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In Memoriam: John Collins Pope (1904-1997)


A Remembrance by Fred C. Robinson, Yale University

John Collins Pope, the leading Old English scholar of his generation and Lampson Professor Emeritus of English at Yale University, died suddenly in his apartment in New Haven on the morning of April 18, 1997. He had retired in spring of 1971 but continued to work steadily, publishing some twenty articles, notes, and reviews after he stopped teaching. Just a few days before his death he completed an essay assessing the career and achievements of Eduard Sievers. This study consisting of 47 typescript pages will be published in early 1998 in Medieval Scholarship: Biographical Studies in the Formation of the Discipline, vol. 2: Literature and Philology, edited by Helen Damico (Garland).

The Popes were originally New Englanders from Maine who moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where John Pope was born December 4, 1904. In 1918 he went to Watertown, Connecticut, to complete the last two years of his preparatory education at the Taft School. In 1920 he entered Yale College, where he took his B.A. in English in 1925, and went on to the Graduate School at Yale for the Ph.D. (1931), was hired by Yale and taught there continuously until his retirement. About the time he completed the doctorate he married Jean Monteith Warner, with whom he had two daughters, Mary Polly (Hirsch) and Penelope W. (Doxzon), and a son, Henry Francis.

John Pope's dissertation, directed by Robert J. Menner, was on "The Manuscripts of Ælfric's Catholic Homilies." Before he could revise it for publication, several of his most important conclusions were anticipated in articles by Kenneth Sisam. Pope subsequently contracted with the Early English Text Society to produce a two-volume edition of homilies by Ælfric, an edition which drew on his dissertation work. When The Homilies of Ælfric: A Supplementary Collection, EETS o.s. 259-60 appeared in 1967 and 1968, it set a new standard for the editing of Old English prose. Containing twenty-two full homilies and seven shorter pieces, most not previously published, the collection is edited from all extant manuscripts with textual apparatus, quotation of all discernible sources, notes, introduction, and indexed glossary. Each component of the edition is executed with the painstaking care that characterized everything that John Pope did. The introduction also displays the graceful, lucid prose style in which all his scholarly work is presented.

Before his great edition appeared, Pope published another book in which his scholarly precision and imagination are combined with his musical interests. (He studied piano from an early age through his years at the Taft School and loved music throughout his life.) The Rhythm of Beowulf (Yale University Press, 1942, rev. ed. 1966) seeks to explain how Old English poetry was actually performed before Anglo-Saxon audiences. It is not just another theory of scansion. (Indeed, he accepted by and large the five-type scansion explained by Sievers.) He wanted to determine what the poetry sounded like when the scop performed it. Convinced that if the verses were to sound harmonious at all, they must be isochronous, Pope achieved isochrony by supplying a musical rest before the verses beginning with unimportant syllables (some type A3, B, and C verses mainly), and he surmised that in performance the harp (or lyre) was used to mark the rest. The result is that the variously shaped syllabic patterns described by Sievers are evened out to a basic rhythmic pattern consisting of two measures of 4/8 time for normal half-lines and two measures of 4/4 time for hypermetric lines. Anyone who ever heard Pope read Old English verse aloud according to this system cannot fail to have admired the beauty of the performance and the sensitive adjustment of sound to sense which the system entails. Pope based his theory to a large extend on Sidney Lanier's The Science of English Verse (1880), William Thomson's The Rhythm of Speech (1923), and Andreas Heusler's Deutsche Versgeschichte, vol. 1 (1925), and he assumed that those evaluating his book would read those works before judging his own theory. Some of the scholars who rejected his theory did so, he suspected, because they had not first familiarized themselves with these foundational works that underlay his study.

For a wonderfully clear, brief exposition both of Sievers' five types and of Pope's own system, one may turn to pages 97-138 of Pope's textbook edition of Seven Old English Poems, first published in 1966 and reissued in a revised edition in 1981 (Norton). In preparing this exposition, he drew on a mimeographed pamphlet (108 pages) by him still available in Sterling Memorial Library at Yale entitled Old English Versification, with Particular Reference to the Normal Verses of Beowulf. It was prepared in 1957 and circulated among his students. The other parts of Seven Old English Poems are also based on years of teaching the poems to graduate students, and the texts, notes, and introductions are graced throughout by the thoughtfulness and sensitivity which he brought to all his readings of Old English texts.

In 1968 Pope was elected Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, and in 1972 he was made a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America. In the same year the Yale Graduate School Association awarded him with the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal in recognition of his scholarly accomplishments.

John Pope's versatility was revealed by his numerous avocations, all of which he pursued (at different periods of his life) with the same care and skill which he devoted to scholarship. He played excellent tennis, golf, chess, and bridge, and he was gifted at woodworking. He was a gracious and meticulous host of dinner parties, and when there was a special occasion, he could mark it with cleverly executed verse. A volume of Occasional Verses by him was published in 1965.

OEN 30.3 (1997): 8-9.