Frank Kermode

Frank Kermode, whose books include Romantic Image (1957), The Sense of an Ending (1967) and Shakespeare’s Language (2000), was the Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London and the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge. He inspired the founding of the LRB in 1979 and wrote more than two hundred pieces for it.

His first, in the first issue of the paper, was on millenarianism, ‘the myth concerning the End’, and his last on Philip Pullman and the parable of the prodigal son. In between he wrote on poets (‘T.S. Eliot and the Shudder’), novelists (Zadie Smith), critics (Paul de Man), Shakespeare, music, psychoanalysis and his wartime experience in the navy (‘My Mad Captains’). A selection of his pieces for the paper is available from the LRB store. He died in 2010 at the age of ninety and a collection of short memoirs by LRB contributors can be found here. ‘Papers speak through their writers,’ Mary-Kay Wilmers wrote after his death. ‘And of all the London Review’s writers Frank Kermode was the one through whom we spoke most often and most eloquently.’

This book describes itself on its jacket as ‘a retelling of the life of Jesus’ and also as a book about ‘how stories become stories’; which might lead one to expect some sort of refined Jamesian experiment, for it was James who thought a novel, if thoroughly ‘done’, was as much about itself as about its ostensible topic. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel...

Eliot and the Shudder

Frank Kermode, 13 May 2010

Eliot had a sort of physiology of poetry. In his lecture ‘The Three Voices of Poetry’ he agreed with Gottfried Benn when he spoke of an imagined meeting between a ‘creative germ’ and language. The poet ‘cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words’. The nascent poem is a burden, relief follows its birth: the poet ‘may experience a moment of exhaustion, of appeasement, of absolution, and of something very near annihilation’. Here is a remarkable mixture of satisfactions, physical, spiritual, close to mortal, and we need to remind ourselves that the metaphor is obstetric, shadowing a dangerous childbirth, a cause of shuddering. Eliot believed, with Housman, that there was a connection between illness and creativity, as once there was held to be in melancholia.

Our Supersubstantial Bread: God’s Plot

Frank Kermode, 25 March 2010

Eamon Duffy, whose opinion of this book will not be lightly disputed, remarks on its jacket that ‘everyone who reads it will learn things they didn’t know.’ Most lay reviewers will think this an understatement; yet the scope of the project, its distance from anything that might be described as parochial, may persuade them that the records of Christianity, preserved and...

Topping Entertainment: Britten

Frank Kermode, 28 January 2010

A two-volume collection of Britten’s letters and diaries, entitled Letters from a Life and edited by Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed, appeared in 1991, and its first volume covers the same period as this new collection; but there was plenty of work for the new editor, John Evans. The diaries were begun when Britten was 15 and ended, rather abruptly, when he was 25. They were written in...

Theophany: William Golding

Frank Kermode, 5 November 2009

John Carey has had access to voluminous archives stored in the Faber basement or in the keeping of William Golding’s family. No one else may see them; he alone can quote from unpublished novels, journals, memoirs, correspondence and conversations. He has made excellent use of these privileges, and the result is a full, friendly, and on proper occasions candid, account of a remarkable...

The Oxford English Dictionary cites more than 33,000 passages from Shakespeare to illustrate the sense of English words. About 1900 of its main entries have first citations from Shakespeare....

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Out of the Lock-Up: Wallace Stevens

Michael Wood, 2 April 1998

Asked in 1933 what his favourite among his own poems was, Wallace Stevens said he liked best ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’, from Harmonium (1923). The work ‘wears a deliberately...

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A Sort of Nobody

Michael Wood, 9 May 1996

Criticism for Frank Kermode is the articulation of assumptions, a sort of phenomenology of interpretative need. Its job, as he says in The Sense of an Ending (1967), is ‘making sense of the...

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Real Absences

Barbara Johnson, 19 October 1995

‘Reading others people’s letters, like reading private diaries, offers thrilling and unexpected glimpses into the lives of others,’ claims the dustjacket of The Oxford Book of...

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Kermode’s Changing Times

P.N. Furbank, 7 March 1991

Frank Kermode having now become ‘Sir Frank’, it seems a good moment to take a look back over his remarkable career: though by no means because that career is at an end, for he is...

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Kermode and Theory

Hayden White, 11 October 1990

Frank Kermode belongs to no sect of literary criticism, and he has founded no school. Like William Empson, whom he praises as a ‘genius’ of criticism, Kermode has always been more...

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Loose Canons

Edward Mendelson, 23 June 1988

Frank Kermode’s History and Value reads the literature of the Thirties as ‘a love story, almost a story of forbidden love’. The story is usually told in political terms, but the...

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Reading the Bible

John Barton, 5 May 1988

‘Everyone communes with the Bible,’ wrote Marilyn Butler recently in her Cambridge inaugural lecture, commenting on the recent re-inclusion of the Biblical canon in the canon of...

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Andrew Gurr, 6 February 1986

Like relics of the True Cross, there are said to be enough splinters to make an orchard from the mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare in his garden at New Place. The Shakespeare canon has excited...

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From Plato to Nato

Christopher Norris, 7 July 1983

Eagleton’s book is both a primer and a postmortem. It surveys the varieties of recent and present-day literary theory, only to suggest – in its closing chapter – that they had...

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Advanced Thought

William Empson, 24 January 1980

Frank Kermode’s new book contains a great deal of graceful and dignified prose, especially in the last chapter, and many of the examples are of great interest. It seems to argue that no...

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