A KNIGHT of the realm returned from the United States to tell pupils at his former school: "Think of death three times a day".

Sir Christopher Ricks, Warren Professor of Humanities at Boston University, Massachusetts, gave the unusual lecture at his alma mater, King Alfred's Academy in Wantage.

The illustrious alumnus was giving what is set to be the first in a series of annual talks, the Sir Christopher Ricks Lectures, aimed at encouraging students in a love of literature and the humanities, regardless of their chosen academic path.

After his talk at The Beacon civic hall last month, students and staff said Sir Christopher's inaugural speech had been 'brilliant', 'totally out of this world', and that they were in awe of his 'towering intellect'.

School spokeswoman Roxy Boulter said: "No-one was in any doubt that they had witnessed a remarkable world intellect at the very top of his field."

After the talk, Sir Christopher took part in a Q&A session, sharing his memories and wisdom with three current sixth formers – Maddie Lewis-Hughes, Tom Mawdesley and Clare St George.

During this, he gave two memorable pieces of advice:

• Avoid thinking in 'binary' wherever possible, as almost all situations have more than two alternatives and it is important to explore the subtleties, and

• Think of death three times a day – 'less than three times would be complacent, and more than three times would be morbid'.

How much this view of life – and death – was influenced by his time at King Alfred's was not clear.

Sir Christopher was a student at the school from 1942 to 1951, before going to study at Balliol College, Oxford, for which he won a scholarship.

After 11 years as a lecturer at Oxford, he taught as professor of literature at Bristol University and later at Cambridge University, before moving to the United States.

In 2004, when he was made Oxford Professor of Poetry, Nicholas Wroe wrote in The Guardian: "Ricks has been described as holding in his head all of English poetry, and to see him lecture is to see him reach into this apparently infinite database for the most subtle and apposite comparisons, echoes and rebuttals.

"It is a dazzlingly impressive gift."

As a surprise for Sir Christopher, the school tracked down some of his contemporaries, all octogenarians, and interviewed them for a short film of school memories.

Mr Gilbert Wall of Grove remembered how the library had always been the first place to look for Sir Christopher, while David Harris of Letcombe recalled the young Sir Christopher’s kindness and how, as a head prefect, he kept everyone in check through sheer force of personality.

The next Sir Christopher Ricks Lecture will be given writer and television presenter Dr Janina Ramirez of Oxford University on October 16.