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Denton Fox

Denton Fox is a professor of English at the University of Toronto.

Superpriest

Denton Fox, 21 January 1988

Robert Grosseteste, scientist, theologian and bishop, is rather like the elephant that was interpreted so differently by the various blind men. Even in his lifetime men had contrasting opinions of him: Matthew Paris, who must have known him well, called him at one time ‘heartless and inhuman’, and at another ‘liberal, urbane, cheerful, affable’. Wycliffe hailed him as his glorious predecessor; Wycliffe’s opponents found they could quote him to good purpose. As a proto-Protestant, he figures in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs; scholars recently have thought of him as a leading but perfectly moderate scholastic. Professor Southern’s great achievement has been to work through all the evidence – itself no mean task, since Grosseteste was seldom shortwinded and not always lucid – and to produce a remarkably clear and coherent account of a complicated and profoundly interesting man.’

Life Spans

Denton Fox, 6 November 1986

It is very fitting that a book dealing largely with the various ways in which the human life-span has been neatly divided into ‘ages’ should itself have an elegant and symmetrical structure. The book is divided into two halves, each with two chapters and 94 pages. The first half analyses the various schemes that existed for dividing man’s life into periods: in the first chapter, the ‘scientific’ schemes made by biologists, physiologists, astrologers; in the second chapter, schemes made by those who ‘seek to relate the ages of man to temporal patterns observable elsewhere – in the cycles of year, month and day, and in the linear time of history’. In the second half, Burrow turns from theory to practice, and examines how, in Medieval narratives, people are praised or blamed for conforming, or for not conforming, to the natural pattern of a man’s life. Chapter Three, on the ‘transcendence’ ideal, shows how men were praised for rising above the natural order: the most obvious example is the young saint who, though a child in years, already has the wisdom natural to an old man. (This chapter is symmetrical with Chapter Two: both have just 40 pages, and both are concerned especially with ‘preachers, exegetes and historians’.) Chapter Four, on the ‘nature’ ideal, shows how men were praised for following the natural order, or, more often, blamed for not following it: the most obvious example is the senex amans, the old man who makes himself ridiculous by posing as a lover. (This chapter is symmetrical with the first chapter, which is titled ‘Nature’, and which also has 54 pages.)’

Scotch Urchins

Denton Fox, 22 May 1986

On the cover of Jack’s paperback there is a portrait of Alexander Montgomerie, a handsome young man, finely dressed, but his eyes and the set of his mouth suggest great inner depths, perhaps profound sorrows. Unfortunately, when one opens the book, one finds the statement: ‘As no likeness of Montgomerie has yet been discovered, the artist’s impression on the cover is based on contemporary portraits.’ This spurious portrait is curiously appropriate: so little is certain about Montgomerie that everyone who writes on him draws his own picture. The accounts of his life vary greatly, depending on how the large interstices between the few facts are filled, and on how much the verse is taken to be autobiographical. Helena Shire finds him to have been ‘a personable and distinguished young man, a witty and convivial companion’; Cranstoun sadly remarks that ‘fawning submissiveness, spiteful rancour, and lack of manly purpose – strange combination of weaknesses from which it were fruitless to defend him – seem to have been inherent in his nature; but withal he was possessed of many noble qualities.’ The canon of his work is very uncertain, and there is no good edition of the poems – and indeed only a very brave or foolish scholar would undertake such an edition. Nor is there any consensus on the quality of his poems; James VI, in his youth, termed him ‘maister poete’ and ‘prince of poets’, and some modern critics adopt these terms with enthusiasm – indeed, Helena Shire calls him an ‘arch-poet’. (I suppose that if one has to use a periphrasis, ‘the maister poet’ is better than ‘the sweet singer of Scotland’, or ‘the immortal bard of Edinburgh’, but I would prefer ‘Montgomerie’.) C.S. Lewis more drily remarks, ‘unless you are a student you will not read him.’’

Admirable Urquhart

Denton Fox, 20 September 1984

Sir Thomas Urquhart, who is known today, if at all, as the 17th-century translator of part of Rabelais, must have been a most peculiar man. At a guess, he may have had to a preternatural degree that quality of mind, not unknown among modern scholars, that causes a man to believe that whatever he thinks, says or does is infallibly true and right, and that whatever he observes in the world is true and right only insofar as it coincides with what is already in his mind. It would be wrong and unkind to call him a liar, as he has been called: he simply stated his own truths. Since he also seems to have been almost completely devoid of common sense, and to have been given to violence, he was hardly likely to have had a smooth life. The wonder, indeed, is that his troubles were not more immediately fatal; what saved him, I suppose, is that no one took him seriously.

Anglophobe Version

Denton Fox, 2 February 1984

When William Laughton Lorimer, formerly Professor of Greek at St Andrews, died in 1967, he left behind him the manuscript of a translation of the New Testament into Scots, on which he had been working for the past ten years. A quarter of the translation was in more or less final form; the rest of it was in a revised first draft. His son, R.L.C. Lorimer, has edited it very faithfully, and has also, with others, established the W.L. Lorimer Memorial Trust Fund, which has made possible the handsome printing of this book: the list included in it of the Scots peers and notables who contributed is reminiscent of the lists of members in the old Bannatyne Club publications, except that ladies are now tolerated.

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