Jon Stallworthy was a much-loved tutor, scholar and poet. He was a Fellow of Wolfson between 1986 and his death in 2014 and twice Acting President of the College.
Jon Howie Stallworthy was born in London on 18 January 1935 to New Zealand parents, John (later Sir John) Stallworthy, a renowned surgeon and professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, and Margaret (Peggy), née Howie, who is credited with giving her son his ‘first taste of poetry’ with the nursery rhymes she sang to him as a small child.
Educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, and Rugby, Stallworthy served as Second Lieutenant in the Nigerian Regiment of the West African Frontier Force in the mid-1950s. Having completed his National Service, he took up his place at Oxford to study English literature at Magdalen, where in 1958 he won the Newdigate Prize for his poem ‘The Earthly Paradise’. He fondly and amusingly recalled his ‘Monday afternoons in Wadham’ with his tutor Maurice Bowra, though Stallworthy’s energetic athletic endeavours as a Rugby Blue seemed his main preoccupation: ‘The hours I spent in the library, under the glazed gaze of Addison, Dryden, and Waller, were fewer than those spent at the Iffley Road rugger ground.’ While he gave up playing in his final year as a student, his love of the game – and his allegiance to the All Blacks – never left him. Bowra nevertheless fired Stallworthy’s enthusiasm to study W B Yeats. The fruits of this research were subsequently published as Between the Lines: W.B. Yeats’s Poetry in the Making (1963), which won the M L Rosenthal Award, and Vision and Revision in Yeats’s Last Poems (1969).
Wilfred Owen and Stallworthy
Stallworthy’s devotion to another poet sealed his scholarly reputation. When he delivered the British Academy’s Chatterton Lecture in 1970, taking as his subject Wilfred Owen, in the audience that night was Harold Owen. So, impressed with the lecture was Owen that he asked Stallworthy to write his elder brother’s biography. Thus in 1971 Stallworthy was commissioned jointly by Oxford University Press and Chatto and Windus to write first, the biography, and second, to edit a comprehensive edition of Owen’s poems and fragments. Wilfred Owen (1974) was called ‘one of the finest biographies of our time’ by Graham Greene, and went on to win the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize (1974), the W H Smith Literary Award (1975), and the E M Forster Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1976). The two-volume Complete Poems and Fragments (1983) was followed by subsequent editions of the Selected Poems. From then on, ‘Stallworthy’ and ‘Owen’ were names that were almost inextricably linked.
This ‘soldier-poet’ was not the only beneficiary of Stallworthy’s biographical and editorial skills. Boris Pasternak and Alexander Blok, Henry Reed and the lesser known Geoffrey Dearmer, all came under his expert eye, while his biography of Louis MacNeice (1998), which won the Southern Arts Literary Prize, did much to reinvigorate interest in MacNeice’s poetry. He was also a champion of the often neglected poets of the Second World War, especially Keith Douglas. Stallworthy embarked on what became The Penguin Book of Love Poetry (1973) ‘to sweeten’, he wrote, ‘an imagination otherwise occupied by the war poems of Wilfred Owen’, though he returned to the subject of war with The Oxford Book of War Poetry (1984) and continued to define war literature studies thereafter. His critical essays, which reflected the historical sweep of his interest in the poetry of warfare, were collected in Survivors’ Songs: from Maldon to the Somme in 2008.
As a contributing editor to The Norton Anthology of English Literature and The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Stallworthy helped to shape the literary knowledge of countless college and university students. Indeed, his reputation as a scholar is equally matched by his legacy as a teacher and mentor to students far and wide, many of whom have followed in his footsteps as academics.
Yet the biographer, literary critic, editor and teacher, was, above all, a poet. The boy who, as he recalled in Singing School: The Making of a Poet (1998), realised that ‘what I most wanted in the world to do was to write poems’, matured into the man that published his first volume, The Astronomy of Love, in 1961. This was followed over the course of his lifetime by eleven other volumes including Root and Branch (1969), Hand in Hand (1974), A Familiar Tree (1978), The Anzac Sonata (1986), The Guest from the Future (1995), Rounding the Horn: Collected Poems (1998), and Body Language (2004). All are permeated by Stallworthy’s themes of love (sensual, lost, and deferred), family, lineage and history, and are characterized both by technical skill, the measured lines and rhythms of intentionally controlled verse, and by the simplicity and directness of their message.
Jon Stallworthy moved from the world of publishing to the world of academe when he took up the post of John Wendell Anderson Professor of English Literature at Cornell University in 1977. After nearly ten years of teaching in America, he returned to Oxford, becoming, in 1986, Reader and Professor of English Literature and a Governing Body Fellow of Wolfson College.
Life at Wolfson
In retirement as Professor Emeritus and the senior Trustee of the Wilfred Owen Literary Estate, Stallworthy could be usually be found working in his rooms at Wolfson, in a modern penthouse eyrie that overlooked the College harbour and the River Cherwell. He was in frequent demand as a speaker at literary events and conferences, and was a favourite tutor on the Oxford University Continuing Education Department’s Creative Writing Summer School. A Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature, he received the Wilfred Owen Poetry Award in 2010 in recognition of the sustained body of his work.
In what was to be the last year of his life, Stallworthy’s published output was great, with revised and updated editions of his biography of Owen, of the Complete Poems and Fragments, and the New Oxford Book of War Poetry. In each he reflected on the changes in the reputation of Owen and of war poetry in the years since his texts were first published. His final volume of poems is appropriately titled War Poet (2014).
Although he was too ill to attend the First World War centenary conferences at Oxford and the British Academy in the autumn of 2014, his spirit was palpably present, invoked as he was often by those for whom his work has been so central and his knowledge and guidance so generously, warmly given.
This article was taken in part from the Wolfson College Record 2015 written by Dr Jane Potter.
Click here to listen to recordings of Jon Stallworthy reading his poems for the Poetry Archive.