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Wesley Trimpi, professor emeritus of English at Stanford, dead at 85

An expert in English Renaissance lyric poetry and ancient classical literature, Trimpi will be remembered as a scholar, educator and poet who challenged and engaged students and colleagues with his intellectual rigor.

Stanford Professor Emeritus Wesley Trimpi died March 6 at Stanford Hospital, where he had been admitted after a fall in his Woodside home. He was 85.

A professor of English at Stanford for almost 40 years, Trimpi's research began with an examination of 17th-century lyric poetry. Later in his career, he developed an interest in ancient poetic theory, examining how philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle discussed literary works.

Courtesy Helen Pinkerton TrimpiWilliam Wesley Trimpi

Wesley Trimpi

Trimpi graduated with a BA in English from Stanford in 1950 and returned to Stanford in 1957, where he taught in the Department of English until he retired in 1992.

Trimpi's publications, which investigated both English Renaissance lyric poetry and ancient classical literature, demonstrated his passion for poetry and poetics as well as the broad scope of his academic expertise.

His first book, Ben Jonson's Poems: A Study of the Plain Style (Stanford University Press, 1962), argued that Jonson's use of a plain style allowed him access to subject matter that no other literary style of the time would. Jonson's style also helped him to become an ambassador between scholars and readers. Trimpi closely examined the prosody of Jonson's poems to prove his argument.

"Trimpi's book on Ben Jonson's poetry was pathbreaking, and remains a valuable resource," said Stanford English Professor John Bender.

Another of Trimpi's well-known works as a literary scholar is Muses of One Mind: The Literary Analysis of Experience and Its Continuity (Princeton University Press, 1983), which examines the history of literary criticism and how ancient discussions of literature borrowed their terms from mathematical, philosophical and rhetorical disciplines.

Morton Bloomfield, the late Harvard medievalist, praised the book as "a major contribution to our understanding of ancient narrative and its theory with important contributions to the history of the subject in the West."

While teaching both undergraduates and graduates, Trimpi began to analyze the critical writings of Plato, Aristotle, Horace and other Greek and Latin literary theorists. He published numerous articles and reviews in journals such as Traditio, New Literary History, The Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Classical Antiquity, Renascence and The Independent Journal of Philosophy, widening his interests to include medieval and classical literary theory.

Influential educator

Trimpi's passion for poetry was also evident in the classroom, and decades later numerous students claim him as an important influence in their lives and on their work.

A former student, Denis Logie, said Trimpi was one of his favorite teachers at Stanford. "I was an underclassman in 1959 when I took Professor Trimpi's class on poetry. It was a class I was ill prepared for. I loved poetry, but had received no formal insight or instruction in my high school," Logie said. "Professor Trimpi awakened in me an understanding and thirst and love for poetry, which has never abated. I can still hear him in my mind chanting in medieval English: Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing, cuccu."

In addition to his love for poetry, his intellectual rigor had an influence on many students.

Kathy Hannah Eden, professor of English and classics at Columbia University, was a graduate student of Trimpi's. She dedicated her first book, Poetic and Legal Fiction in the Aristotelian Tradition (Princeton, 1986), to Trimpi. Eden remembers him as a towering figure in stature and intellect: "The questions that preoccupied him in and out of the classroom proved fundamental to understanding the deep investment of the ancients, their admirers and even their detractors, throughout the centuries in what we call 'literature' today."

Eden continues to send her students and colleagues to Trimpi's work: "Those who report back on their encounters – and there have been a fair number – regularly confess to a mind-altering experience. Wes was, without a doubt, the scholar's scholar."

Another of Trimpi's graduate students, Steven Shankman, a professor of English and classics at the University of Oregon, described him as an "exacting scholar" who explored his subject matter in profoundly original ways.

"But Trimpi was no mere theorist," Shankman said. "What gave me confidence in his intricately articulated theoretical formulations was the fact that they were grounded in the reading of poetry – in a keen and sensitive understanding of, and feeling for, poetic form as realized in specific poems by poetic masters. Trimpi, himself an accomplished poet, had a keen feel for the word, the line, and for meter; in short, for the literary particular."

As a tribute to him, Eden and Shankman edited a special issue of Hellas: A Journal of Poetry and the Humanities (Aldine Press, 1996) with the topic "In Honor of Wesley Trimpi." The issue included poems and essays by friends, colleagues and former students, all of whom found his scholarship beneficial in their own development.

A young poet

Born on Sept. 3, 1928, in New York City, Trimpi was the son of William Wesley Trimpi Sr. and Marion Bock Trimpi. His father was the son of Swiss-born William Werner Trimpi, founder of the Newark Rivet Works. In his early years he attended the Desert School in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Phillips Exeter Academy from 1943 to 1946. After graduating from Stanford, Trimpi went on to earn his PhD in English from Harvard University.

During his undergraduate years at Stanford, Trimpi wrote and published original poems in The Paris Review, Poetry and other journals. His poems also appeared in anthologies like New Poets of England and America and Poets of the Pacific: Second Series. He also published two of his own poetry collections, The Glass of Perseus (New Poetry Series, 1953) and The Desert House (R. L. Barth: Florence, Ky., 1982).

Trimpi's interest in poetry flourished as an undergraduate under the mentorship of renowned poet and critic Yvor Winters, who, in a letter to American poet Allen Tate, described Trimpi as "a very intelligent kid, and I think less likely than most to fade out."

Studying with Winters made a significant impact on Trimpi – some scholars have even called him a Wintersian in his approach to his work and his students.

Bliss Carnochan, a longtime colleague and Stanford English professor emeritus, remembered losing chess matches to Trimpi and also noted the influence of Winters on Trimpi.

"Wes was a traditional scholar, learned, impatient with anything he thought sloppy or faddish. As a student of Winters, he [Wes] held strong opinions about literary values. Like Winters, he was a powerful personality; he attracted devoted students as well as dissenters. ... But even dissenters could not doubt his critical ability."

One of the last articles Trimpi published was a study of his early mentor. "Yvor Winters and the Educated Sensibility in Antiquity" appeared in The International Journal of the Classical Tradition (Fall, 2001).

Trimpi's fellowships and awards include one from the American Council of Learned Societies for 1963-64, and in 1985-86 he was named to the first group of scholars to spend a year at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Malibu, Calif. He also gave a series of lectures on Coleridge at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.

Trimpi is survived by his daughter Erica Light and son-in-law Martin Light; grandsons Matthew Light (Mikaela) and Jonathan Light (Jade), and great-granddaughter, Juliette Light; also, by his daughter Alison Corcoran and son-in-law Robert Corcoran; his brother, Michael L. Trimpi; his sister, Abigail M. Kellogg; and by his former wife, the poet Helen Pinkerton Trimpi.

A memorial service will be held at a date to be announced. Contact Helen Pinkerton Trimpi at helen327@comcast.net for more information about the service.

Tanu Wakefield is the communications assistant at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Media Contact

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu