Professor Michael Alexander has retired after eighteen years as Berry Professor in the University of St Andrews School of English.
Speaking at a special reception in honour of Professor Alexander held in the University’s Lower Parliament Hall, Professor Robert Crawford, Head of the School of English, paid warm tribute to a remarkable colleague who, whether as Head of Department for five years in the 1980s, or more recently, as colleague and counsellor had been an utterly committed mentor to the whole School.
“Michael Alexander is the only person in the world who could say that his volumes of Old English verse translations have sold over half a million copies. Michael, however, would be most unlikely to say that. His translations have been singled out by Kenneth Clark, W H Auden, Donald Davie, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and other poets and academics.”
Professor Crawford went on to tell of how he had a story last year about an undergraduate who had described her tutor, Professor Alexander, with warmth and respect as the most “uncular” person in the School of English.
“It did trouble me for a moment that this wasn’t an English word I recognised; but it pleased me more, because it seemed so just that Michael should have a word of affectionate tribute all to himself. Michael has always been unfailingly generous in the attention he has given to students and colleagues.” *Pic caption – left to right – Professor Michael Alexander, Mrs Alexander and Professor Robert Crawford*
Professor Alexander was educated at Oxford, Perugia, and Princeton. Yet, with a characteristic note of singularity, he made the point in an autobiographical piece that he realised with a shock when he got to Oxford that his teachers at Downside School were intellectually and culturally superior to his university tutors. His wife has spent part of her career as an outstanding schoolteacher at St Leonards School.
Before he became Berry Professor at St Andrews in 1985, Professor Alexander taught at the university in France, then at Santa Barbara, East Anglia, and Stirling. He had also worked in publishing – for Collins, and as an editor for Andre Deutsch in London. Though a long-term resident of the town, he has always known that there are many more places in the world than St Andrews, and that there is life beyond academia. His decision to retire early may be taken as a confirmation of that, of his deep love of his family, and of his wish for more time to write.
Professor Alexander has written a History of Old English Literature and, not content with that, a
History of English Literature as a whole. Professor Crawford spoke of how “He writes deftly, with a fluency born of industry, yet which seems, for all its freight of learning, stylishly and easily airborne.”
Michael Alexander has also written a book on Ezra Pound; he writes as a mediaevalist as well as a modernist, a poet as well as a critic. His CV makes no mention of the fact that he has for years entertained radio listeners as a member of the Scottish team on Radio 4’s Round Britain quiz. He is an enthralling broadcaster, recognised as such by both BBC and Australian radio audiences, and has enjoyed the friendship of poets including Ezra Pound in Italy, Norman MacCaig at Stirling, Les Murray in Australia. “Poetry”, commented Professor Crawford, “seems written in his stars. He met his wife, Mary, the story goes, when she was Australian consul in Edinburgh and Les Murray, at a party, sat down on – and broke – a radiator. Michael gallantly offered assistance. I think he must have assisted to some effect..”
“Michael has been a great and stylish contributor to this university; more simply than that, he has taught, argued, dined, worked with, and gladdened the hearts of so many people who will never quite repay what they owe him. I remember him in 1988 or 89, cheerfully driving me north to the Burn, that country house near Edzell. I was nervous. I wanted a job here. Michael put me at my ease and, because of that, I remember the day as very, very sunny – which, quite possibly, it was. Michael faced challenges I did not then understand. But he was clearly proud to have become Berry Professor at St Andrews, and proud of his new car, a professorial vehicle, as he termed it. That was just yesterday, and quite long ago.”
“There is no rust on Michael. He is about to start writing a book on mediaevalism commissioned by Yale University Press; I know I have a younger colleague eager that he should lecture on this topic, and I hope that the School will have a continuing and fruitful association with its retiring Berry Professor.”