Colleagues have paid tribute to Dr Eric Griffiths, who passed away on 26 September 2018.
Dr Griffiths was elected a Fellow in English at Trinity in 1980, where he taught for 30 years, in his heyday packing lecture halls at the English Faculty. ‘Eric Griffiths had one of the most brilliant minds of anyone I’ve personally known,’ said Professor Adrian Poole, Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Cambridge. ‘He was passionate about reading and looked for the same passion in others. He was a reader of the most acute sensitivity, intensity and imagination.’
Widely recognised as an inspiring teacher, his unorthodox style, and a personality both charismatic and astringent, marked Dr Griffiths out, even among Cambridge’s eclectic characters.
‘It can safely be said that no student he taught has ever forgotten the experience,’ said Professor Poole. Reverend Jessica Martin, now Canon of Ely Cathedral, describes the ‘life-changing’ experience of studying English as an undergraduate with Dr Griffiths in the 1980s.
‘As a teacher he was unforgettable, life-changing. If you were not up for the project of absolute attention, or too ready to hide behind convention, or fashion, or guesswork, he would demolish every fragile defence you had until you saw something truer. With weak students he was tender and generous; with stronger ones limitlessly demanding.’
Jessica went on to teach English at Trinity for 11 years, before she left to become a parish priest, and came to know Dr Griffiths as a friend and colleague.
‘Eric had the rare quality of absolute attentiveness. For the texts he read, his sharp, forensic and subtle eye was invariable. For people it was not, but when it came – and it came astonishingly often, given its emotional cost – it had the same quality of a kind of self-forgetfulness, unsparing but compassionate. He had no time for the usual human habit of getting by, either socially or intellectually. It was always all or nothing,’ she said.
Paying tribute to his ‘exacting and at times infuriating colleague,’ Senior Research Fellow at Trinity, Professor John Marenbon, said:
‘Eric Griffiths was much more than a brilliant, stimulating, often unpredictable and sometimes severe teacher to so many of the English undergraduates he taught at Trinity. In the same way, he was much more to me, over 25 years, than a wonderfully intelligent, deeply sympathetic, exacting and at times infuriating colleague.
He was someone who asked the most difficult questions and would not let you away with easy answers – or, indeed, any answers. He was a real friend, not afraid to tell you when you were wrong, intellectually or morally. His manner was relaxed, jest rather earnest, and yet he set an example of how to live an intellectually serious life and challenged his friends to live up to it themselves.’
In his mid-50s Dr Griffiths suffered a stroke, a condition he bore with fortitude, remembers Professor Marenbon.
‘For someone so eloquent and precise, determined to express every nuance of his thought, his inability to utter or write coherent sentences seemed to us all like a torture from the Inferno. Unlike Dante’s damned souls, however, Eric bore his pain cheerfully. I shall remember the Eric of these last years with no less respect than the incisive writer and conversationalist, and with even more affection.’
Reverend Martin said: ‘He did not do pity, for self or others, but he was good at love.’