Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Powell, Frederick York
POWELL, FREDERICK YORK (1850–1904), regius professor of modern history at Oxford, born on 14 Jan. 1850 at 33 Woburn Place, Bloomsbury, was eldest child and only son of Frederick Powell, by his wife Mary (d. 1910), daughter of Dr. James York (d. 1882), 'a very clever and good physician and a pretty Spanish scholar and a handsome man.' His father, a commissariat merchant, who had an office in Mincing Lane, came of a south Wales family, and the son was proud to call himself a Welshman. Much of Powell's early life was spent at Sandgate, where he learned to love the sea and developed enduring friendships with the fisher folk. In the autumn of 1859 he was put to a preparatory school at Hastings (the Manor House, kept by Mr. Alexander Murray). In 1864 he entered Dr. Jex Blake's house at Rugby, but though he gained a name for 'uncanny stories and remote species of knowledge,' he never rose above the lower fifth and left, chiefly for reasons of health, in July 1866. The next two years were fruitfully spent in travel and self-education. There was a visit to Biarritz, and a tour in Sweden which gave Powell, who had read Dasent's story of 'Burnt Njal' at Rugby, occasion to learn and practise a Scandinavian tongue. At eighteen he was placed under the care of Mr. Henry Tull Rhoades at Bonchurch, and began to work at Old French, German, and Icelandic. He was already a strong socialist and agnostic, and had formed most of the tastes and prejudices which accompanied him through life — an interest in old armour, a special attraction for the art of William Blake, a passion for northern and medieval literature, and an aversion from philosophy, excepting always the work of Kant and Schopenhauer.
Powell went to Oxford in 1868, and after a year spent with the non-collegiate students was received into Christ Church, on the recommendation of Dr. George William Kitchin, censor of the non-collegiate body and formerly student and tutor of Christ Church. He gained a first class in the school of law and modern history in Trinity term 1872. After graduating B.A., Powell spent two years (1872-4) at his father's house in Lancaster Gate. He had entered at the Middle Temple on 8 Nov. 1870, and was called to the bar on 6 June 1874.
Powell's first academic appointment was to teach one of the few subjects in which he had no enthusiastic interest. In 1874 he was appointed to a lectureship in law at Christ Church, and save for a year's interlude as history lecturer at Trinity — an engagement terminated owing to the representation of some of his pupils who wished to be crammed for examinations — Powell's official teaching in Oxford was, until 1894, confined to the uncongenial subjects of law and political economy. He had however attracted the attention of Mandell Creighton [q. v. Suppl. I], one of his examiners in the schools, and was invited to contribute a volume on Early England to Longman's 'Epochs of English History,' of which Creighton was editor. The book, 'Early England to the Norman Conquest,' which was published in 1876, delighted Creighton, who pronounced it to be written 'in a charmingly simple, almost Biblical style.' Meanwhile, in 1869, Powell had met Gudbrandr Vigfusson [q. v.], who had come to Oxford in 1866 to edit the 'Icelandic-EngUsh Dictionary' for the Oxford Press. In 1877 Powell was already engaged with Vigfusson upon the Prolegomena to an edition of the 'Sturlunga Saga,' 'taking down across the table,' said Vigfvisson, 'my thoughts and theories, so that though the substance and drift of the arguments are mine, the English with the exception of bits and phrases here and there is Mr. Powell's throughout.' An 'Icelandic Prose Reader,' the notes to which were mainly the work of Powell, followed in 1879, and two years later the 'Corpus Poeticum Boreale,' an edition of the whole of 'Ancient Northern Poetry,' with translations and a full commentary. The translations were provided by Powell and exhibited his easy command of a fresh, manly English style.
