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Ch. 10: Undergraduate Life: Conclusion

A hundred pictures have been drawn of undergraduate life at Oxford, and a hundred caricatures. Novels innumerable introduce some Oxford scenes. An author generally writes his first romance soon after taking his degree; he writes about his own experience and his own memories; he mixes his ingredients at will and tints according to fancy. This is one of the two reasons why pictures of Oxford, from the undergraduate side, are generally false. They are either drawn by an aspirant who is his own hero, and who idealises himself and his friends, or they are designed by ladies who have read Verdant Green, and who, at some period, have paid a flying visit to Cambridge. An exhaustive knowledge of Verdant Green, and a hasty view of the Fitzwilliam Museum and "the backs of the Colleges" (which are to Cambridge what the Docks are to Liverpool), do not afford sufficient materials for an accurate sketch of Oxford. The picture daubed by the emancipated undergraduate who dabbles in fiction is as unrecognisable. He makes himself and his friends too large, too noisy, too bibulous, too learned, too extravagant, too pugnacious. They seem to stride down the High, prodigious, disproportionate figures, like the kings of Egypt on the monuments, overshadowing the crowd of dons, tradesmen, bargees, and cricket-field or river-side cads. Often one dimly recognises the scenes, and the acquaintances of years ago, in University novels. The mildest of men suddenly pose as heroes of the Guy Livingstone type, fellows who "screw up" timid dons, box with colossal watermen, and read all night with wet towels bound round their fevered brows. These sketches are all nonsense. Men who do these things do not write about them; and men who write about them never did them.

There is yet another cause which increases the difficulty of describing undergraduate life with truth. There are very many varieties of undergraduates, who have very various ways of occupying and amusing themselves. A steady man that reads his five or six hours a day, and takes his pastime chiefly on the river, finds that his path scarcely ever crosses that of him who belongs to the Bullingdon Club, hunts thrice a week, and rarely dines in hall. Then the "pale student," who is hard at work in his rooms or in the Bodleian all day, and who has only two friends, out-college men, with whom he takes walks and tea,--he sees existence in a very different aspect. The Union politician, who is for ever hanging about his club, dividing the house on questions of blotting-paper and quill pens, discussing its affairs at breakfast, intriguing for the place of Librarian, writing rubbish in the suggestion-book, to him Oxford is only a soil carefully prepared for the growth of that fine flower, the Union. He never encounters the undergraduate who haunts billiard-rooms and shy taverns, who buys jewelry for barmaids, and who is admired for the audacity with which he smuggled a fox-terrier into college in a brown-paper parcel. There are many other species of undergraduate, scarcely more closely resembling each other in manners and modes of thought than the little Japanese student resembles the metaphysical Scotch exhibitioner, or than the hereditary war minister of Siam (whose career, though brief, was vivacious) resembled the Exeter Sioux, a half-reclaimed savage, who disappeared on the warpath after failing to scalp the Junior Proctor. When The Wet Blanket returned to his lodge in the land of Sitting Bull, he doubtless described Oxford life in his own way to the other Braves, while the squaws hung upon his words and the papooses played around. His account would vary, in many ways, from that of

"Whiskered Tomkins from the hail
Of seedy Magdalene."

And he, again, would not see Oxford life steadily, and see it whole, as a more cultivated and polished undergraduate might. Thus there are countless pictures of the works and ways of undergraduates at the University. The scene is ever the same--boat-races and foot-ball matches, scouts, schools, and proctors, are common to all,--but in other respects the sketches must always vary, must generally be one- sided, and must often seem inaccurate.

