Ronald George Blythe (1922-2023)

Ronald Blythe

Areas of Interest


Honorary Award

Honorary Doctor of Letters, 2001


Ronald Blythe lived all his life in East Anglia. He was educated at St Peter's and St Gregory's school in Sudbury and later became a reference librarian in Colchester for ten years, where he founded the Colchester Literary Society. As a young poet and writer, he worked for Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival, also editing a book for him. He later became Editor of Penguin Classics and of the New Wessex Edition of the Works of Thomas Hardy.

As one of the country's leading rural observers and writers, Ronald Blythe wrote poetry, short stories, novels, history, literary criticism and was a noted essayist. His work has been translated and filmed, and has received a number of literary awards. He is a Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, and the President of the John Clare Society.

In 2001 Ronald George Blythe was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.


"Vice Chancellor, the Senate of Anglia Polytechnic University has great pleasure in conferring on Ronald Blythe the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters for his services to the arts and literature with particular reference to the life of rural East Anglia and his liberal meditations on Christian liturgy.

Anglia Polytechnic University is a university rooted in, and proud of its regional role and mission in East Anglia. As such, it is important that today, we do honour to one who has, more than most, captured, through literary and artistic outpourings, the spirit of rural East Anglia, and especially his beloved Suffolk. Ronald Blythe was born in 1922 at Acton, Suffolk and went to school in Sudbury. He was the reference librarian at Colchester Public Library during his twenties. It was whilst working there that he read extensively and began to enter the literary world, writing essays, poetry and short stories, and where he founded the Colchester Literary Society. He says that his real education owed a great deal to his friendship with a number of artists then working in Suffolk and North Essex, particularly John Nash and Cedric Morris. It was John Nash's wife, the artist Christine Kühlenthal, who persuaded him to become a full-time writer in 1955 and who found him somewhere to live at Thorpeness on the Suffolk coast. It was there that he met Benjamin Britten for whom he edited Aldeburgh Anthology, a history of the Festival, and for whom he did many literary tasks. Botanists joined his circle of influences, and the combination of botany, art, literature and music proved to be potent factors in the emergence of Ronald Blythe as a social commentator (what we might now call "interdisciplinarity"). To this was later added a final critical element - liturgy and worship, culminating in his being appointed a Reader of the Church of England in 1990.

During the following years he became a publisher's reader and a reviewer for The Sunday Times, the Observer, the New Statesman, the New York Times, the Listener, etc. In 1966 he was appointed one of the first editors for the new Penguin English Library and wrote the introductions and notes for Jane Austen's Emma, William Hazlitt's Selected Writings, Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd and Henry James's The Awkward Age. Viking Penguin also published his Writing in a War and Private Words, which were anthologies of World War Two literature. He is an Associate Editor of the New Wessex Edition of the Works of Thomas Hardy (1978), and editor of The Penguin Book of Diaries (1990). Two volumes of his collected essays have been published, From the Headlands and Going to Meet George.

Parallel with these came Ronald Blythe's own books, starting with a novel "A Treasonable Growth" (1960), short stories "Immediate Possession" (1961) and the "Age of Illusion" (1963), but it is probably true to say that the book which brought greatest early acclaim was "Akenfield" (1969), a masterly analytical portrayal of an East Anglian village, through the mouths of some 25 real people. As a reflection of changing patterns of East Anglian life, this was seminal, and a sort of Saxon equivalent of the contemporary writings of the Welsh preacher poet, R. S. Thomas. Later works reinforced the social observation with whimsical Christian meditations on the nature of life, liturgy, the church, and the church's characters, in "Word from Wormingford" (1997); "Out of the Valley" (1999) and the "Circling Year" (2001) all based on his position as Reader in the church at Wormingford. In these, he captures the essence of the countryside, and its seasonal rhythms, with shrewd and quiet wit, sober reflection and keen observation. In "Divine Landscape" (1986), which he describes as a "spiritual travel book", he resanctifies the landscape through a series of walks in Britain's sacred places covering, for instance, Lindisfarne, the Pilgrim's Progress, and John Wesley's hymn pilgrimage around Cornwall.

These books and his three films for the BBC are all works of great perception and humanity which bring peace to the soul and new perspectives on people and their purpose in life. His contribution to East Anglian literary development is also manifested in membership of the Eastern Arts Literature Panel, and University of East Anglia's Committee for East Anglian Studies.

In the light of the above, Ronald Blythe has justly attracted honours and recognition, including the Presidency of the John Clare Society, the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature, The Society of Authors' Travel Scholarship, the Angel Prize for Literature, the honour of presenting an Inaugural Nobel Lecture at Gothenburg in 1978, being a Booker Prize judge, an honorary Master of Arts of the University of East Anglia, and only recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lambeth M.Litt. He cannot see himself ever retiring, which is good news for East Anglia.

Therefore, Vice Chancellor, it gives me pleasure to ask you to confer on Ronald Blythe, the Honorary degree of Doctor of Letters for his services to East Anglian life and understanding, as a poet, novelist, writer and literary critic."