The first volume contains the old mythical and heroic poetry — the poems of the 'Elder Edda' and other pieces of like character. The second volume is a collection of the poems written, chiefly by Icelanders, in honour of successive kings of Norway and other important personages. It is here that Powell's work is most valuable in illustration of Scandinavian history. The poems are those which were used as authorities by the early historians of Norway (such as Snorre Sturluson) ; the introductions to the diflferent sections, in the second volume of the 'Corpus,' containing biographical notices of the poets, form the only original work in English on this portion of Scandinavian history. It is hardly possible to describe the extraordinary variety of contents in the editorial part of the two volumes — essays on mythology and points of literary history, often venturesome and always full of life. The 'Corpus Poeticum Boreale' at once made Powell's name as a northern scholar and was intended to be the prelude to an even more ambitious work. In August 1884 Powell spent a fortnight with Vigfusson in Copenhagen examining Icelandic manuscripts, with the view to an edition and translation of the best classics in the northern prose, a proposal for which had been submitted to the Clarendon Press. The work was steadily pushed on and most of the 'Origines Islandicse' was already in proof when Vigfusson died in 1889. So long as Vigfusson was alive Powell was kept steadily working at his Scandinavian task, but with the removal of his friend and associate the passion for miscellaneous reading gained the ascendant, with the result that the work was never pushed to a conclusion and was only published in 1905 after Powell's death. Here, as before, the labour of the two fellow-workers is often indistinguishable. The text of the prose sagas is substantially the work of Vigfusson, 'the ordering, the English, and many of the literary criticisms, portraits, and parallels are Powell's' (Elton, i. 101). But though Vigfusson was the leading partner in these northern expeditions, Powell's assistance was substantive and essential, adding as it did to the fine technical scholarship of the Icelandic patriot a wide knowledge of medieval history and literature and a simple nervous English exactly adapted to its purpose.
Meanwhile, in 1884, through the good offices of Dean Liddell, Powell had been made a student of Christ Church. His official duties as law lecturer were to coach men for the law school, to look after Indian civil service candidates, and to lecture on pass political economy. His real and congenial avocations extended far beyond this narrow circuit. Besides his work on Scandinavian literature, he taught Old English, Old French, and even for a time Old German, for the Association for Education of Women in Oxford, took a leading share in founding the 'English Historical Review' (1885), and published a history of 'England from the Earliest Times to the Death of Henry VII' (1885), designed for 'the middle forms of schools,' which is remarkable for its fresh use of chronicles, ballads, and romances, and for its insight into the material fabric of medieval civilisation. Then a valuable series of little books, 'English History from Contemporary Writers,' began under his editorship in 1885.
Thus Powell built for himself a reputation as one of the most profound scholars in medieval history and literature in England, and, accordingly, no surprise was felt when upon the death of James Anthony Froude [q. v. Suppl. I] in 1894, and upon the refusal of Samuel Rawson Gardiner [q. v. Suppl. II] to come to Oxford, the regius professorship of modern history was conferred on Powell on the recommendation of Lord Rosebery (Dec. 1894). The post was accepted with misgivings. Powell had no gift either for public lecturing or for organisation. He was shy of an audience which he did not know, and although both in his inaugural lecture and upon subsequent occasions he pleaded for the scientific treatment of history, for the training of public archivists, for the divorce of history and ethics, his practice was consistently better or worse than his theory, and his numerous articles contributed to the press abound in the vigorous ethical judgments which were the necessity of his strong temperament.
As professor of history Powell disappointed some of his friends. He made no special contribution to the advance of historical science, and failed to make any general impression upon the undergraduates as a teacher. Indeed, from his fortieth year to the end of his life he published only two works, a translation of the 'Fsereyinga Saga' (1896), dedicated jointly to Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church, and Henry Stone, an old fisherman at Sandgate, and a rendering of some quatrains from 'Omar Khayyam' (1901). His services to knowledge cannot however, be measured by the ordinary tests. Powell was the most generous as well as the most unambitious of men. His time was his friends' time, and the hours which might have been spent upon his own work were freely lavished upon the assistance of others. Thus the edition of the mythical books of 'Saxo Grammaticus,' translated by Professor Elton, was due to his suggestion, and the bulk of the introduction was his work ; and again as delegate of the Clarendon Press, an office which he held from 1885 till his death, Powell was able to render services to the advancement of learning which were none the less substantial because they were unadvertised. As professor he regularly lectured in his rooms at Christ Church on the sources of English history, and on every Thursday evening was at home to undergraduates, and here, as on any other informal occasion, he