One of the few literary critics I both respected and always enjoyed reading has died at 90: Frank Kermode, for whom John Mullan wrote a good obituary in The Guardian. A few excerpts:

This was what he did best, and with grace: unravelling the ways in which ideas worked in literature. Some of the poets to whom he was most drawn were, indeed, self-consciously difficult: John Donne, on whom he published a book in 1957; Wallace Stevens, whom he, in effect, introduced to an English readership in a study published in 1960, and whose “lucid, inescapable rhythms” often return in Kermode’s criticism.

While at Reading he also wrote his major work of the 1950s, Romantic Image (1957), which secured his intellectual reputation. It was an account of the continuities between Romanticism and Modernism, with the poetry of Yeats at its heart. With its easy erudition, but not a footnote in sight, this book seems a long way from today’s average academic output. In range it is huge, reaching into European and classical literature, aesthetic philosophy as well as poetry, verse from the Renaissance as well as the 19th and 20th centuries – yet in tone it is modest, provisional (it calls itself an essay). Learning with a certain lightness was his style. […]

He had become surer and surer that literary theory, which he had once invited into the seminar room, was strangling the understanding and love of literature. He had come to think that many university teachers and leading critics of literature, particularly in America, had no “appetite for poetry”. Earlier works from the 80s, Forms of Attention (1985) and History and Value (1988), had explored the need for a literary canon – a core of especially valuable works of the imagination to which we can keep returning. Now he believed that theory, frozen into formula, was the addiction of academic critics “who seem largely to have lost interest in literature as such”. Thus, a final irony: a man who had been one of the country’s leading literary theorists became a scathing critic – sometimes satirist – of literary theory’s self-importance.

Via Helen DeWitt’s paperpools.

Addendum. Like Helen, I had been saying ker-MODE all my life (and that is the only pronunciation given in the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names), but apparently Kermode pronounced his name with stress on the first syllable, so I shall retrain myself.


  1. Alan Macfarlane did a long interview last year with Frank Kermode; it’s on his site here.

  2. j. del col says

    Kermode’s autobiography, –Not Entitled– is a fine book.

  3. The Telegraph’s obituary is good too. Howsoever that may be, what about this: “He had come to think that many university teachers and leading critics of literature, particularly in America, had no “appetite for poetry””? Is this a case, common enough, of Distinguished Professor Eventually Catches Up With Laymen?

  4. Is this a case, common enough, of Distinguished Professor Eventually Catches Up With Laymen?
    I suspect so.

  5. many university teachers and leading critics of literature, particularly in America, had no “appetite for poetry”.
    do you agree?
    and I am not sure I entirely understand: they don’t think poetry is worth attention? they think it is not an important part of literature?

  6. More like “they don’t want to get involved”.

  7. … that many university teachers and leading critics of literature, particularly in America, had no “appetite for poetry”

    “And give up verse, my boy,
    There’s nothing in it.”
             – Ezra Pound, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”

    Frank Kermode, eh? I must say, I respect his Shakespeare’s Language. A name to be weighed among the truly great. But on a lighter note, that surname is cognate with Kermit.

  8. many university teachers and leading critics of literature, particularly in America, had no “appetite for poetry”
    I think Borges was ahead of the professor here (one of my favourite quotations): “Hay personas que sienten escasamente la poesía; generalmente se dedican a enseñarla.”
    I respect his Shakespeare’s Language
    Yes, it’s one of the few books of lit crit I’ll give house room to.
    that surname is cognate with Kermit
    I always think of Kermode as a Manx name for some reason.

  9. At the beginning of his interview, Alan Macfarlane introduces him as “Frank Commode”; he looks pained and corrects the pronunciation.

  10. I wonder why it’s KERmode. It makes me think of English pronunciations like CARdiff or CARlisle versus Scottish such as carLISLE or carLUKE. Something to do with Britonnic/Gaelic versus Anglo/Norse? (As you’ll see, I’m out of my depth here.)

  11. As well as CarLYLE, PenRITH & DumFREES are quite near to the Isle Of Person.

  12. No wait. That proves the opposite, dearie. You’re trying to confuse me.

  13. Perhaps because it sound a little too close to com-MODE. You know the British love their toilet humor.

  14. CARdiff
    is Caerdydd in Welsh with the stress on ae, so English is close to original.

  15. I read English at Cambridge when FK was head of the faculty (Christopher Ricks was waiting in the wings), and everybody pronounced it like “commode” then – so I was certainly suprised at Hat’s addendum.

