John Christopher Middleton was born on June 10, 1926, in Truro, Cornwall, where his father was organist at the cathedral. The family soon moved to Ely, and in 1930, they moved to Cambridge, where Middleton’s father later became a senior lecturer in music. Middleton’s early childhood atmosphere of cathedrals and music was followed by a series of boarding schools in idyllic pastoral settings, where he took up classical studies. He began to write poems at the age of sixteen. Although he later rebelled against the security of his childhood, he acknowledges that it was “a source for ideas of order.” “Ideas of order” became very important for the young Royal Air Force aircraftsman-interpreter (later sergeant-interpreter) arriving among the ruins of Germany just at the end of World War II.
Middleton remained in the Royal Air Force until 1948, then returned by way of southern France to Oxford, where he read German and French and received his B.A. in 1951. He was lecturer in English at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, from 1952 to 1955, during which time he completed his Oxford Ph.D. thesis on the works of Hermann Hesse. In 1953, he married Mary Freer. From 1955 to 1965, he was senior lecturer at King’s College, the University of London, except for one year, 1961-1962, when he was visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin. This brief introduction to the American Southwest marked a crucial turning point in Middleton’s career, and Texas joined London and the south of France as a recurring geographical locus for his poems. In 1966, he returned to the University of Texas, where, for more than three decades, he served as professor of German literature, becoming Centennial Professor in Modern Languages. He retired from his academic career in 1998.