landscape of the Potteries. The singular elements of that industrial world made a deep and enduring impression on his artistic imagination: the soot-filled air was ‘black as mud’, according to the novelist Arnold Bennett, and on some days it was impossible for Charles and his friends to see across the school playground; the disembowelled earth was dug up and displaced as slag heaps piled at the end of the narrow street where he lived; and the intense fire of the kilns and furnaces flashed on the still water of the canals that led from the factories and furnaces out into the open countryside.

Charles’s family was me military than literary in its traditions, but it was his father who unwittingly stirred the latent artist within Charles when he introduced him to fishing in these canals. Charles developed a passion for fishing, which represented for him a chance to discover not just fresh air and an affinity with the countryside, but a sense of mystery in himself and in the world. The discipline he learned from fishing, and the combination of contemplation, intuition and skill required to ‘strike at the right moment’, allowed him to discover and nurture his artistic temperament, and fishing later became for him a metaphor for the act of writing poetry itself.

A prolonged illness during childhood kept him off school for two years and in bed for nine months. This too had its influence in turning a clever child into a contemplative. ‘It wasn’t myself I was contemplating’, he has explained, but lying in bed at home he became acutely aware of himself as a separate physical entity, and ‘of the world surrounding me of which I could see very little but could hear through the window’.

Given this early isolation, and his working class childhood in a dark, industrial landscape, it is perhaps surprising to hear one noted critic declare in a recent history of twentieth century literature, that, ‘There is something disconcertingly unalienated about Charles Tomlinson.’ The apparent disappointment latent in this comment is testament that soundness of mind and wholeness of spirit were not necessarily career advantages for a poet seeking to establish a name in England in the 1950s and ‘60s. Charles Tomlinson’s poetry is about connection and celebration rather than alienation. Connection with and celebration of the natural landscapes and of the societies and cultures in which he lives and travels.

While still a teenager, Charles met the Head Girl from the neighbouring school at a dance on VJ night. He and Brenda fell immediately in love and married as soon as they had completed their studies: Charles at Queens College Cambridge, where he read English, and Brenda first at Bedford College London, to read History, then on to the Warburg Institute to study History of Art with Ernst Gombrich, and to do postgraduate work at the Courtauld Institute, where she studied under the distinguished art historian and notorious spy, Anthony Blunt. Brenda is the inspiration and guiding spirit behind Charles’s work and we are delighted to welcome her here today, together with their daughters Juliette and Justine, both accomplished musicians and artists in their own right.

Cambridge was an intellectual disappointment to Charles, until Donald Davie returned from service in the navy to become his tutor in his final year. This sparked a lifelong, creative friendship between two of the leading poets of their generation.

Until Davie rekindled Charles’s enthusiasm for study, he had been on the point of leaving Cambridge to pursue an artistic career. At this time he was interested in painting and filmmaking, as well as poetry. His attempts to enter the film industry, however, were frustrated by the closed shop which restricted entry to the studios at that time. Instead he concentrated on painting and graphics, and began to exhibit his work in galleries in London and Manchester, while earning a living as a school teacher in Camden Town.

After three years of teaching, Charles travelled to Italy, to work as private Secretary to the critic and biographer, Percy Lubbock. This proved not to be the opportunity he expected and although he remained in post just a short time, he and Brenda stayed on for several months to develop a lasting bond with the landscape and people of Liguria and Tuscany.

It was during this first stay in Italy, in 1951, that Charles began to dedicate himself primarily to poetry, though he also went on to consolidate a reputation as a graphic artist. His first encounter with poetry had been at school, where German and French poetry engaged his imagination. This marked the beginning of a cosmopolitan approach to literature uncommon among his more insular or parochial British contemporaries. He was at school during the war years, and contact with a number of Jewish refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe further opened his imagination to the opportunities of a wide and international cultural tradition. This openness has made Charles Tomlinson one of English Literature’s great travellers, not just moving through landscapes but engaging with them, interpreting them, absorbing them into his art. It has also made him the foremost champion of translated poetry in Britain, and an outstanding translator of poems by, among others, Attilio Bertolucci, Octavio Paz, Cesar Vallejo and Antonio Machado.

On his return from Italy Charles took up a research post at Royal Holloway and in 1957 became a lecturer in English here at the University of Bristol. In 1982 he was granted a Personal Chair and remained at the University for 36 years, until his retirement in 1992. By this time he was one of the most internationally renowned members of the university and had secured an outstanding reputation as a poet, translator, artist, critic and teacher. Madam Chancellor, I personally am lucky enough to be able to testify that Charles is an inspiring and challenging teacher. To study with him is to share a rare and privileged insight into the possibilities of language and into the mysteries of how a poem works.

Unusually for an English poet of the day, the overriding contemporary influences on Charles’s style of writing are American. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that his second book of poems, Seeing is Believing, came out first in the United States, in 1958. On the success of this book he won a prestigious International Travelling Fellowship, and in the autumn of 1959 he, Brenda and their baby daughter Justine set off to New York. They spent the next six months travelling across the United States by greyhound bus, and making lasting literary and personal friendships with leading American writers of the day, including William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and Yvor Winters. Later, Charles Tomlinson wrote of how encouraged he was, at this critical stage in his career, to be welcomed as part of a clan whose members he admired so much, especially as his experience in England had been one of literary isolation.

This was the beginning of a long relationship with America, where he and his family have spent extended periods of time, while he held visiting professorships and fellowships in New Mexico, New York and Princeton.

Charles Tomlinson’s poetic practice might be called scientific, in that it is a process of acutely accurate observation and precise description, but it moves beyond science to enter an almost religious contemplation of what connects man with nature. He has said that ‘Place speaks to me more than the dogmas of any religion, and it speaks of very fundamental things: time, death, what we have in common with the animals, what things are like when you stop to look’.

An example of the sort of magic that comes into being when Charles Tomlinson stops to look at something as seemingly unremarkable and inert as stone, is a poem called ‘In Defence of Metaphysics:

Place is the focus. What is the language
Of stones? I do not mean
As emblems of patience, philosophers’ hopes
Or as the astrological tangents
One may assemble, draw out subjectively
From a lapidary inertia. Only we
Are inert. Stones act, like pictures, by remaining
Always the same, unmoving, waiting on presence
Unpredictable in absence, inhuman
In a human dependence, a physical
Point of contact, for a movement not physical
And on a track of force, the milestone
Between two infinities. Stones are like deaths.
They uncover limits.

One begins to see in poems such as this why some critics talk of Charles Tomlinson’s poetry in terms of its environmental and ecological awareness, and also what Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel Laureate and a friend and collaborator, meant when he said that Charles Tomlinson treats the natural world not as a spectacle, something that is merely looked at, but as an event, in which his readers are invited to join as participants.

Charles Tomlinson has created a body of lyric poetry remarkable for its crafstmanship, passion and perception, and which challenges us to see the world around us in its truest, deepest light, and to build a relationship with the natural world based on sensitivity, integrity and imagination. He has received many honours for this work, including Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature in 1974 and a CBE in 2001. He is celebrated around the world as one of the leading English writers of his generation and, among many international awards and honours, he was made an Honorary Foreign Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998.

Madam Chancellor, I present to you Professor Charles Tomlinson, poet, critic, translator, artist, teacher, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa


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