Alistair Elliot obituary

Poet and translator whose work was inspired by the classical world

Alistair Elliot, who has died aged 86, was distinguished both as a poet and a translator, combining vast learning with compelling metrical and musical technique and a sharply sympathetic eye for human desire and regret.

Much of his work was informed by the classical world, as well as French and Italian poetry. The long poem On the Appian Way (1984) followed in the footsteps of the Roman poet Horace on the journey from Rome to Brindisi in 37BC.

His verse translation of Euripides’ Medea (1993) was staged in the West End and New York, with Diana Rigg in the title role. He also translated the erotic poems of Paul Verlaine, Femmes/Hombres: Women/Men (1979), as well as Paul Valèry’s Le Jeune Parc (1997). His My Country: Collected Poems, drawing on five collections and new poems, appeared in 1989.

Later work included Facing Things (1997) and The Real Poems (2008), as well as his imaginative restoration of Euripides’ fragmentary play Phaethon (2008). His final collection, Great Games, featuring the brilliant and startlingly erotic Sonnets of Lady X, appeared shortly before his death.

Alistair was born in Liverpool to James Elliot, a Scottish GP, and Gladys Haynes, a nurse. In 1940 he was evacuated with his sisters, Anne and Jean, to the Florida home of the wealthy Merrill family, whose son James became a leading poet.

After the second world war Alistair was educated at Fettes school, Edinburgh, winning a scholarship in classics to Christ Church, Oxford, where his brilliance as a classicist was apparently not matched by any enthusiasm for the Oxford philosophy of the period, and he ended up with a third-class degree.

A contemporary of poets including his lifelong friends Geoffrey Hill and Anthony Thwaite, as well as Jenny Joseph and Alan Brownjohn, he was highly regarded by his peers, though seemingly in no haste to make his mark. His main concern was to write well.

He took jobs of a kind familiar to poets – as an invoice clerk at Covent Garden market, night steriliser in a food factory, waiter, film critic, supply teacher and actor. He also became a librarian, first in Kensington, central London, then at Keele University in Staffordshire, before a spell in Shiraz, Iran (1965-67), and lastly at the Robinson library at Newcastle University, from where he retired in 1982 as head of special collections.

I became friends with Alistair when he joined the Northern Poetry Workshop, whose meetings he attended for the last 20 years of his life. Such was his modesty that it was possible to forget what a distinguished and well-connected figure we had in our midst, which was how he seemed to prefer it. He was a warm, astute, courteous presence, insatiably curious and with a sense of mischief.

His work was richly varied in subject, ranging from a Roman hostess whose luncheon arrangements are interrupted by the invasion of Alaric’s Goths (The Roast Pig – August 24th 410) to the lovelife of the daughter of the composer Dieterich Buxtehude (Buxtehude’s Daughter), or his own experience as an evacuee, in the breathtakingly controlled seascape Florida – January 1941, in which the prospect of Britain starved by the U-boat campaign is mingled with a longing for his ancestral Scottish Highlands.

As befitted a classicist, Alistair’s love poetry could be both tender and unblinking in the face of mortality. In Owning Trees he writes: “The names we gave are falling off. The names / Linnaeus and Anon attached so well / will follow: elm, myrobalan, plum and hawthorn / … / and all the names of Adam – blown away.”

His literary omnivorousness made Alistair excellent company. Eventually he revealed that he was the setter of the weekly quotation competition in the Times Literary Supplement; it was a sad day when access to the internet made the reader’s task too easy and the column was cancelled.

However, the poets attending our monthly lunches all brought sheets of quotations to identify – an innocent pastime for a group of old men with nothing better to do, as it must have seemed to the tolerantly bemused restaurant staff, unaware that Alistair was steadily working on his own excellent late collections of poems.

Shortly before Alistair’s death, when his son Will was pushing him around the park in a wheelchair in County Durham, Alistair said he was living the life of Riley, and that if he had been spared to write another book that would have been its title.

In 2000 he received the Cholmondeley award for poetry.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara (nee Demaine), an Oxford contemporary who later taught at Central Newcastle high school and whom he married in 1956, by their sons, Matt and Will, and four grandchildren.

• Alistair Elliot, poet and translator, born 13 October 1932; died 3 November 2018


Sean O'Brien

The GuardianTramp

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