John Burnside, 1955-2024

Remembering the beloved and acclaimed writer

Photo credit: Helmut Fricke

Jonathan Cape are devastated to announce that John Burnside FRSL, FRSE, died after a short illness on 29 May, at the age of 69. John was amongst the most acclaimed writers of his generation, and published prolifically across many forms – chiefly as a poet, but also as a novelist, memoirist, writer of short stories and academic works – over a career spanning nearly forty years. He won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for Feast Days (1992), the Whitbread Poetry Award for The Asylum Dance (2000), the Saltire Book of the Year for A Lie About My Father (2006), and in 2011 won both the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize for Black Cat Bone. He wrote regularly for a number of publications including the Guardian, the TLS, the London Review of Books and the New Yorker. In 2023 he received the highly prestigious David Cohen Prize, awarded biennially in recognition of an author’s entire body of work. 

Born in Dunfermline in 1955, his early life was spent in Cowdenbeath and then Corby, Northamptonshire. After studies in English and European Literature at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology, he spent a number of years as an analyst and software engineer in the computer industry, returning to Fife in 1996 after a long period trying to live what he called ‘a normal life’ in suburban Surrey. This superficially ‘rational’ life, however, was beset by profound personal struggles that were to some great extent due to being the son of an abusive, alcoholic father, as detailed in the remarkable and haunting memoirs A Lie About My Father and Waking Up in Toytown. John’s long-standing focus in his work was often on the irrational, not the rational – as he said in 2011: ‘Having been, as it were, mad, and lived with horror which at that moment I completely believed in, I know that rationality doesn’t carry you all the way. Irrationality interests me more than anything: sometimes it’s very dangerous, but it can be incredibly beautiful.’  

After publishing his first collection The Hoop in 1988, hebegan to work with Robin Robertson (editorial director at Secker & Warburg and then, from the mid-1990s, associate publisher at Jonathan Cape). John said that this is when ‘everything changed’ for him, and they continued to work together up to the publication of John’s most recent collection, Ruin, Blossom,in 2024.   

John’s work was often concerned with ideas of transformation, whether in personal, natural or ecological terms: life is a quest ‘leading away from the social demand for persons and towards the self-renewing continuing invention (inventio) of the spirit. For me, poetry is both the account of, and the map by which I navigate my path on this journey, and as such, is an ecological discipline of the richest and subtlest kind.’ His deep knowledge of the machinery of myth pervades his repeated evocation of the sacredness within everyday life – sometimes beautiful, sometimes violent, sometimes both. The critic Tom Adair noted that ‘he is a shaman-cum-seer who finds a lucid magic in the ordinary, a life of implication in passing moments, an X-ray truth, an inner light in our daily lives’. Yet, although for many years he was held as a ‘laureate of the transcendental’, the later work of Black Cat Bone saw John explore other paths: ‘I’m always referred to as the being interested in the numinous, the immanent … I decided not to do it any more. This book still deals with the evanescent, but it’s about sex, love, death – solid, real-life things.’  

Having been a writer-in-residence at the University of Dundee, John later became a professor in the School of English at the University of St Andrews, with a special focus on creative writing, ecology and American poetry. His various lives as a poet, author and academic came together in his acclaimed history of twentieth-century poetry, The Music of Time (2019). Amongst John’s favourite poets were Wallace Stevens, Arthur Rimbaud, John Clare and Edward Thomas. The poet and critic Bernard O’Donoghue referred to John’s own body of work as ‘a poetic corpus of the first significance’, while Adam Thorpe said that ‘If genius is operating anywhere in English poetry at present, I feel it is here, in Burnside’s singular music.’ We have lost a rare and majestic voice. Our thoughts are with John’s family. 

John Burnside is survived by his wife Sarah, sons Lucas and Gil, and grandson Apollo.  

Hannah Westland, Publishing Director of Jonathan Cape, says: ‘John Burnside had a particularly miraculous ability to perceive and articulate both the wonders of the natural world and the everyday miracles that make up our lives. His work was mysterious but never mystifying, quite the opposite – he made sense of strangeness and to read him was to feel a lighting-up of the darkness. We cherished and will go on cherishing him and his work.’ 

Robin Robertson, John’s long-standing editor and Poetry Publisher of Jonathan Cape, says: 'It was one of the privileges of my life to work with John Burnside. Flawed but fearless, fabulously gifted, he was a truly great writer.’ 

Anna Webber, John’s literary agent, says: ‘This is an immense loss. John Burnside had a unique voice that brought pleasure and solace to many readers across the globe. His work was characterised by deep empathy and understanding. He was finely attuned to the natural world, but also to people. These traits, so clearly visible in his writing, also marked out the man himself. John was kind and gentle and generous, and I will miss him terribly.’ 

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more