  16. Well, that’s the usual way of saying the name. But apparently he corrected an interviewer who used it.

  17. Kári Tulinius says

    According to commenter Frances on Manx Forums “Frank Kermode (Eng professor) is on record that his name is only pronounced correctly on the Island – apparently no longer – the old manx prononciation was as kermod (at one time often spelled kermott) ie mod not mode and not like commode.”
    Freggyragh adds: “Kermode sounds nothing like ‘commode’ – it rhymes with Mac Dhiarmaid / MacDiarmid / McDermott – the K is the hard ‘c’ of Mac (son) and in Classical Gaelic form the Dh sound of Mac Dhiarmaid is either not pronounced, or only as a faint ‘y’ sound. The modern spelling is not that old – the older spelling ‘Kermott’ can be seen on many gravestones in Braddan and Marown. It means ‘son of Diarmaid’ who ,it is supposed, was the son of a Scottish king who became a follower of Collum Killey (St Columba) and subsequently a Celtic saint.”
    Frances replies: “I’m not arguing with the derivation nor prononciation (in fact see an earlier post of mine) however the last Kermott was recorded in a burial reg in 1824 and the spelling had been rare (basically used by one or two families or parish clerks) for a century before that, Arbory seemed to be its last ‘resting place’ from 1800 onwards – the spelling Cormode is noted in the wills from at least 1643 (and probably earlier but I havn’t tracked back before then), Kermode seems to take over c. 1700 and becomes dominant by end of 18th C. (a variation Cormoad or Kermoad is seen from 1640 onwards but gives gave to the standardised Kermode by late 18th c. Kermott lingered on as a first name (a variant might well be the name Kermit given to President Roosevelt (and a well known frog)”
    Freggyragh replies: “I think you will find that there are a number of gravestones in Malew and Braddan – not sure of the dates, I thought mid nineteenth century, but I don’t dispute a last burial record in 1824. Cormode is a completely different name – more common in Bride, the Classical Gaelic Spelling is Mac Thormod – son of Thormod. Thormod is a Scandinavian name that is a fairly common given name in the Western Isles, where people known as ‘Norman’ in English often go by Thormod in Gaelic. The surname Mac Thormod is rare in Scotland and the name Thormodson is not (as far as I know) a translation, but of Scandinavian origin. The original Thormod was the legendary progenitor of the MacLeod Clan of Dunvegan and Harris, known in Gaelic as Sìol Tormoid – ‘The Off-Spring of Thormod’. The MacLeod name itself is another of these Gaelic-Norse names, which in Manx is Corlett (add Ma to Corlett and you get something like the Scottish Gaelic pronunciation of Mac Leod). The Lewis Clan MacLeod is known in Gaelic as Sìol Torcaill – ‘The Off-Spring of Torquill’ – Classical Gaelic spelling Mac Thorcaill of course leads to Manx Corkill / Corkhill.”

  18. Thanks, that’s extremely interesting stuff.

  19. The spelling “Caerdydd” is a rationalizing one: the original Welsh name must have been Caerdif or Caerdaf, the fort on the Taf. Voiced spirants tend to be interchangeable in Welsh, and the town has been English-speaking (or Norman-speaking) throughout its existence. In English, of course, the final /f/ in both Caerdif and Taf is realized as [f], since the separation of /f/ and /v/ into separate English phonemes postdates the town’s founding.

  20. I’m fairly sure I first heard his name, pronounced right, on the BBC. They may not have been following their own advice.

  21. Denise Watson says

    Many people of Manx origin live in Liverpool, where I grew up. We always understood that surnames beginning with “K” with “Q” or with “C” were likely to be Manx.
    Anyway, I can assure all those concerned about the pronunciation of Frank’s name, that it is KERmode (stressed first syllable) He was my brother-in-law for over 20 years so I can be pretty positive about this!

  22. Thanks very much for that firsthand report, Denise!

  23. David Marjanović says

    The spelling “Caerdydd” is a rationalizing one […]

    See also: Bishkek, a desperate attempt to make sense of the Tajik name Pishpek.

  24. Yes, we did Bishkek back in 2004.

  25. William Kermott says

    I found this thread very interesting and the information given by Kári Tulinius from Manx forums is precisely what we have always been told about our Kermott surname. Our ancestor migrated to Canada from the Isle of Man circa 1815 and yes we do pronounce our name with the emphasis on the first syllable.

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