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In Memoriam: John Albert Nist (1925-81)


A Remembrance by Julie Knowles, Auburn University

John Nist, an international man, did not consider the soil of Italy foreign to him, and he might well have chosen it as the spot where "moist earth was heaped upon his private night" — to adapt a line from Love Songs for Marisa, his second volume of poetry. On June 18 he died suddenly of a heart attack, in Naples, while visiting his wife Maria's parents. He was buried in the British Cemetery there.

It is somehow appropriate that he lies not far from the tomb of his admired Vergil, for although Nist will be remembered by Anglo-Saxonists most of all for his scholarly/linguistic contributions, his perceptive and sensitive love of language was always refreshed in his poetry. Since 1966, while a professor of English at Auburn University, Nist was in fact producing some twenty to thirty poems a year for publication. Much of his work was also aired over radio in Illinois and Texas, and from coast to coast he was frequently invited to share his poetry in person. In addition to his Civil War epic "Dulce et Decorum" and numerous single poems, he published several collections of poetry – Among the Pyramids and Other Poems (1977), the 1978 collection titled affectionately for Maria ("Marisa"), and The Garden of Love (1981).

Nist was born in Chicago and received his early education in the Midwest. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he attended De Paul University and then Indiana University, where he received his doctorate in 1952. Before coming to Auburn, he taught at Eastern Michigan University and at Austin College, Texas, where he was Chairman and Shoap Professor of English.

The respect of his colleagues came rapidly, as he was chosen "Man of the Year" in the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters in 1960. He was later awarded a Fulbright Lectureship at the Universidade de Sao Paulo and a research fellowship at the Universidade de Brasil. In 1964 he received the Machado de Assis award from the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Nist was again Fulbright Lecturer in 1970, this time in linguistics and English at the Università di Roma, from where he travelled and lectured widely throughout Italy.

Nist was the author of eight books on linguistics, composition, and literature, among them A Structural History of English, A Linguistic Handbook of English Composition, Phonological Aspects of English, The Modernist Movement in Brazil, and The Structure and Texture of "Beowulf". He also published four monographic essays and scores of articles and reviews.

Nist the Anglo-Saxonist devoted himself mainly to studies in the difficult, controversial areas of Old English alliteration and meter. Convinced of the metrical and aesthetic importance of the harp in Old English recitation, he first set forth his theory in The Structure and Texture of "Beowulf" (1959), further developing it in "Metrical Uses of the Harp in Beowulf" (1967). In Nist's method of scansion, stresses are counted within approximately isochronous measures in each half-line. The effect is a syncopated rhythm, with the harp being used to fill in a pause-value and to compensate for a missing secondary or light stress. The theory confirms the importance of the harp, leaving little doubt of its several functional uses, particularly in maintaining the basic dipodic rhythm of Beowulf.

Even greater, more enduring than John Nist's achievements as a scholar were his abilties to inspire his students, to challenge them to their finest, all with mutual respect and esteem. I was among the last to join his longstanding comitatus, and it is all too early that I join his other students in remembering him now with gratitude and affection.

OEN 15.1 (1981), 21.