Literary Landmarks of Oxford/Introduction
AN overworked, and underpaid, old, English, rural curate, a lover of his country's history and of his country's heroes, had a six-weeks' holiday once; and he spent it all in Westminster Abbey.
A certain underpaid, and not overworked, middle-aged, American writer, a lover of British Letters, and of the Makers of British Letters, had a six-weeks' vacation lately; and he spent it all in Oxford.
Never were six weeks more happily, or more profitably, or more busily spent; and six times six months might, easily, have been devoted to the search for the Homes and the Haunts of the Literary Worthies who were educated in, or associated with, that beautiful, restful, inspiring old University Town.
If, as has been said, and happily said, by some one, "the History of Westminster Abbey is the History of England," so, surely, are the histories of Oxford and Cambridge the annals of the inception and of the consummation of the best of English intellect and thought.
Oxford is very rich in guide-books, from a sixpence up; and very, very rich in Literary Landmarks, from Roger Bacon, Wycliffe, and Erasmus, down to the men of our own day. But those guide-books, while they tell one a great deal that one wants to know, in too many cases fail to tell one what certain ones want particularly to know, to wit: where Sidney roomed at Christ Church, what Beaumont and Shenstone did at Pembroke, how John Evelyn conducted himself at Oriel, as well as why some of these men left their colleges without their degrees, and how all of them passed their lives in Oxford; what were their interests and their occupations, what were their experiences in the place.
Such of these things as the present chronicler wished to learn he has here set down, patiently, carefully, and, he thinks, correctly, for his own profit and pleasure, and for the benefit of those, coming after him, who, in this respect, have tastes and sympathies in common with his own. No one book, and no one person, could give him the information he sought; hundreds of volumes of local history, biography, autobiography, correspondence, and reminiscence have been consulted, and hundreds of questions have been asked, of Deans and Dons, of Graduates and Undergraduates, of Scouts and Hall-porters, of Antiquaries and Topographists.
The great, and serious, trouble is the fact that all the histories of the colleges dwell upon the men who made history, rather than upon the men who wrote it. They devote pages to Founders, to Prelates, and to Politicians—chiefly to Prelates—and they dismiss the Poets and the Prosists with a line, when they mention them at all.
Very rarely does it happen in the colleges themselves that anything but traditional records exist as to personal locality; and in most of these cases, particularly in the cases of the older men, tradition, by some grubber after facts, is proved, generally, to be absolutely wrong. Oxford's ignorance of Oxford is, in many respects, phenomenal and startling; and a volume might easily be written about "What Oxford Does Not Know About Oxford!" In too many trying, exasperating instances the only difference between the authorities and the local, personally conducting guides is the fact that the authorities know less, at no pecuniary expense to the inquirer, than do the guides know for the regulation fees. But, while the authorities are generally, and frankly, uncertain, the guides are almost universally incorrect. The authorities rarely assert. The guides invariably invent!
Nevertheless, all acknowledgment is due to the unfailing politeness and to the courtesy of these surprised authorities, who cannot comprehend why the questions should be asked at all; but who try to answer them as best they can. The present occupant of the rooms of Pilgarlic at Pembroke, or of the rooms, at 'Varsity, of Veirschole the Vindicator of Ve1ocipedes, for instance, while he has no respect for the hallowedness of the chambers he occupies, and cannot understand anybody else as having the slightest interest in them, is always ready to show these chambers, and he is not only wiIIing, but anxious, that some artist should go to Oxford to portray them, in a black and white manner.
In the chambers themselves black, by the way, usually predominates over white; while solid comfort, of a dingy sort, pervades, adjusts, sustains the whole.
One Head of one College, perhaps it is as well not to mention his name, or his title, or the name of his College, at a dinner, on a certain very hot August night, in Oxford, in 1899, confessed that in his own institution, with which he had been associated as Student, as Scholar, as Fellow, and as Ruler, for nearly fifty years, were a certain set of rooms assigned, by tradition, to a certain voluminous author generally known as Anonymous, and familiarly called, for short, Anon. But, when Anon occupied those chambers, why Anon occupied those chambers, or if Anon ever did occupy those chambers, or any chambers in the College, or why anybody should care to learn what chambers Anon happened to occupy—nobody but Americans seemed to want to know such things—the chief of the College, at the end of half a century's association with the College, could not tell.
The Hall-porter of that very College, however, who did not know, of course, was willing to acknowledge his ignorance, and his mortification over his ignorance, and to accept, with the usual legal tip, any information which the Trans-Atlantic student could give him, relating to a subject with which it was his own business to be familiar.
These are some of the dead walls of Oxford, against which the Literary Landmarker knocks his head; these are some of the iron-studded, oaken gates, against which, in vain, he beats the fists which wield his pen.
The cream of Oxford's academic society has been described as intellectual but not intelligent. The higher University walks are, undoubtedly, trod by certain men who not infrequently know all about the Dative Case and about the Birds of Aristophanes, but who often know nothing, and Scorn to know anything, about the Dreyfus Case or about the sparrows who flit and flitter in their own back yards; men who are absolutely familiar with al1 the details of the Second Punic War, and who are utterly unfamiliar with the Transvaal difficulties and with the American-Philippino imbroglio of to-day.