was an unfailing source of inspiration. In his pleasant rooms in the Meadow Buildings of Christ Church, with their stacks of books and Japanese prints, his shyness would disappear and he would discourse freely on any subject which came up, from boxing and fencing (of which he was an excellent judge) to the last Portuguese novel. His knowledge of foreign, especially of Romance, literature was singularly wide. He brought Verlaine to lecture in Oxford in 1891, and as a curator of the Taylorian Institute (from 1887) procured an invitation to Stephane Mallarme to give a lecture at the Taylorian on 28 Feb. 1894. The Belgian poet Verhaeren and the French sculptor Rodin were likewise at different times Powell's guests at Christ Church. He had also worked at Old Irish, and as one of the presidents of the Irish Texts Society urged in 1899 the importance of publishing the MS. Irish literature of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. On 7 April 1902 he lectured in Dublin to the Irish Literary Society on Irish influence in English literature, and in December of the same year went to Liverpool to speak for the endowment of Celtic studies in the university. Meanwhile, he was becoming a student of Persian, had dived into Maori and Gypsy, and had made a valuable collection of Japanese prints. Rumour asserted that he contributed to the 'Sporting Times,' and he was certainly as well acquainted with the boxing reports in the 'Licensed Victuallers' Gazette' as with the 'Kalevala' or 'Beowulf.' With all this he foxmd time to write numerous reviews for the daily and weekly press, principally for the 'Academy,' and after 1890 for the 'Manchester Guardian' (see extracts in Elton's Biography). Another side of Powell's versatile nature is illvtstrated by the preface which he wrote to a penny garland of songs of labour, written by his friend William Hines (1893), chimney sweeper, herbalist, and radical agitator, of Oxford, and by the active share which he took in the foundation of Ruskin College, an institution devised to bring working men to Oxford. Powell, who had the genius for making friends among the poor, presided over the inaugural meeting at the town hall on 22 Feb. 1899, and acted from the first as a member of the council of the college. In religion Powell described him-self as a 'decent heathen Aryan,' in politics as 'a socialist and a jingo.' He was a strong home ruler, an advocate of the Boer war, and the first president of the Oxford Tariff Reform League. He was made hon. LL.D. of Glasgow in 1901.
In 1874 Powell married Mrs. Batten, a widow with two young daughters. Mrs. Powell did not Uve in Oxford. It was Powell's habit for many years to spend the middle of the week during term time in Oxford and the week-end with his family in town. In January 1881 he moved his household from 6 Stamford Green West, Upper Clapton, where he had resided since his marriage, to Bedford Park, then 'an oasis of green gardens and red houses' and the resort of painters, players, poets, and journalists, where he resided till 1902. Here his only child, a daughter, Mariella, was born in 1884. Four years later Powell lost his wife. In the summer of 1894 he visited Ambleteuse on the coast of Normandy for the first time, and for the next ten years was 'a centre at the Hotel Delpierre' during the summer season. Many of his graphic letters and poems refer to the delights of Ambleteuse, where he developed a taste for sketching. In December 1902 Powell gave up his London house and settled in North Oxford with his daughter. The next year came warnings of heart trouble. He died on 8 May 1904 at Staverton Grange, Woodstock Road, Oxford. He was buried at Wolvercote cemetery, without religious rites by his own desire. His daughter was granted a civil list pension of 70l. in 1905, and married Mr. F. H. Markoe in Christ Church cathedral, on 6 July 1912.
Oil-portraits by J. B. Yeats and J. Williamson are in the possession of his daughter. He also figures in a caricature by 'Spy' in 'Vanity Fair' (21 March 1895) and in William Rothenstein's 'Oxford Sketches.'
In appearance and dress Powell resembled a sea-captain. He was broad, burly and bearded, brusque in manner, with dark hair and eyes, and a deep rich laugh: in temperament an artist and a poet, in attainments a scholar, as a man simple, affectionate, observant, with rare powers of sensitive enjoyment, the delight of his friends, clerk and lay, rich and poor, and the centre of many clubs both in Oxford and London. In the sphere of learning he will chiefly be remembered for his published services to northern literature, and for the general stimulus which he gave to the study of medieval letters in Great Britain. Besides the works mentioned, Powell published 'Old Stories from British History' (1882; 3rd edit. 1885; new impression 1903), and contributed with Vigfusson to the Grimm Centenary: 'Sigfred-Arminius and other Papers' (1886). He wrote several articles for this Dictionary, including a memoir of Vigfusson. Some chapters from his pen are included in W. G. Collingwood's 'Scandinavian Britain' (1908).
[Frederick York Powell: a Life and a Selection from his Letters and Occasional Writings, by Oliver Elton, 2 vols., Oxford, 1906, with full bibliography; Sette of Odd Volumes, Opusculum No. xxxviii., London, 1910, being a privately printed reprint of Powell's Some Words on Allegory in England, with biographical matter, by Dr. John Todhunter and Sir Ernest Clarke; Eng. Hist. Review, July 1904; Oxford Mag., 18 May 1904; The Times, 10 May 1904; Manchester Guardian, 10 May 1904; Monthly Review, June 1904; Morning Post, 10 May 1904; Folklore, June 1904; United Irishman, 16 July 1904; information from Prof. W. P. Ker; private knowledge.]