Justin Shepherd on John Beer

John Bernard Beer, FBA (31 March 1926 – 10 December 2017); Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge. Best known as a scholar and critic of Romanticism, especially Coleridge, Blake and Wordsworth, he also had a mastery of the intellectual currents of the Victorian period, and wrote extensively on EM Forster and twentieth-century writers including Sylvia Plath and Doris Lessing.

John served in the RAF from 1946 to 1948. He was a Junior Research Fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge from 1955 to 1958. Between 1958 and 1964 he was Assistant Lecturer and then Lecturer at the University of Manchester, before taking up a post at Peterhouse, where he remained in his Emeritus years.

He was a great supporter of both the Lamb Society and the Friends of Coleridge, of which he was one of our four Scholars. He spoke at the very first Coleridge Summer Conference in 1988 and was a regular speaker at both our autumn study weekends and our summer conferences, where he last spoke only a few years ago on Coleridge’s albatross. He retained a remarkable ability to shape the arc of a complex argument from the lectern well into his eighties and everything he said or wrote about Coleridge bore the stamp of authority of one who had an unrivalled familiarity with the prose texts as well as the poetry, and a mastery of the intellectual context.

He was a kind, gentle and very modest man, somewhat shy in manner. Perhaps his was one of the few minds capacious enough to keep up with the further reaches of Coleridge’s own inquiring mind. He edited ‘Aids to Reflection’ for the Bollingen edition of the Collected Works, and his ‘Coleridge the Visionary’ and ‘Coleridge’s Poetic Intelligence’ remain landmark studies. His 1963 Everyman edition of the poems, regularly revised, was the standard student edition for more than forty years. He also wrote very well for less advanced students and his essays on Coleridge in the volume edited by RL Brett and in the bicentenary collection edited by Beer himself are masterly.

I first met him in the autumn of 1969 at my Cambridge interview. In the morning I had dropped into Heffers, which was still in Petty Cury before its move to Trinity Street, and had seen on display a copy of his new book, ‘Blake’s Visionary Universe’, just published. I was deeply impressed. The John Linnell portrait of ‘William Blake Wearing a Hat’ always hung behind his desk on his wall in his study on the ground floor of the William Stone building in Peterhouse. During my supervisions with him subsequently I began to see in it a distinct resemblance to John himself, for, indeed, there was an air of abstraction which hovered about him. When I got to know him much later, however, I found him generous, friendly and very happy to talk if he thought you were interested. Many young scholars and those who attended the Wordsworth and Coleridge conferences will have their own grateful memories of him. All will acknowledge him as a major scholar of Romantic Studies and perhaps the preeminent Coleridgean of his time.

The Friends of Coleridge offer our sincere condolences to his wife, Gillian, and to his family.

Justin Shepherd, Chair, the Friends of Coleridge

The Friends of Coleridge will print a much fuller tribute to John in the next Bulletin (Summer 2018) which will also be posted on our website.

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