Pre-eminent critic who with easy erudition explored how ideas work in literature
When Frank Kermode's elegant, melancholy, often very funny autobiography, Not Entitled, was published in 1995, many reviewers commented on the irony of its title and its tone. Its author was an academic who had gained every honour in his field, who had occupied several of the most illustrious chairs of English literature and, rarest of achievements for a literary critic, even been knighted. Yet Kermode, who has died aged 90, presented himself in his memoir as a slightly bemused outsider, unworthy of most of his successes, drifting into appointments and undertakings, guided mostly by accident.
This self-image, however artful, was true to the man, and the ironic, self-deprecating voice of Not Entitled was his voice. What he called there his "permanent condition of mild alienation" was temperamental – a distance from things that made him, in person, a wry observer of academic follies. The separateness was also, as he saw it, something to do with his upbringing.
Born on the Isle of Man, he was brought up in Douglas, the son of a storekeeper, and educated at Douglas high school and then at Liverpool University, from which he graduated in 1940. He recalled the Isle of Man as a place to which you were expected to return, and his own parents as confident that their son, the bright scholarship boy, would come back to be a teacher at his own grammar school. Instead, he wrote, "I had to choose exile."
Before any choice, there was the second world war. Kermode served in the Royal Navy, and the chapter of his memoirs recording his wartime service – the eccentricities of crew members and the lunacies of his various "mad captains" – belongs among the best of English war writing.
In 1946, he returned to Liverpool University to take up a postgraduate scholarship, convinced that he would become a writer. Instead, he became an academic – although he would always be a stylist as well as a scholar. First he became a lecturer at what was King's College, Newcastle, then part of Durham University (1947-49), and subsequently at Reading University.
He recalled his time at Reading more warmly than any other part of his academic career. There he produced his Arden edition of Shakespeare's The Tempest (1951) – still the standard version for undergraduates. Its introduction and notes perform the duties of scholarship, but also use a deep knowledge of Renaissance literature to make vivid the intellectual life of the play.
This was what he did best, and with grace: unravelling the ways in which ideas worked in literature. Some of the poets to whom he was most drawn were, indeed, self-consciously difficult: John Donne, on whom he published a book in 1957; Wallace Stevens, whom he, in effect, introduced to an English readership in a study published in 1960, and whose "lucid, inescapable rhythms" often return in Kermode's criticism.
While at Reading he also wrote his major work of the 1950s, Romantic Image (1957), which secured his intellectual reputation. It was an account of the continuities between Romanticism and Modernism, with the poetry of Yeats at its heart. With its easy erudition, but not a footnote in sight, this book seems a long way from today's average academic output. In range it is huge, reaching into European and classical literature, aesthetic philosophy as well as poetry, verse from the Renaissance as well as the 19th and 20th centuries – yet in tone it is modest, provisional (it calls itself an essay). Learning with a certain lightness was his style.
The year after the publication of Romantic Image, Kermode became professor of English at Manchester University, where he worked until 1965. From then on, he gave much of his energy to the writing of reviews and essays. Some of those from the late 1950s and the 60s were collected and published in Puzzles and Epiphanies (1962) and Continuities (1968). It is strange to think that the New Statesman and the Spectator once published pieces as freighted with reading as these. Kermode himself wrote in the introduction to the latter volume that any literary journalism that was able to satisfy non-specialist interests "without loss of intellectual integrity" was "more demanding than most of what passes for scholarship". He was to continue to think this, and to write wonderfully well in this form.
His experience as editor of a journal was, however, unhappy. In 1965, he replaced Stephen Spender as the co-editor of Encounter, to which he had contributed for several years. After less than two years in the post, it became clear that it was in fact funded by the CIA, and Kermode resigned amid some acrimony. The only really anxious section of his memoirs is his account of the affair, although few, if any, could think him to blame for his involvement.
By then, after two years as professor at Bristol University, he had been appointed in 1967 to the Lord Northcliffe chair at University College London (UCL). In the same year he published The Sense of an Ending, composed from lectures he had given at Bryn Mawr College, west of Philadelphia. It is a still-stimulating reflection on the relationship between the senses of ending – of satisfying or inevitable conclusion – offered in religion and myth, and those offered in literary fiction. His elegant account of humanity's "brooding on apocalypse" was evidence of an interest in religious narratives that was to shape his later work The Genesis of Secrecy (1979) and lead him to edit, with Robert Alter, The Literary Guide to the Bible (1987).
While at UCL, Kermode began one of his most influential undertakings, as general editor of the Fontana Modern Masters series. He had been teaching in America and had been struck by the enthusiasm of students for the ideas of new intellectual figures such as Herbert Marcuse, Noam Chomsky and Claude Lévi-Strauss. He initiated and edited a series of cheap introductions to the ideas of such writers. Many who were students during the 70s will remember particular volumes, and how Kermode's idea produced what seemed the very chronicle of modernity. A smaller number, lucky enough to attend his research seminar at UCL, recall his personal involvement in theoretical debate. The seminar became a focus, in Britain, for the discussion of new (particularly French) linguistic and literary theory.