The Colleges of Oxford, in the histories and in the guide-books, have been variously treated; generally chronologically, beginning with Merton, the senior, and ending with Manchester, the junior; sometimes topographically, according to the fancy of the peripatetic chronicler, who follows them as they are supposed to come to him, in regular sequence, as he walks abroad; but it will be simpler here, perhaps, to visit them alphabetically, from All Souls to Worcester.
This work was undertaken in a perfectly serious way. There was, in its inception, no thought of frivolity. But what is called "the deadly parallel" presented itself at once. The ridiculous comparison between the life in the British University in the olden times, and the life in the American College of the present day, asserted itself so strongly, from frontispiece to end of every volume consulted—and they were very many; from cellar to garret of every institution visited—and they were all of them, that its influence could not be resisted; and the result, it is feared, will be a somewhat disrespectful, but an entirely sympathetic, series of views of Oxford, Old and New, set down here, for the benefit of the general reading-public and of the college-men of to-day who study everything from football to physics; who attempt everything, from golf to geometry, on the Western side of the Atlantic.
How could a resident of Princeton, for instance, an adopted son of its Alma Mater, resist the temptation of telling to the Princeton undergraduates to whom, among others, he is writing, and for whom he is gathering his information, what were the rules laid down by the Trustees and Faculty of Oxford, for the guidance of the Manager of the fore-runner of the Princeton Inn, when the Plantagenets and the Tudors were kings of England? What would his story of Oxford be worth, if there were no allusions to Amateur Theatricals at Christ Church, in the reign of Elizabeth; to Hazing at Merton; to the Buttery-hatch of Oriel; to the Table-manners at Queen's, in the good old days gone by?
One proper, and unbroken, custom, at Oxford, however, does strike, and favorably, the thoughtful college man of America; and that is the universal wearing of cap and gown, by Don and by Student. It is not always a comfortable costume, but it is quite as becoming as is a high hat and a frock-coat at an Afternoon Tea; and it is, certainly, more dignified than is a jersey at a lecture, or a sweater at Chapel.
The approaches to Oxford are not so picturesque, or so pleasant, as they were in the simple days of the middle of the Nineteenth Century, when the impossible, but immortal, "Gig Lamps" early in the fifties drove, with his papa, to the Mitre in High Street, from the Manor Green in Warwickshire, upon the coach called "the Royal Defiance," which first brought him into personal intercourse with the unquenchable Little Mr. Bouncer, and with the famous Mr. Four-in-Hand Fosbrooke; or when Mr. Tom Brown was carried, by Mr. Tom Hughes, to the mythical" St. Ambrose," a year or two earlier.
Anthony Wood speaks of making at least two trips between Oxford and London on the "Flying Coaches" which have given their names to the modern crawling, creeping "Fly." And some of the early coaching-laws show that the fare each way was not to exceed ten shillings for each passenger; that the journey, and return, was to be made in two days, starting "over against All Souls College in Oxford, and at the Sign of the Swan, at Holborn Bridge, or at the Saracen's Head without Newgate," in London. There was to be no favoritism in the disposal of seats; and the postage on letters, left for the students at the door of the Buttery-hatches of their respective colleges, was not to exceed one half-penny-loaf, paid on delivery.
Wood boasted, once, that he had gone from Oxford to London in thirteen hours, for two fivecrown pieces. The time now, on fast trains, is one hour and twenty minutes. The single fare is ten and sixpence, first class; five and threepence, third class; and the postage is one penny—invariably paid in advance.
Oxford, in the meantime, has changed but little in a topographical way since Tom Brown and Verdant Green knew it. There can be no better, or truer, guides to the undergraduate life there than are the classical biographies of these two most interesting young gentlemen, fantastic as the Adventures of the Student of "Brazenface" may, sometimes, seem to be. And the ghosts of that familiar pair of heroes, and the spirits of their many friends, haunt, to this day, every quadrangle of the University, every street of the Town, every reach and lock of the River.
There came, as a comforting surprise, one day, in Oxford, to very old, and very intimate, friends of the Green Family, the discovery of the fact that the inventor of Mr.Verdant Green, and the Exploiter of his Adventures, was not, himself, an Oxford man.
"Mr. Cuthbert Bede, B.A.," known to his tailors, to the directories, and to The Clerical List, in real life, as the Rev. Edward Bradley, spent, all told, it is said, but a few weeks in Oxford. He was a graduate of the College at Durham, upon whose life he based his knowledge of university life in general.
This discovery was surprising, because the book is acknowledged to be one of the truest pictures of Oxford life extant; and it is comforting, because if "Verdant Green" were written by a man who had studied Oxford from the outside merely, it might not be impossible for a mere sojourner in Oxford, in the present day, to give some sort of view of the lives there of men who have written, there and elsewhere, things which make life worth living to the lovers of written and of printed words.