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Helen Gardner

Professor Dame Helen Louise Gardner DBE (13 February 1908 - 4 June 1986) was an English literary critic and academic, whose work mainly concerned the poets T. S. Eliot and John Donne.

Early Life and Education

She was born on 1908 in Finchley in North London, the middle child and only daughter of the journalist Charles Gardner and his wife, also called Helen. Helen was eleven when her father died and the family thereafter made their home with her grandparents. Mrs Gardner, a very musical woman, was highly ambitious for her gifted daughter, who demonstrated artistic talent from a young age. Helen'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 honors degree in English language and literature. She died in Bicester in 1986.

Academic career

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. 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 the subjects, as well as on literary criticism itself. She edited The New Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1950 and The Metaphysical Poets.

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

Gardner also compiled The Faber Book of Religious Verse (1972) and The New Oxford Book of English Verse (1973).

Her work led to great acclaim, being awarded the CBE in 1962 and a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1967, and receiving honorary degrees from Cambridge, London, Harvard, and Yale universities.


  • The character of E.M. Ashford in Margaret Edson's Wit is based on Helen Gardner.
  • She was a lifelong Labour-voter and, when she lived in Birmingham, canvassed for Labour in a Conservative area.
  • Helen Gardner was one of the key witnesses for the defense in the obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960


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