Confident in his own erudition and powers of judgment, Kermode was always open to, and excited by, new ideas in a manner unusual among literary academics. His receptiveness to the early experiments in literary theory – when this theory was still sceptical and inquisitive – never, however, displaced his devotion to great literature. Even as he was presiding over the discussion of the ideas of French structuralists, he was editing, with John Hollander, The Oxford Anthology of English Literature (1973), a rich and unapologetically discriminating selection of the best in the field. He was also writing The Classic (1975), which muses on the eternal appeal – the "renovations" – of the literary "classic", and he was made general editor of the Oxford Authors anthologies. This series provides students, in particular, with the very marrow of the traditional literary "canon".
Kermode was hugely influential as head of department at UCL, restructuring the undergraduate syllabus and giving the department a new confidence and sense of purpose. In consort with his colleague and fellow Manxman Randolph (now Lord) Quirk, he devised a course that drew students in to the study of the "classics" of English literature and that supplied them with some of the knowledge of ancient texts that they needed to find this satisfying. It was to withstand the vagaries of critical fashions. He is still talked of at UCL with affection and respect.
In 1974, however, he was drawn to Cambridge, as King Edward VII professor. There he found what he called "a cauldron of unholy hates". In his memoir, he wrote of his "impotent discontent" at the state of the teaching of English in Cambridge. His failure to persuade his new colleagues to do something about the split between the teaching of the subject in college tutorials and in faculty lectures clearly disillusioned him. He became the more jaundiced during the so-called structuralist controversy within the faculty and resigned in 1982. Nonetheless, he remained a fellow of King's College, a corner of Cambridge where he did feel happy, becoming an honorary fellow in 1988, and he continued to live in the city.
In 1977, he had taken a year away from Cambridge to be Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry at Harvard University, Massachusetts, and published the lectures that he gave in that post as The Genesis of Secrecy (1979). Like earlier works, this compared biblical with literary texts. It examined the ways in which works of literature take on, in a secular age, the qualities once associated with religious texts: a combination of plainness, or accessibility, and "secrecy", or a sense that they invite ever more interpretation. Kermode was not a religious man, though confessing "a faint absenteeist affection" for the Church of England; much of his criticism, however, finds in literature shadows of religious fulfilment.
In the year that this book was published, Kermode was also involved in the founding of the London Review of Books (LRB) under the editorship of Karl Miller, who had been an encouraging literary editor of several of the journals for which Kermode had written in the previous two decades. The Uses of Error (1991) collected some of his review essays from the 1980s and is a testimony to his skill in this medium. Here are reviews that outlive their occasions, and a reviewer sparked by a book into curiosity and reflection. Writing for the LRB would continue to be a commitment right up to his death.
The title of another collection of essays from his post-Cambridge period, An Appetite for Poetry (1989), reflected a new emphasis in Kermode's thinking about literary criticism and the teaching of literature. He had become surer and surer that literary theory, which he had once invited into the seminar room, was strangling the understanding and love of literature. He had come to think that many university teachers and leading critics of literature, particularly in America, had no "appetite for poetry". Earlier works from the 80s, Forms of Attention (1985) and History and Value (1988), had explored the need for a literary canon – a core of especially valuable works of the imagination to which we can keep returning. Now he believed that theory, frozen into formula, was the addiction of academic critics "who seem largely to have lost interest in literature as such". Thus, a final irony: a man who had been one of the country's leading literary theorists became a scathing critic – sometimes satirist – of literary theory's self-importance.
After his retirement from Cambridge, he continued to lecture widely, especially in the US, and to publish. When his knighthood came in 1991 it was not a retrospective acknowledgement of his status, but a mark of his continuing involvement in the life of letters. In his 70s and 80s his reviewing was unabated, and as pointed as ever, while in 2000 he published one of his bestselling books, Shakespeare's Language, now a staple text for undergraduates and English teachers. One of Kermode's special gifts was his brilliant yet easy conversation, and the last book he published before his death, Concerning EM Forster (2009), captures something of his conversational voice. His fusing of scholarly disinterestedness and live intellectual curiosity was hard and rare. It made him the leading literary critic of his generation.
Kermode had two long-lived marriages. The first was to Maureen Eccles, from 1947 to 1970; she died in 2004. With her he had twins, a son and a daughter, who survive him. His second marriage, to the American academic Anita Van Vactor, ended in divorce. For some time they formed an intellectual partnership, editing The Oxford Book of Letters (1995) together.
• John Frank Kermode, literary scholar, born 29 November 1919; died 17 August 2010