Tributes to David Powell

In Memoriam
David Powell, 1925-2012
November 12, 2012

Dear Friends of David Powell,

It is with great sadness that I write to tell you that David passed away. He died of bronchial pneumonia and quietly slipped away on the morning of Thursday 20th September, the fifth day of his stay in the Northampton General Hospital.

After a private service at the crematorium on Thursday 4th October, the family joined friends at Kingsthorpe Baptist church for a Thanksgiving service and afternoon tea.

David was born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire in 1925 where his father was a Baptist minister, but his schooldays were spent in Scunthorpe and Southampton. After service in the Royal Navy he graduated in English Literature at the Southampton University, followed by a degree in Librarianship at the University of London. After spending many years at Northampton Public Library he transferred to Nene College (now the University of Northampton) and retired in 1985.

Yours truly, Sylvia Powell


A Tribute to David Powell

David Powell has been one of the most significant 20th-century scholars to proclaim the genius of John Clare, and it was very appropriate that he was in charge of the Clare manuscripts in the Northampton Central Library.  He wrote his thesis for his B.A. on Clare and published an anthology of Clare’s poems, especially assembled for children.  That book is still the best book published on Clare specifically directed to the young.

          He and I worked together for many years and David always was reliable, and – as a librarian should be – excellent at finding obscure details of Clare’s background.  What Margaret Grainger did for the Helpston Clare, David did for the Northampton Clare.  They were both great champions of the poet because they both drew upon their own roots for sustenance.  David and I worked together in some of the great British and American collections of Clare’s papers – at the British Library, at Oxford and Cambridge, at Harvard and Yale, at the University of Texas, and, of course, at Northampton and Peterborough in England.

          He enjoyed his visits to North America and soon made his way around New York and Philadelphia as if he were a commercial traveler.  I think of him as a loyal friend in a great undertaking.  He is irreplaceable.  I must also add that he was the most loyal fan of the Northamptonshire Cricket Club – and so a man of good taste!  He was an inveterate walker – in that role as well, Clare would have appreciated him

Eric Robinson
1 October 2012
(Read as David’s funeral on the 4th October 2012)


In Tribute and Memory
David Powell as I Knew Him
By Eric Robinson

I can scarcely believe that David Powell has died. We spent a half-century together editing the nine volumes of the Oxford English Text "Clare" poems (with the help of Margaret Grainger, Geoffrey Summerfield and Paul Dawson, and supported in our work by several other lovers of Clare's poetry). Here are just a few of my memories of this Northamptonshire librarian who spent the whole of his working life in that employment.

There are some similarities between David Powell and John Clare. Both were rather short men but very wiry, and great walkers. Both spent the best part of their lives in one English county: they were both Northamptonshire men, but from different ends of the county. Both were church-goers, though David was more consistent

in his Sunday observance. Powell and Clare were both great readers, specializing to some extent in the writers from the Midland Counties. Both were determined men who persisted in their literary labors all their lives. David, however, was not a dialect speaker like Clare and did not, so far as I know, ever work as an agricultural laborer. He certainly did not care for gardening though he did some at the request of his first wife. It was, however, his good fortune to be responsible for tending the Clare Collection at the Northampton Central Public Library.

His first literary essay was about Clare and also constituted part of his degree in library science. It was natua1 for him to compose and publish a record of Clare's personal library. He was, as you might expect, a perfectionist in his literary references and an expert in his annotations. He was the most persistent member of the editorial team for the O.E.T. Clare and a regular correspondent on Clare minutiae. Though he was always consistent in his views, he was usually open to persuasion on difficult points if one presented a reasonable case to him. In short, he was invaluable. He was well known to the Tibbles, and to other Clare celebrants living near Northampton, but Helpston was a foreign country to him for many years.

Strangely enough, he enjoyed large cities both in the USA and in England. He regularly frequented the British Library when it was part of the British Museum in London (and later when it was transferred to Euston), and also the Gollingwood newspaper section of the British Museum. When I emigrated to the USA and began to work on Clare collections at Harvard, Yale, the University of Texas at Austin and in Philadelphia, David joined me on a few occasions. Rather to my surprise, he quickly adjusted to the urban scene: we walked a considerable distance from our hotel to the New York Public Library, working in both the Pforzheimer and Berg Collections. David loved the buzz and energy of the New York streets and acclimatized himself to them faster than I ever did. He also visited me in Washington, DC & enjoyed the "touristy" activities as well as working at the Library of Congress and the Folger Library.

Thus, this denizen of Northampston became an admirer of big-city living, at least for limited visits.

Though Clare knew a great deal about the sports and games of his neighborhood, he was not a great participant in football or cricket. David's enthusiasm for sports had more focus. He was a strong supporter of Northampton City soccer and the Northamptonshire Cricket Club. In fact, there were times in the summer when I came over to England to work with him, that cricket took precedence over Clare, much to my annoyance. But I remember David walking from Northampton to Peterborough to raise money for the John Clare Society. That walk was not so long as Clare's famous walk from the New Forest to Helpston, but David would have been quite capable of doing that trek as well.

Although David and I seldom exchanged views on religious matters (and I never went to church with him), I sense that both Powell and Clare were religious men. David was the more conventional in his views, but I have little doubt that David's faith was a shaping force in his life. David told the truth and kept his word. He will long be remembered.

Eric Robinson is a scholar and editor of John Clare's work. Until his retirement, he taught at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

From “The John Clare Society of North America” Newsletter (Volume Fourteen, February 2013)


From the Introduction to "The Wood is Sweet"

           In the following pages children — of all ages — can come into the kingdom of the child-like Clare, and even when he speaks of the ways of nature and the inhabitants of the countryside beyond our immediate acquaintance with them we may feel at home. For him beauty certainly was truth, and there was plenty for his watchful, grateful poetic self to receive. It is with particular regard that I view Mr Powell's selection of the poems. He is one who has already done faithful service in another way for Clare, and for those who 'sue to know Clare better', he has indeed, through his access to many manuscripts and books and relics of the poet, been living in his spiritual company for years past. The sensitive quality in the choice of poems will be quickly acknowledged by all who look into the book, town dwellers equally with those who may still notice Clare's birds, flowers, trees, weathers and village children at their threshold or near it.

Edmund Blunden
(Bodley Head 1966)


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