It appears that a certain romance is attached to the three years that are passed between the estate of the freshman and that of the Bachelor of Arts. These years are spent in a kind of fairyland, neither quite within nor quite outside of the world. College life is somewhat, as has so often been said, like the old Greek city life. For three years men are in the possession of what the world does not enjoy--leisure; and they are supposed to be using that leisure for the purposes of perfection. They are making themselves and their characters. We are all doing that, all the days of our lives; but at the Universities there is, or is expected to be, more deliberate and conscious effort. Men are in a position to "try all things" before committing themselves to any. Their new-found freedom does not merely consist in the right to poke their own fires, order their own breakfasts, and use their own cheque-books. These things, which make so much impression on the mind at first, are only the outward signs of freedom. The boy who has just left school, and the thoughtless life of routine in work and play, finds himself in the midst of books, of thought, and discussion. He has time to look at all the common problems of the hour, and yet he need not make up his mind hurriedly, nor pledge himself to anything. He can flirt with young opinions, which come to him with candid faces, fresh as Queen Entelechy in Rabelais, though, like her, they are as old as human thought. Here first he meets Metaphysics, and perhaps falls in love with that enchantress, "who sifts time with a fine large blue silk sieve." There is hardly a clever lad but fancies himself a metaphysician, and has designs on the Absolute. Most fall away very early from this, their first love; and they follow Science down one of her many paths, or concern themselves with politics, and take a side which, as a rule, is the opposite of that to which they afterwards adhere. Thus your Christian Socialist becomes a Court preacher, and puts his trust in princes; the young Tory of the old type will lapse into membership of a School Board. It is the time of liberty, and of intellectual attachments too fierce to last long.

Unluckily there are subjects more engrossing, and problems more attractive, than politics, and science, art, and pure metaphysics. The years of undergraduate life are those in which, to many men, the enigmas of religion present themselves. They bring their boyish faith into a place (if one may quote Pantagruel's voyage once more) like the Isle of the Macraeones. On that mournful island were confusedly heaped the ruins of altars, fanes, temples, shrines, sacred obelisks, barrows of the dead, pyramids, and tombs. Through the ruins wandered, now and again, the half-articulate words of the Oracle, telling how Pan was dead. Oxford, like the Isle of the Macraeones, is a lumber-room of ruinous philosophies, decrepit religions, forlorn beliefs. The modern system of study takes the pupil through all the philosophic and many of the religious systems of belief, which, in the distant and the nearer past, have been fashioned by men, and have sheltered men for a day. You are taught to mark each system crumbling, to watch the rise of the new temple of thought on its ruins, and to see that also perish, breached by assaults from without or sapped by the slow approaches of Time. This is not the place in which we can well discuss the merits of modern University education. But no man can think of his own University days, or look with sympathetic eyes at those who fill the old halls and rooms, and not remember, with a twinge of the old pain, how religious doubt insists on thrusting itself into the colleges. And it is fair to say that, for this, no set of teachers or tutors is responsible. It is the modern historical spirit that must be blamed, that too clear-sighted vision which we are all condemned to share of the past of the race. We are compelled to look back on old philosophies, on India, Athens, Alexandria, and on the schools of men who thought so hard within our own ancient walls. We are compelled to see that their systems were only plausible, that their truths were but half-truths. It is the long vista of failure thus revealed which suggests these doubts that weary, and torture, and embitter the naturally happy life of discussion, amusement, friendship, sport, and study. These doubts, after all, dwell on the threshold of modern existence, and on the threshold--namely, at the Universities--men subdue them, or evade them.

