John Press

b. 1920 – d. 2007

John Press was not only a great poet but an advocate for the arts, campaigning tirelessly for the creation of a Department of Literature within the British Council to celebrate the long history of British proficiency in writing. He was also an editor for a number of anthologies, striving to do justice to the English poetry he so revered.


John Press remembered – by Harriet Harvey- Wood

The obituaries already published of John Press emphasise, rightly, his career as a poet: rightly, because it was the aspect of his life which mattered most to him, and he was a good poet. Those who were his colleagues in the British Council saw predominantly a different side of him: his work as a cultural diplomat.

It was not the least of his gifts that he had the priceless ability to communicate, as a person and as a writer. It was a gift seen perhaps to its greatest advantage in his critical works, but it was this aspect of his character that made him so valuable to the British Council. He joined in 1946, after war service in the Royal Artillery and after completing his degree at Cambridge, and was sent to lecture first in Athens and, the following year, in Salonika where a British Institute had just been reopened. It was a significant moment in Europe: as the head of the Foreign Office was to write to the head of the British Council, opportunities for direct British political influence in eastern Europe were likely to be limited for the foreseeable future; the indirect long-term influence which could be exercised through the work of the Council would therefore be of the greatest importance.

No one could have been better qualified to provide such influence than John Press, and no one was a better cultural ambassador. When he pointed out in 1968 that there were three countries on whom the solution of the world’s problems primarily depended – the USA, the USSR and China, none of which had a British Council representation – he was making a valid point about the international potential of cultural diplomacy which many of his colleagues had failed to appreciate, and he called for a return to the more traditional work of the Council with regular programmes of literary and artistic activities. The absence in the Council of a proper Literature Department for the effective promotion of the one art in which Britain had excelled for a thousand years was something that grieved him, and it was regrettable, for him and for the Council, that its eventual creation came too late for him to direct its activities.

In all that he did and wrote, one of his most important aims was to promote the fullest possible understanding between the poet and his audience, and it was this objective which inspired the many poetry readings which he organised and, above all, most of his critical writing. This is particularly evident in his early books, for example The Fire and the Fountain (1955) and The Chequered Shade (1958), which combine his acute perception of and sensitivity to poetry and the fruits of his exceptionally wide reading with an accessibility to the intelligent lay reader which too many later critics have sacrificed. As a result, they can still be read today with pleasure and profit, and reasonably-priced paperback editions of them are badly needed.

It was the same objective that shaped his work as an editor of anthologies, a task for which his wide knowledge of the remoter fields of poetry made him particularly suited.  His name will always be associated with his important revision of Palgrave’s classic Golden Treasury of English Verse, to which he added two more books, updating it for the twentieth century.  His own characteristic urbanity and gentleness did not prevent him from recognizing the limitations of Palgrave’s work, and he commented on the inability of Palgrave and Quiller Couch (in the Oxford Book of English Verse) to recognise or admit ‘that certain fundamental qualities of human beings have been depicted by most of the finest English poets. Hatred, obscenity, lust, ferocity, and bitterness are notably absent from these anthologies, although they are abundantly present in life and in the corpus of English poetry.’ He rejected this etiolated view of the role of an editor, as he rejected it in his own work, and regretted that it concealed from the casual anthology reader ‘the tremendous range of thought to which English poets have devoted their whole strength and passion’. The world of poetry is much the poorer for his death, as are his many friends and colleagues.