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In Memoriam: Thomas P. Roche
by Roger Kuin, Anne Lake Prescott, Andrew Hadfield

Jump to: Roger Kuin, Anne Lake Prescott, Andrew Hadfield


A beautiful man: Adieu to Tom Roche

Roger Kuin

When I opened my e-mail on May 3rd, the first one to appear was Bo Smith’s ‘On His Way’, telling us that Tom had gone. It had not been unexpected, but he had held on for a long time, with Bo’s tireless and unstinting help. Now, as Bo said he’d told Tom in the last few days, ‘You can go and ask Spenser and Sidney all those questions you’ve been wanting to ask them’.

As I said to Bo in my reply, Tom was not only a likeable but a lovable colleague. I knew him, of course, mainly from the annual Spenser-Sidney meetings in Kalamazoo, which were (and are) noted for their informal contact between older and younger scholars. And always there was something special about Tom. In the first place, he was usually the best-dressed of those of the male persuasion: his immaculate blue blazer, grey or white flannels and the impeccable straw hat made him stand out in a sea of tweeds, sweaters and jeans.

As he was immaculate, so he was precise. Even in the late-night sessions in Elizabeth Boyle’s residence room, if you asked Tom a question, you would get a thoughtful and precise answer, couched in well-rounded English. Others will discuss with far greater depth of learning his Spenserian scholarship; but apart from his wonderful (if controversial) book on Renaissance sonnets, my four favourite memories of Tom are informal and, in two cases, Kalamazonian.

The first is technically academic, but very human. At the great international Yale Spenser conference, there was one panel of, as they called it, the Old Geezers: Harry Berger, Bert Hamilton and Tom Roche. Amongst other things, they discussed how Spenser might have completed The Faerie Queene; but what struck me most was the complete freedom and the deep and civilised joy of those three, with Tom absolutely glowing.

Now for Kalamazoo. One year, in our out-of-session get-togethers, we were plagued by a vast and shambling bearded fellow who had attached himself to our company and lectured everybody over many drinks about his theories of literature, which revolved entirely around Blood and Sperm.  And for some reason, he had singled out Tom as the ideal recipient of his bucolic wisdom. The result was, for me, an unforgettable visual image: Tom, blazered and flanneled to the nines and flushing pinkly with alarm and powerless rage, backing into a corner and looming over him a brown and khaki bearded gorilla, roaring drunkenly about Blood and Sperm and poking a meaty and hairy forefinger into Tom’s nervous chest. (Apparently the scene repeated itself the next day at Kalamazoo Airport in the Departures lounge…)

My other beloved memory of Tom honours him as the consummate story-teller he could be. It concerns the day when over a martini, he told us about his first visit to Rome. He had gone to St Peter’s and, as a devout Catholic, looked forward to going to Mass there after going to confession. So he found a confessional labeled ‘English’, entered, kneeled down, and said the proper penitential words. There was a long silence. Then (in Tom’s words) a greasy peasant voice said, in a thick Calabrian accent, ‘Leetle girl?’ Tom, mimicking to us his outrage at such a suggestion, said ‘Certainly not!’ Another long silence, then, ‘Leetle boy?’ ‘Certainly not!!!’ said Tom, even angrier than before. Final long silence, and the voice said, ‘Then, you are absolved.’ I shall never forget the reminiscent fury on Tom’s face as he told us his feelings on leaving St Peter’s.

My last memory of Tom is of a little dinner for a few of us with him and Bo in a downtown Manhattan restaurant. He was already well into Alzheimer’s by this time, and he was disturbed by the ambient noise of music and loud talk. But what touched all of us that evening was the tenderness between him and Bo, that extraordinary man who made the last decades of Tom’s life happy and fulfilled, and who managed to continue to teach with him, in lecture rooms, nearly to the end.

I cried when I got Bo’s e-mail. But Tom made a good end, and he will have been properly welcomed, I am sure, in the Heaven that was always his final destination. Where he may even now be asking Spenser about Book Twelve.


