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Thwaite, Anthony

Anthony Thwaite

Elected: 1978

Year of birth: 1930

Year of death: 2021

Author of Obituary: Alan Brownjohn

Obituary :

My friend Anthony Thwaite, who died in April at the age of 90, was not only a writer of immense talent and energy; he also fulfilled very impressively the role of a modern public poet from the moment he adopted that vocation as an Oxford undergraduate in the mid 1950s. After some very active and creative student years – many poems drafted and revised through long nights in cold college rooms – it seemed no time at all before a highly promising first book, Home Truths (1957), came out from the Marvell Press, the prestigious little publishers who had recognised Larkin as the best new poet of the time.

The reputation enjoyed by outstanding senior poets (and newer ones like Larkin) was undoubtedly one of Anthony’s main incentives for wanting to be a well-known writer. Aiming at fame (if not really fortune) as a poet greatly appealed to him. At Oxford, also, there was the influence represented by the large number of aspiring poets among his fel-low students. It was generally a good time to be – he relished the comic use of this term – a ‘junior bard’.

Among the eminent seniors Anthony most admired were Robert Graves, W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, all of whom respected craft and intelligence; none of them, you will note, being experimentalists in the style of a T.S. Eliot or an Ezra Pound, or even in the manner of an exuberant original like Dylan Thomas, whom one critic saw as ‘treating words as if he were present at their creation’. Anthony had no use for that kind of verbal liberty, looking instead to more traditional figures, thus proving himself exactly right for welcoming the arrival of Philip Larkin, with whom he made a valuable friendship. A great deal is owed to Anthony for later overseeing posthumous editions of Larkin’s poems and letters.

Important at that time (though this has of course continued), poetry was starting to be not just a question of writing it as well as possible but also of being able and willing to perform other literary tasks that went with the art: travelling, home and abroad, to give readings of your work to any audience inviting you; earning a living with a good number of paid literary assignations (reviewing, editing, broad-casting); engaging in academic teaching; becoming a ‘writer in residence’; providing tutorial instruction in creative writing. All of these things Anthony accomplished, doing them extremely well, partly because he had the stamina and could suffer fools indefinitely (though he would have denied that) but mainly because he was bright and adaptable and possessed an irreducible faith in poetry as a human activity in a world growing short of such assets. His patience, warmth and generosity helped: he was one of those rare people whom you were happy to see arriving in any company.

In a British Council pamphlet published in 1989 he characterised the processes that go into the making of poetry as essentially mysterious but, for him, summed up as ‘both a commemoration (a moment captured) and an excavation (the archaeologist manqué side of me digging into something buried and bringing it to light)’. There was plenty in the above lengthy list of journalistic activities to divert or distract freelancers who were trying to live by poetry; not a few of Anthony’s contemporaries were tempted in that way. But he himself managed to stay on course and lead a steady, productive literary existence. The best example of this: travelling to teach, in a great variety of foreign places – like Japan and Libya, from each of which he derived books – worked well for him.

He was excellent at combining the transmission of knowledge and appreciation with the absorption of impressions, and impressions useful for his writing. His thoroughness and devotion in this purpose deserve proper tribute. You have to feel that as well as bringing into being a remarkable body of poems he managed to achieve almost everything required to live a desirable creative existence: a secure and happy family life, married to another RSL Fellow, Ann Thwaite, occupying posts in higher education so as to keep everyone alive, travelling for purposeful work or well-deserved pleasure, producing a range of poems he assembled in excellent collections.

And remaining solvent.

More of our Fellows

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John Spurling

Kathryn Hughes

Diran Adebayo

Fellowship Election Process​

Fellows are nominated by peers and elected by our Council of writers – our governing Board. Being elected a Fellow of the RSL is a lifetime honour. This role gives them the opportunity to support other writers, readers and the future of literature. The RSL connects writers in the Fellowship to one another, and to a wider readership.