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In Memoriam: Edward B. Irving, Jr. (1923-1998)


A Remembrance by Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, University of Notre Dame

Edward B. ("Ted") Irving, Jr., Professor Emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania, died of lung cancer on Friday, 6 March 1998, in a Cincinnati hospital. Upon his retirement in 1993 from the Department of English at Penn, Ted and his wife, Judith Moffett, relocated to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he enjoyed his continuing research, along with hiking and gardening. They moved in December 1997 to Cincinnati.

Ted was born in Philadelphia in 1923, and he grew up in the Philadelphia area. He held his B.A. from Haverford College (1943), and after three years' military service in the Marine Corps, he studied at Yale University, where he received his M.A. (1949) and Ph.D. (1951). Ted was Instructor and then Assistant Professor at Yale until 1960, when he moved to the University of Pennsylvania. He spent the greatest part of his teaching and research career at the University of Pennsylvania, but also taught at Bryn Mawr and Haverford, and spent a year (1985-86) at King's College, London.

Over the last forty-five years, the Old English community knew and valued Ted for his meticulous and humane scholarship as well as for the pleasure of his company. In his most recent published essay, Ted looked back over that career to his first scholarly work, editing Exodus, and observed wryly, "I have never lost interest in the maddening process." In that essay, Ted offered an ethical axiom that defined his own approach to literature and scholarship: "My chief guiding principle can be stated in all its elegant banality: it is that the most important thing to bear in mind when studying poetry is poetry, its special nature as an art form." This principle is at work in his edition, The Old English Exodus (Yale University Press, 1953, repr. Archon, 1970), no less than in his agenda-setting book, A Reading of Beowulf (Yale University Press, 1968). His work on Exodus involved him in ongoing questions about editing and sources, and he returned to these issues in a number of essays, including "Latin Prose Sources for Old English Verse" (JEGP 56, 1957), "New Notes on the Old English Exodus" (Anglia 90, 1972), "Exodus Retraced" (in Old English Studies in Honour of John C. Pope, ed. Burlin and Irving [University of Toronto Press, 1974]). A Reading of Beowulf established Ted as one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Old English poetry. In this book, which showed a generation how to read Beowulf, Ted combined a meticulous attention to philology with an engaged, formalist reading of the text. (His popular Introduction to Beowulf [Prentice Hall, 1969] opened the poem to beginning students of Old English.) In subsequent essays he would return to questions about the epic, heroes, and the heroic style raised in A Reading. In his continuing engagement with how Old English poetry was received and understood, Ted rethought his early disregard of oral traditional arguments, and in 1989 wrote Rereading Beowulf (University of Pennsylvania Press), in which he balanced a concern for the poet within the larger frame of an anonymous oral tradition.

After his retirement in 1993, Ted continued an active research agenda. He was a visiting scholar at the University of Utah (1994-97) and made two tapes of readings for the Chaucer Studio, "Selected Readings in Old English: The Dream of the Rood, the Wanderer, Deor, and the Seafarer" and "Favorite Passages from Beowulf." He was a inaugural member of ISAS and attended its conferences regularly. Following his retirement, he became an annual, enthusiastic participant (and paper-giver) at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo. He was also an avid participant on ANSAXNET, and through these venues many in the Old English community came to know Ted in person after coming to know him through his writings.

Ted Irving will be deeply missed as a friend, colleague, teacher, and mentor. He is survived by his second wife, Judy Moffett, and by his three children from his first marriage, Andrew Irving, Edward B. Irving, III, and Alison Hall.

OEN 31.3 (1998): 10.