On Thomas P. Roche

Anne Lake Prescott

This is a very personal tribute to the much-admired Tom Roche by one whose life he changed—and for the better. Much better, indeed the sort of ‘better’ that would make me tempted to sacrifice a ewe at least to the Muses in his name—could he approve of such a pagan gesture. For years Tom taught at Princeton, but I knew him first at Kalamazoo and then, in what was for me a life-changing experience, through our joint editorship of Spenser Studies. Tom had been known to me by reputation, of course, for nobody could study Spenser in those days without reading, or at least vowing to read, his intelligent and well-put Kindly Flame (1964). I had first visited K’zoo, as some of us called and even spelled it, when a young Medievalist colleague at Barnard invited me to give a talk, one that has long since fled my brain and files. It was a pleasure to become at least marginally familiar with the Zoo, as the conference is also called, but there was one group that scared me: Spenserians. As everyone knows, some images in one’s life stand out like colour in a black-and-white newsletter: one of my most vividly coloured images is that of a group of Spenser scholars standing in a lunch line in the dining room, laughing and chatting together as the line inched forward. They looked so smart, so knowledgeable, so scary. Somehow I was invited to give a talk and was at least on the outside of that scary group. I even met Professor Thomas P. Roche! And then, several years later, he asked me to join him in editing Spenser Studies. I was stunned, and I can still remember the room in one of the Kalamazoo buildings where we were standing, how we were standing and how the room reeled around me. Prof. T.P. Roche! Asking me to help him edit! More stars in my inner sky were born that day.

Tom was instructive to work with. On occasion he had some stern rebukes to give me, probably not undeserved. He was tolerant of disagreement, however, open to varied approaches to Spenser and sharp with wit. Not cruel, not fast on the trigger of blame, not given to overt blasts of contempt or editorial disdain (whatever he thought or whispered to me) and yet firm. He was often as gentle as Una’s lamb and yet could correct with a lance-like pencil. A lamb, but also a tiger.

I knew that tiger, being at times scared even of its usually muted roars when he thought I needed just a little frightening back to good editorial judgment, and he never lost my deep gratitude to him for leading me deeper into the early Spenserian pastoral fold, the lovely heart’s world of the Amoretti and Epithalamion, and the complexities of The Faerie Queene and later poems. Not all the articles we published were on Spenser, but most were, and I think that Tom added sophistication, appreciation and learning to studies of that poet. What he would make of the current fashion for eco-poetry, I have no idea, but he would handle essays on it well, if after a bit of swallowing hard. And he would welcome, I think, the rise of interest in same-sex affection that has, of course, influenced Spenser studies. Animals in Spenser’s work have received more attention, as well they should. All students of that poet know his lions, of course. But what of tigers?

Tigers? When Princeton University gave Tom a fine send-off we were treated to a partial production of Shakespeare’s Winters Tale. The cast was dressed, observing appropriate class-distinctions, in Princetonian black and orange. At one point came the scene so many of us love when a shepherd is chased off stage by a … no, not ‘exit pursued by a bear’ but ‘exit pursued by a tiger.’ Yes, a Princeton tiger. The audience exploded. I have taught that play a number of times, but cannot any longer read that famous stage direction without thinking of my dear Tom. Not in orange and black, but in rainbow variety and loved by many, not least his dear Bo. May he find rest and joy.


On Returning to The Kindly Flame

Andrew Hadfield

In the wake of Tom’s death, and by way of fond remembrance, I returned to The Kindly Flame. I noted, with a slight frisson of horror, that the book is almost the same age as I am. Although I recommend it routinely to students, I haven’t read it for a few years.

