John Broadbent obituary

English scholar and critic who re-evaluated the work of Milton

As a teacher, John Broadbent, who has died aged 85, brought out the value of group approaches to understanding, imagination and creativity. As a literary critic, he made three substantial contributions.

His first book, Some Graver Subject (1960), re-evaluated the work of John Milton by finding in it those qualities of rhythm, image and poetic sensuousness that had eluded previous critics such as TS Eliot and FR Leavis. He also conveyed something of the grandeur of Milton's imagination as it moved between and among devils and angels.

Poetic Love (1964) consolidated his reputation as an adventurous and sometimes even mischievous reader of poetry. The closeness of his attention to the text was extraordinary, but he also demonstrated a strong belief that poetry was capable of speaking to anyone who listened with the proper attention. In this respect he was very much ahead of his time.

With the Cambridge Milton series of the 1970s, presenting the major works to older schoolchildren and undergraduates, John sought to make the poetry of the past relevant to the present day. He did this through the use of examples, through colloquial language and, above all, through conveying a sense that the preoccupations of the past – theological, social, political and those relating to the achievement of personal maturity – are not so very different from our current ones.

John conceived of teaching as providing and nurturing a space in which to learn. For many years he was associated with the Tavistock Institue in London, where he came to view psychoanalysis as a way of liberating imagination in individuals.

Rather than depending on the traditional lecture and tutorial format, he pioneered the use of the seminar, both towards the end of his time as director of studies at King's College, Cambridge, where I first met him, and from 1969 at the University of East Anglia, where he was professor of English and American Studies. In his collaborative conception of teaching, the teacher had to set students imaginative tasks that would enable them to collaborate with the text.

These ideas came together in his founding of the Development of University English Teaching project (Duet), on which I worked with him. The week-long workshops sponsored by this project from 1980 onwards came to involve several hundred academics and influenced the way in which English is taught in universities. Participants were involved in groups designed to develop their own self-understanding and thus their communicative capacities; they also worked in groups that required all participants to explore their own creativity.

The notion that creative writing is something that can be taught and developed as a craft owes a great deal to these early experiments. That question so frequently asked at literary festivals, "Where do your ideas come from?", would have been answered by John with characteristic crispness and loving asperity: "from within yourselves".

John was born in London to Gwyneth Broadbent and her squadron leader husband, Roland. His mother died of tuberculosis in 1932, and he was brought up by grandparents in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. After attending school in Eastbourne and a period of serious illness, in 1944 he was commissioned into the Royal Marines. Four years later he went to Edinburgh University, and in 1952 he § gained an English degree. After completing his PhD at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, in 1955 he was appointed to a post at King's.

He took early retirement from UEA at the age of 60 in order to do more as an artist. His teacher was Caroline Hoskin: in 1992 they married, and moved into a windmill in Norwich.

Caroline survives him, as do his children – Christopher, Richard, Marcus and Sabrina – from his first marriage, to Faith Fisher, which ended in divorce.

• John Barclay Broadbent, scholar of English literature, born 9 December 1926; died 10 November 2012

Contributor

David Punter

The GuardianTramp

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