Obituary: Professor Alastair Fowler, expert on Renaissance literature

[The Herald] Obituary: Professor Alastair Fowler, expert on Renaissance literature

Born: August 17, 1930;

Died: October 9 2022.

PROFESSOR Alastair Fowler CBE, FBA, who has died aged 92, was a renowned literary authority on a wide range of subjects, notably Renaissance literature and Edmund Spenser. He edited, to critical acclaim, Spenser’s account of The Faerie Queene – the fantastical epic poem written in archaic English.

Professor Fowler’s teaching, editing and criticism brought him a broad-based international renown. He became a visiting professor at major universities throughout the world. He was Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh from 1972 until 1984.

As his colleague at Edinburgh University, Dr David Salter, said in his eulogy at Prof. Fowler’s funeral: “Alastair was a scholar with a great capacity for friendship. He was tremendous company, he was sociable, he loved good conversation, and relished that which comes with good conversation between friends: the exchange of ideas, the sharing of knowledge, and the back and forth of debate. He had a wonderful gift for friendship.”

Alastair David Shaw Fowler was born in Glasgow, the son of David and Maggie Fowler. He attended Queen’s Park School, in the Battlefield area of the city and then, initially, read medicine at Glasgow University before transferring to Edinburgh University to read English. In 1952 he went south to further read English at Pembroke College, Oxford under C.S. Lewis. It was to prove a most fruitful relationship.

He cultivated a lifelong passion for the authors of the 16th century from Lewis’s detailed knowledge of Edmund Spenser. “In fact,” Prof. Fowler wrote some years later, “Lewis offered something far better than efficient supervision; he opened windows to the expanse of intellectuality.”

The respect that Prof. Fowler gained in academia lead to several academic posts. From 1955-59 he was junior research fellow at Queen's College, Oxford, then taught at Swansea (1959-61), and Brasenose College, Oxford (1962 - 71). He was appointed Regius Professor of Literature at Edinburgh (1972 - 84) and lectured in America at Columbia University (1964) and the University of Virginia (1969, 1979, 1985–98). At the latter he was a Fulbright Scholar.

His perceptive mind and extensive knowledge made him an inspiring teacher. He was always keen to involve students and to discuss and debate points at issue. But his renown was greatly furthered by his extensive publications – all of which came to exert a decisive influence on how scholars, critics and students reassess literature.

The work which brought him particular fame was his edition (with John Carey) of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which was first published in 1966. It has been twice republished and is recognised as the authoritative understanding of the poem. The distinguished critic John Mullen rightly hailed it as "a monument of scholarship."

Prof. Fowler gained even wider fame when, in 1997, the author Martin Amis appeared on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs and chose Paradise Lost as the book he would like to be cast away with. More to the point, he insisted it be the Fowler edition.

A former student of John Carey, Professor Kirsty Gunn, of Dundee University, remembers him talking about Prof. Fowler with great affection and respect. Professor Gunn recalls: “John enjoyed working with him over the Paradise Lost edition and remembered the care Fowler took in selecting just the right word and phrase. John always said Alastair was a generous and grand friend who carefully listened to other opinions. He was a deeply learned man – and excellent company.”

To underline the variety of his interests in 2007 Prof. Fowler published How to Write, which reflected a more relaxed side of his personality and was aimed at those who think they cannot write. He also wrote about numerology, for which he had a long-standing passion.

His writing continued throughout the 1970s and he published books on Shakespeare’s Sonnets and continued to reassess both Spenser and Milton.

In 2005 he became involved in a literary disagreement. He reviewed a book in the Times Literary Supplement (by Stephen Greenblatt) on the life and plays of Shakespeare. Prof. Fowler considered the book inaccurate: in fact, the word he used was ‘sloppy’. The book was a bestseller but the learned furore that broke out was dubbed, “Godzilla [Greenblatt] versus King Kong.”

Prof. Fowler’s scholarship had a considerable impact throughout literary academia. His study and understanding of 16th century authors and poets has greatly furthered the understanding of the era’s writings.

He was an avid reader but relaxed to the works of Conan Doyle (not only Sherlock Homes) and the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and John Le Carré – the latter two had stayed with him in Edinburgh. He was an enthusiastic chess player.

Alastair Fowler received many academic honours and was awarded the CBE in 2014. He married Jenny Simpson in 1950 and they enjoyed 68 years of happy marriage before her death in 2019. Their son and daughter survive him, as do their grandchildren and great-grand-children.

Alasdair Steven

Source: The Herald