Two things struck me immediately: that it is a book from another era and that it has aged rather well. Tom writes with grace and elegance, always taking the reader seriously and never trying to demonstrate his own erudite superiority. The premises and conclusions are simply and clearly stated and, if one wanted, it would be easy to disagree with the author’s assumptions and train of thought. As I read on I found myself surprised at how seldom I wished to challenge a book that wore its learning lightly (there are enough footnotes but never a deluge) and always sought to explicate the poem: very much in line with the best literary critical books of its era, before New Historicism, theory, the internet and its ability to make resources and archives readily available.

The Kindly Flame – if ever there was an appropriate title for a book, this is surely it – is designed to demonstrate that Books 3 and 4 of The Faerie Queene possess a unity that has not been recognised often enough. Professor Roche’s targets – who are never mentioned by name and are treated with respect – are those that he argues have cast the poem as a mono-relational allegory, a poem of one-to-one equivalents. That is why, he suggests, Books 3 and 4 are not taken seriously enough, as the vibrant relationship between narrative, character, allegory and analogy has become obscured by rather leaden-footed reading. The introduction is indeed a lively balance of different types of writing, gathered together to demonstrate the ways in which Spenser works. There are literary comparisons, principally to novels – The Scarlet Letter, Finnigan’s Wake, The Golden Bowl – as well as familiar Shakespeare. There is a series of scholarly references to Alciato’s emblems, designed to show how particular tableau work. Most significantly, Professor Roche gently reminds the reader that Spenser read Ariosto, possibly through Harington, and that is how the structural balance of a poem that initially depends on a Protestant religious allegory, works as it develops its modes and styles of argument.

Most, if not all, of this argument will seem familiar to readers now, but it is only so because of critics like Tom who opened out our understanding of the poem to its varieties and large and small changes. The book itself outlines the structural principles of the central books, a series of balances based on figures who represented divergent principles and virtues: Belphoebe and Amoret, Florimell and Marinell, and, worth a chapter on her own, Britomart. Professor Roche is, of course, far too sophisticated and subtle a critic to see such literary personae as characters like those in a novel, but he follows C. S. Lewis in taking the surface narrative seriously as the best way of understanding Spenser and that means we have to follow the adventures of the protagonists and see how they represent the virtues that inspired their creation.

The Kindly Flame is a generous, well-mannered work, one that always places the reader first as it aims to help, not challenge or confront. At times we surely desire other books as we grapple with Spenser, but there should always be a place for Professor Roche’s work and I feel slightly aghast that I waited too long before taking it off my shelves again.

Here is a characteristic passage, one of my favourite sections. It concludes the chapter on Britomart, and demonstrates how serious the author took the poem and how careful he was never to assume that he, as a critic, could extract its secret meanings:

Out of the distraught passions of Britomart and Arthegall, out of the discord prompted by Ate comes the concord of love. Out of the knowledge gained by overcoming Gardante and Busyrane Britomart’s radiant chastity is prepared for the transmutation that her confrontation with Arthegall represents. Her quest has been accomplished, and in its accomplishment Spenser has revealed as much of his image of chastity as he saw fit. I stated at the beginning of this chapter that the adventures of Britomart define Spenser’s conception of chastity, and so they do. Having experienced the powerful narrative and symbolism of these episodes, we cannot return to the simple equation that Britomart is chastity without realizing that our conception of chastity has been refined and deepened. We will not be able to write out a precise definition, nor should we want to. The definition of chastity is inextricably bound up with Britomart and her adventures. She does not ride through the poem with a signboard labelled “Chastity” around her neck, and the reader who saddles her with such a burden will find that he is almost invariably restricting the meaning of the adventures and of the conception that Spenser is trying to present. We may say that Britomart presents chastity as we meet it in our ordinary experience, but this will not exhaust the possibilities inherent in his conception (p.95).

There are other passages that could have been cited, of course, but this reminds us of Tom’s generous urbanity and desire to connect The Faerie Queene to everyday life.



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Cite as:

Roger Kuin, Anne Lake Prescott, Andrew Hadfield, "In Memoriam: Thomas P. Roche," Spenser Review 50.2.5 (Spring-Summer 2020). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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