D. J. Enright
- Leamington Spa, England
- Watson, Little Ltd
Poet, novelist, critic and translator D(ennis) J(oseph) Enright was born on 11 March 1920. He was educated at Leamington College and Downing College, Cambridge. He has taught English at universities in Egypt, Japan, Berlin, Thailand, and Singapore. He was a director of London publishers Chatto & Windus between 1974 and 1982 and was co-editor of Encounter magazine from 1970 to 1972.
His poetry collections include The Laughing Hyena and Other Poems (1953), Addictions (1962), Sad Ires (1975), and Under the Circumstances: Poems and Prose (1991). His Collected Poems: 1948-98 was published in 1998. He was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1981.
He has also published fiction for adults and children, including Academic Year (1955) and Insufficient Poppy (1960). His non-fiction includes a volume of autobiography, Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor (1969), and critical work on Shakespeare, Milton and Samuel Johnson. He has also translated poetry from Japanese and German and edited several anthologies including The Oxford Book of Death (1983) and The Faber Book of Fevers and Frets (1989). He was a regular contributor to journals including the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.
A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 1961, D. J. Enright was awarded an OBE in 1991 and was made Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature in 1998.
D J Enright died on 31 January 2002. Injury Time: A Memoir, in which he muses upon his own condition and the world he knows he is leaving, was completed shortly before his death, and is published in spring 2003.
D.J. Enright was for more than half a century a prominent Man of Letters, and in the fullest possible sense: a poet, novelist, anthologist, critic and lecturer; an editor, publisher, children's author, and international teacher of English Literature. The latter occupation is the key to his writing, which freely draws upon his time in Egypt, Japan, Germany, Thailand, and in Singapore where he stayed for the decade 1960-70 as a Professor of English, despite several brushes with the authorities.
Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor (1969), called 'one of the sharpest and funniest autobiographies of our time' (Anthony Thwaite), gives Enright's affectionate if ruefully amusing account of all this. Yet, perhaps echoing the moral values of F. R. Leavis - his tutor at Downing College, Cambridge - Enright concludes that the teacher is 'inevitably something of a missionary...[he] actually wants his pupils to be changed by literature'. As a writer, Enright similarly alternates between a Rabelaisian appreciation of the human comedy and the sobriety of the lecture room; he is always readable, often funny and combative, rightly describing his own mode as traditional 'humanist' thinking, to distinguish it from contemporary 'theory'. He particularly venerates great poetry as 'the finest, most efficient vehicle for the passing on of what wisdom and courage the [human] race has painfully acquired'. These attitudes are reflected throughout his literary criticism - which discusses a wide range of European (and especially German) writers and world literatures - and is collected in a number of entertaining and instructive volumes over the years, most recently Signs and Wonders: Selected Essays (2001).
Enright first distilled his teaching experiences into writing with his best-known novel Academic Year (1955), which was regarded at the time as an Alexandrian Lucky Jim. Set in an Egyptian university during the chaotic last years of King Farouk's rule, it is full of sparklingly satirical observations of student and expatriate life, via the comical misadventures of three 'apostles of an alien culture' who doggedly carry on teaching Hardy, George Eliot and Shakespeare in an environment of regular riots and 'Down with Britain Days'. They take the notion of 'cultural exchange' pretty far: young lecturer Packet - who functions as Enright's mouthpiece, observing the surrounding squalor and corruption - samples hashish and carries on an affair with an Egyptian woman. His veteran colleague Bacon is knifed during a robbery, and Brett is the harassed bureaucrat from the Cultural Centre trying to keep everything together. Despite an inevitably dated feel to it now, the book is still funny, especially when Bacon, drunk and having lost his notes, has to improvise a lecture on 'The Usefulness of Education' to an expectant audience.
Enright is a rarity among poets, one whose sense of fun always takes precedence over pretension, though he fully and sympathetically reflects upon the people, cultures and places encountered during his travels and teaching life. He is also hugely prolific: his Collected Poems 1948-1998 (1998) extends to over 500 pages. In general, his verse develops from early fairly formal poems often employing long lines, to book-length sequences of short, discursive, deftly allusive poems, which are probably his best. His later collections are filled with terse, witty observations of growing old, pithy rhyming effects satirising his life and times. He is not usually a poet of brilliant images or rhapsodic descriptions of nature but of wryly humorous anecdotes and puns, and what his admirers call 'Johnsonian good sense'. Above all Enright has done what he advocated, in his editor's introduction to The Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse (1980), namely 'the poetry of civility, passion and order'. He opposes the 'confessional' poem, or 'pop spontaneity', as much as academic obscurity.
Such tastes and prejudices were already at work in his debut volume, The Laughing Hyena (1953): 'it is unthinkable / to drink horror from ink', he states, 'Poems, at least, / Ought not to be phantoms' ('Life and Letters'). Over the years and in his various collections, Enright's humane vision shines through his observations of the society around him, whether of beggars in Egypt, bar girls in Japan or frightened young American soldiers in Singapore taking 'R & R' from the Vietnam War. He reserves a special scepticism for party politics: 'Nothing human is alien to me / Except knives, and maybe the speeches / of politicians in flower' ('Political Meeting'). Enright has felt little inhibition in speaking out on behalf of political prisoners, notably in Unlawful Assembly (1968) ('This Vale of Teargas', 'What became of So-and-So').
Among Enright's numerous poetry collections, The Terrible Shears stands out as probably his most emotionally autobiographical. It consists of short poems, with a range of angles on working class home life in his native Leamington Spa during the 1920s. Memory and elegy are fused in a matter-of-fact vignette: the death of a baby is inferred from seeing his mother expressing his breast-milk into the sink. There are also more characteristically satirical juxtapositions: 'I wondered why the Lotus Position seemed familiar - / It was how we crouched in the copper on bath night'. A Faust Book aims at a completely different kind of effect, but equally effective, in a sequence of poems re-imagining the Faust legend in a modern context, each capped with an ironic title. It really functions as a kind of ideal vehicle for Enright, drawing together his various writing selves, as a long-time adept of German literature (Goethe, Thomas Mann and Brecht have been particularly 'congenial' to him) as well as of theology. Erudite puns, jokes and asides, the verbal jousting between Faust and Mephistopheles, makes it a delightful read.
In volumes such as Old Men and Comets (1993), Enright's subject is the inexorable sadness of growing old and contemplating almost an entire life: 'Crying, no known reason.../ pillow wet with the tears of things' ('Dream Snatches'). But his satirical squibs on the ways of the world keeps them from being too bleak. And even in these poems there is 'something perilously close to enjoyment, even amid the downbeat measurements of encroaching age' (Lawrence Sail). In Interplay (1995), for instance, 'old nests in winter / suddenly reveal themselves / in leafless branches. / In old age likewise / abandoned relationships / and nesting places' ('Through the window'). Enright's life-long dedication to his twin vocations of writing and teaching, his determined advocacy of humanist values, and English literature itself, has framed his achievement. Characteristically, he concludes his memoirs with a modest 'Apology for Mendicancy', insisting that 'As for "liberal", I don't think it will ever come to seem a dirty word to me'.
Dr. Jules Smith, 2002