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In Memoriam: Robert E. Kaske (1921-89)


A Remembrance by Thomas D. Hill

On August 8, 1989 Robert E. Kaske, Avalon Professor of the Humanities at Cornell University, passed away. Bob's decency, grace, and gentleness were qualities which those of us who knew him personally valued and trusted. No one who went to Bob for help about a scholarly problem never left without obtaining it, and Bob could be a mine of wisdom about those personal problems which are both the bane and staple of academic life. As a medievalist and a scholar, Bob was as close to being a native speaker of the medieval languages as anyone can be, not so much because he knew Old and Middle English and Medieval Latin that much better than other scholars – although he knew them very well indeed – but because he had a kind of native intuition about what a medieval poet might want to say.

Emerson Brown's account of Bob's work in the festschrift volume Magister Regis summarizes the force and cogency of Bob's scholarship well: "From the earliest of his essays to the most recent he deftly joined imagination in literary interpretation with painstaking historical research required to gather supporting evidence. There is nothing new about the desirability of this combination of attributes. Until traditional philological training began to disappear, literary scholars – except the most extreme New Critics – would routinely seek to support their insights with philological rigor. But philological rigor is never easy to achieve and is intermittently out of style. Too often, literary critics are oblivious to the essential first step of literary analysis: determining what the words meant, and all they might have possibly meant at the time the work was created. On the other hand, no amount of philological rigor, no amassing of evidence, can rescue an inherently absurd interpretation. What we yearn for, and so rarely get, is the literary scholar who can see something in a text that we have overlooked and can produce the evidence needed to persuade us that the text could have contained what he sees in it. In that combination of insight and scholarly rigor Robert Kaske was a master."

In Beowulf, after the death of Æschere, Hroðgar speaks of his old friend and comrade:

       Dead is Æschere,

Yrmenlafes    yldra broþor,

min runwita    ond min rædbora,

eaxlgestealla,    ðonne we on orlege

hafelan weredon,    þonne hniton feþan,

eoferas cnysedan.    Swylc scolde eorl wesan,

æþeling ærgod,    swylc Æschere wæs.

Applying the language of the heroic epic to a scholar may seem overdramatic, but scholarly life has its own challenges, and of Bob too we may say: "Swylc scolde eorl wesan ... swylc Robertus wæs."

OEN 23.1 (1989): 14.