A Tribute to Geoffrey Carnall (1927-2015)

June 2015

I learned recently that my PhD supervisor Geoffrey Carnall had passed away. I had the great privilege of working with him from 1988 through 1992, and what I learned from him then is still with me every day. He pushed me hard for four years to get stronger as a scholar and as a writer, and yet somehow at the same time he gave me the confidence to believe that I could get the degree. As I wrote, I always had his Robert Southey and his Age in view as a model of insight, eloquence, and scholarship. The copy he signed for me when we first met is one of the books I treasure the most.

Geoffrey’s knowledge of English literature was an inspiration to me, but in some ways what I value most is what he taught me about writing. I wrote many sentences that he did not like. But I can vividly remember finally writing one that I thought he would like. I was trying to talk about Thomas De Quincey and how his response to the major prose writers of his age helped him to develop what he called “impassioned prose.” I submitted the chapter which contained the sentence, and when Geoffrey returned it to me I anxiously thumbed through his commentary. Beside my prized sentence in the margin he had written “Ah ha!” It was, for me, a big step, all those years ago.

After I graduated and got my first job, I sent Geoffrey all my publications, most of which carried an acknowledgment to him for the help he continued to give me. He always sent me a thoughtful response (typed on thin blue paper). I shall value those letters more than ever. I have my own PhD students now, and Geoffrey is often before me as a model. He was a superb scholar, an ideal supervisor, and a kind and generous man.