The amusements of the University have been so often described that little need be said of them here. Unhealthy as the site of Oxford is, the place is rather fortunately disposed for athletic purposes. The river is the chief feature in the scenery, and in the life of amusement. From the first day of term, in October, it is crowded with every sort of craft. The freshman admires the golden colouring of the woods and Magdalen tower rising, silvery, through the blue autumnal haze. As soon as he appears on the river, his weight, strength, and "form" are estimated. He soon finds himself pulling in a college "challenge four," under the severe eye of a senior cox, and by the middle of December he has rowed his first race, and is regularly entered for a serious vocation. The thorough-going boating-man is the creature of habit. Every day, at the same hour, after a judicious luncheon, he is seen, in flannels, making for the barge. He goes out, in a skiff, or a pair, or a four-oar, or to a steeplechase through the hedges when Oxford, as in our illustration, is under water. The illustration represents Merton, and the writer recognises his old rooms, with the Venetian blinds which Mr. Ruskin denounced. Chief of all the boating-man goes out in an eight, and rows down to Iffley, with the beautiful old mill and Norman church, or accomplishes "the long course." He rows up again, lounges in the barge, rows down again (if he has only pulled over the short course), and goes back to dinner in hall. The table where men sit who are in training is a noisy table, and the athletes verge on "bear-fighting" even in hall. A statistician might compute how many steaks, chops, pots of beer, and of marmalade, an orthodox man will consume in the course of three years. He will, perhaps, pretend to suffer from the monotony of boating shop, boating society, and broad-blown boating jokes. But this appears to be a harmless affectation. The old breakfasts, wines, and suppers, the honest boating slang, will always have an attraction for him. The summer term will lose its delight when the May races are over. Boating-men are the salt of the University, so steady, so well disciplined, so good-tempered are they. The sport has nothing selfish or personal in it; men row for their college, or their University; not like running--men, who run, as it were, each for his own hand. Whatever may be his work in life, a boating-man will stick to it. His favourite sport is not expensive, and nothing can possibly be less luxurious. He is often a reading man, though it may be doubted whether "he who runs may read" as a rule. Running is, perhaps, a little overdone, and Strangers' cups are, or lately were, given with injudicious generosity. To the artist's eye, however, few sights in modern life are more graceful than the University quarter-of-a-mile race. Nowhere else, perhaps, do you see figures so full of a Hellenic grace and swiftness.

The cream of University life is the first summer term. Debts, as yet, are not; the Schools are too far off to cast their shadow over the unlimited enjoyment, which begins when lecture is over, at one o'clock. There are so many things to do, -

"When wickets are bowled and defended,
When Isis is glad with the eights,
When music and sunset are blended,
When Youth and the Summer are mates,
When freshmen are heedless of "Greats,"
When note-books are scribbled with rhyme,
Ah! these are the hours that one rates
Sweet hours, and the fleetest of Time!"

There are drags at every college gate to take college teams down to Cowley. There is the beautiful scenery of the "stripling Thames" to explore; the haunts of the immortal "Scholar Gipsy," and of Shelley, and of Clough's Piper, who -

"Went in his youth and the sunshine rejoicing, to Nuneham and Godstowe."

Further afield men seldom go in summer, there is so much to delight and amuse in Oxford.* What day can be happier than that of which the morning is given (after a lively college breakfast, or a "commonising" with a friend) to study, while cricket occupies the afternoon, till music and sunset fill the grassy stretches above Iffley, and the college eights flash past among cheering and splashing? Then there is supper in the cool halls, darkling, and half-lit up; and after supper talk, till the birds twitter in the elms, and the roofs and the chapel spire look unfamiliar in the blue of dawn. How long the days were then! almost like the days of childhood; how distinct is the impression all experience used to make! In later seasons Care is apt to mount the college staircase, and the "oak" which Shelley blessed cannot keep out this visitor. She comes in many a shape--as debt, and doubt, and melancholy; and often she comes as bereavement. Life and her claims wax importunate; to many men the Schools mean a cruel and wearing anxiety, out of all proportion to the real importance of academic success. We cannot see things as they are, and estimate their value, in youth; and if pleasures are more keen then, grief is more hopeless, doubt more desolate, uncertainty more gnawing, than in later years, when we have known and survived a good deal of the worst of mortal experience. Often on men still in their pupilage the weight of the first misfortunes falls heavily; the first touch of Dame Fortune's whip is the most poignant. We cannot recover the first summer term; but it has passed into ourselves and our memories, into which Oxford, with her beauty and her romance, must also quickly pass. He is not to be envied who has known and does not love her. Where her children have quarrelled with her the fault is theirs, not hers. They have chosen the accidental evils to brood on, in place of acquiescing in her grace and charm. These are crowded and hustled out of modern life; the fever and the noise of our struggles fill all the land, leaving still, at the Universities, peace, beauty, and leisure.

If any word in these papers has been unkindly said, it has only been spoken, I hope, of the busybodies who would make Oxford cease to be herself; who would rob her of her loveliness and her repose.

*A very pleasing account of the scenery near Oxford appeared in the Cornhill for September 1879.


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Andrew Lang