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Helen Gardner (critic)

Dame Helen Louise Gardner, DBE, FBA (13 February 1908 – 4 June 1986) was an English literary critic and academic. She was best known for her work on the poets John Donne and T. S. Eliot.

Helen Gardner
Pencil sketch of Dame Helen Gardner
Pencil sketch of Dame Helen Gardner
BornHelen Louise Gardner
(1908-02-13)13 February 1908
Finchley, Middlesex, England, UK
Died4 June 1986(1986-06-04) (aged 78)
Bicester, Oxfordshire, England, UK
EducationNorth London Collegiate School
Alma materSt Hilda's College, Oxford
GenreLiterary criticism
Notable worksThe New Oxford Book of English Verse
Notable awardsOrder of the British Empire

Early life and educationEdit

Helen Louise Gardner was born in Finchley, Middlesex in 1908, the middle child and only daughter of the journalist Charles Gardner and his wife, also named Helen. She was eleven when her father died and the family thereafter made their home with her grandparents. Helen's mother was highly ambitious for her gifted daughter, who demonstrated artistic talent from an early age. Gardner's early education was at the North London Collegiate School. In 1926 she went to St Hilda's College, Oxford, and in 1929 obtained a first-class honours degree in English language and literature: in 1935 she became M.A. (University of Oxford).[citation needed]

Academic careerEdit

Her teaching career began at the University of Birmingham, where she held a temporary post. After three years as an assistant lecturer at Royal Holloway College in London, she returned to Birmingham, as a member of the English department (1934–41). She became a tutor at Oxford in 1941 and was a fellow of St Hilda's College, Oxford from 1942. The University of Cambridge offered Gardner the new chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, but she declined, in part because she had heard that the university's first choice, C.S. Lewis, had changed his mind about refusing the position.[1] In 1966, she became Merton Professor of English literature in the University of Oxford, the first woman to hold this chair. Her specialist areas were T. S. Eliot, the metaphysical poets, Milton and religious poetry, with many essays published on these subjects, as well as on literary criticism itself. She edited The New Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250–1950 (1972) and The Metaphysical Poets. She retired from the chair in 1975.

Her 1949 collection of essays, The Art of T. S. Eliot, is regarded a seminal work on the poet. In particular, she challenged the notion that Eliot was only accessible to those well-versed in his many allusions:

It is better, in reading poetry of this kind, to trouble too little about the 'meaning' than to trouble too much. If there are passages whose meaning seems elusive, where we feel we are 'missing the point,' we should read on, preferably aloud ... We must find the meaning in the reading . ...[2]

She revisited Eliot's work in 1978 with her study of The Composition of Four Quartets, published by Faber and Faber.

Gardner edited an influential and authoritative edition of Donne's poetry in 1952, John Donne: the Divine Poems, in which she revises and corrects many disputed parts of the text (punctuation and word choice variants found in the various manuscripts and editions of Donne's poetry). Those editions include both the 1633 and 1635 editions of his collected works, the earlier editorial work of Herbert Grierson, and the manuscripts on which these works were based. This work was further revised and republished in 1978.

Gardner also compiled The Faber Book of Religious Verse (1972) and The New Oxford Book of English Verse (1972).


Her work met with great acclaim, and she was appointed a CBE in 1962 and a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1967. In 1971 she was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She received honorary degrees from Cambridge, London, Harvard, and Yale universities. She died in Bicester in 1986.[3]

Political and social viewsEdit

Helen Gardner was a lifelong Labour voter and, when she lived in Birmingham, canvassed for Labour in a Conservative area. She was a key witness for the defence in the obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960. The character of E. M. Ashford in Margaret Edson's Wit was reportedly based on Dame Helen Gardner.[citation needed]


Gardner's will bequeathed the royalties from the New Oxford Book of English Verse to the National Portrait Gallery, for the purchase of portraits relating to English literature and portraits from the late 16th and early 17th centuries.[4]

Works by Helen GardnerEdit

  • The Divine Poems of John Donne, edited with Introduction and Commentary, Oxford at the Clarendon Press (1952 et seq)
  • The Metaphysical Poets, Introduced and Edited by Helen Gardner, revised edition, Penguin Books (1957, 1966)
  • The Business of Criticism, Oxford University Press (1959, and reprints)
  • Edwin Muir: the W. D. Thomas Memorial Lecture, University of Wales Press (1961)
  • The Elegies and the Songs and Sonnets of John Donne, edited with Introduction and Commentary, Oxford at the Clarendon Press (1965)
  • A Reading of Paradise Lost: the Alexander Lectures in the University of Toronto 1962, Oxford at the Clarendon Press (1965)
  • King Lear: The John Coffin Memorial Lecture (1966), Athlone Press, University of London (1967)
  • Literary Studies: An Inaugural Lecture - delivered before the University of Oxford on 1 June 1967 by Gardner, Oxford, Clarendon Press (1967)
  • Religion and Literature, Faber and Faber, 1971; ISBN 0-571-09557-7
  • John Donne's holograph of 'A Letter to the Lady Carey and Mrs Essex Riche', Scolar Mansell[who?] in conjunction with The Bodleian Library, Oxford, 1972; ISBN 0-85417-887-2 (includes a facsimile of the manuscript)
  • Poems in the Making: The First Gwilym James Memorial Lecturer, The Camelot Press, for the University of Southampton, 1972 (Standard Book No. 85432-089)
  • In Defence of the Imagination: the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures for 1979–80, Harvard University Press (1982); ISBN 0-674-44542-2


  1. ^ Philip, Zaleski (7 June 2016). The fellowship : the literary lives of the Inklings : J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. Zaleski, Carol (First paperback ed.). New York. ISBN 9780374536251. OCLC 956923535.
  2. ^ The Art of T.S. Eliot (1949) Cresset Press
  3. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter G" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 22 July 2014.
  4. ^ Profile,; accessed 9 February 2015.

External linksEdit