Obituary: Professor Geoffrey Smithers
Gray, Douglas, The Independent (London, England)
GEOFFREY SMITHERS made important contributions to the study of Early English.
Born in South Africa in 1909, he was educated at Durban High School and at what was then Natal University College. In 1930 he gained a Rhodes Scholarship which took him to Hertford College, Oxford, where in 1933 he achieved a First in the Final Honours School of English Language and Literature. After a brief spell of teaching at London University, first at King's College, then at University College, he returned to Oxford in 1940 as Lecturer in English Language.
He subsequently became Senior Lecturer in English Language, and in 1954 Reader in Medieval English and a Professorial Fellow of Merton College. In 1960 he was appointed Professor of English Language at Durham University, a chair which he held until his retirement in 1974.
Smithers was one of the last of a brilliant group of philologists who were beginning their careers at Oxford in the 1930s: it included his slightly younger contemporaries Jack Bennett and Norman Davis from New Zealand, Eric Dobson from Australia, and Angus McIntosh from Edinburgh, all of whom also went on to become professors of English. With them Smithers shared a commitment to the highest standards of accuracy and a firm belief that the study of literature and language were indissolubly linked.
His extensive writings demonstrated a range of expertise, in editing and textual criticism, historical philology and literary history and criticism. He revised Carleton Brown's collection of 14th-century religious lyrics (1952) and produced major editions of two important Middle English romances, Kyng Alisaunder (in two volumes, 1952 and 1957) and Havelok (1987). Together with J.A.W. Bennett and N. Davis, Smithers produced an anthology, Early Middle English Verse and Prose (1966). A study of the Old English Beowulf remains as yet unpublished.
His literary scholarship bore the mark of a very wide reading, especially in Latin and medieval French, and a good knowledge of European scholarship, especially German. He was interested in the formal characteristics of medieval literature and its traditional topics and genres. What is now called, in trendier circles, "narratology" also interested him. He wrote on "story patterns" in Breton lays, and examined (often speculatively, but always interestingly) how a gradual transformation of a "wonder tale" into a heroic poem might explain many oddities and discontinuities in Beowulf.
His linguistic work showed the same breadth of interest. He would use …
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Publication information: Article title: Obituary: Professor Geoffrey Smithers. Contributors: Gray, Douglas - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: August 9, 2000. Page number: 6. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.