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Ch. 8: Poets at Oxford: Shelley and Landor

At any given time a large number of poets may be found among the undergraduates at Oxford, and the younger dons. It is not easy to say what becomes of all these pious bards, who are a marked and peculiar people while they remain in residence. The undergraduate poet is a not uninteresting study. He wears his hair long, and divides it down the middle. His eye is wild and wandering, and his manner absent, especially when he is called on to translate a piece of an ancient author in lecture. He does not "read" much, in the technical sense of the term, but consumes all the novels that come in his way, and all the minor poetry. His own verses the poet may be heard declaiming aloud, at unholy midnight hours, so that his neighbours have been known to break his windows with bottles, and then to throw in all that remained of the cold meats of a supper party, without interfering with the divine afflatus. When the college poet has composed a sonnet, ode, or what not, he sends it to the Editor of the Nineteenth Century, and it returns to him after many days. At last it appears in print, in College Rhymes, a collection of mild verse, which is (or was) printed at regular or irregular intervals, and was never seen except in the rooms of contributors. The poet also speaks at the Union, where his sentiments are either revolutionary, or so wildly conservative that he looks on Magna Charta as the first step on the path that leads to England's ruin. As a politician, the undergraduate poet knows no mean between Mr. Peter Taylor and King John. He has been known to found a Tory club, and shortly afterwards to swallow the formulae of Mr. Bradlaugh.

The life of the poet is, not unnaturally, one long warfare with his dons. He cannot conform himself to pedantic rules, which demand his return to college before midnight. Though often the possessor of a sweet vein of clerical and Kebleian verse, the poet does not willingly attend chapel; for indeed, as he sits up all night, it is cruel to expect him to arise before noon. About the poet's late habits a story is told, which seems authentic. A remarkable and famous contemporary singer was known to his fellow-undergraduates only by this circumstance, that his melodious voice was heard declaiming anapaests all through the ambrosial night. When the voice of the singer was lulled, three sharp taps were heard in the silence. This noise was produced by the bard's Scotch friend and critic in knocking the ashes out of his pipe. These feasts of reason are almost incompatible with the early devotion which, strangely enough, Shelley found time and inclination to attend.

Now it is (or was) the belief of undergraduates that you might break the decalogue and the laws of man in every direction with safety and the approval of the dons, if you only went regularly to chapel. As the poet cannot do this (unless he is a "sleepless man"), his existence is a long struggle with the fellows and tutors of his college. The manners of poets vary, of course, with the tastes of succeeding generations. I have heard of two (Thyrsis and Corydon) "who lived in Oxford as if it were a large country-house."

Of other singers, the latest of the heavenly quire, it is invidiously said that they build shrines to Blue China and other ceramic abominations of the Philistine, and worship the same in their rooms. Of this sort it is not the moment to speak. Time has not proved them. But the old poets of ten years ago lived a militant life; they rarely took good classes (though they competed industriously for the Newdigate, writing in the metre of Dolores), and it not uncommonly happened that they left Oxford without degrees. They were often very agreeable fellows, as long as one was in no way responsible for them; but it was almost impossible--human nature being what it is--that they should be much appreciated by tutors, proctors, and heads of houses. How could these worthy, learned, and often kind and courteous persons know when they were dealing with a lad of genius, and when they had to do with an affected and pretentious donkey?

These remarks are almost the necessary preface to a consideration of the existence of Shelley and Landor at Oxford--the Oxford of 1793- 1810. Whatever the effects may be on Shelleyan commentators, it must be said that, to the donnish eye, Percy Bysshe Shelley was nothing more or less than the ordinary Oxford poet, of the quieter type. In Walter Savage Landor, authority recognised a noisier and rowdier specimen of the same class. People who have to do with hundreds of young men at a time are unavoidably compelled to generalise. No don, that was a don, could have seen Shelley or Landor as they are described to us without hastily classing them in the category of poets who would come to no good and do little credit to the college. Landor went up to Trinity College in 1793. It was the dreadful year of the Terror, when good Englishmen hated the cruel murderers of kings and queens. Landor was a good Englishman, of course, and he never forgave the French the public assassination of Marie Antoinette. But he must needs be a Jacobin, and wear his own unpowdered hair--the Poet thus declaring himself at once in the regular recognised fashion. "For a portion of the time he certainly read hard, but the results he kept to himself; for here, as at Rugby, he declined everything in the shape of competition." (Now competition is the essence of modern University study.) "Though I wrote better Latin verses than any undergraduate or graduate in the University," says Landor, "I could never be persuaded by my tutor or friends to contend for any prize whatever." The pleasantest and most profitable hours that Landor could remember at Oxford "were passed with Walter Birch in the Magdalen Walk, by the half-hidden Cherwell." Hours like these are indeed the pleasantest and most profitable that any of us pass at Oxford. The one duty which that University, by virtue of its very nature, has never neglected, is the assembling of young men together from all over England, and giving them three years of liberty of life, of leisure, and of discussion, in scenes which are classical and peaceful. For these hours, the most fruitful of our lives, we are grateful to Oxford, as long as friendship lives; that is, as long as life and memory remain with us. And, "if anything endure, if hope there be," our conscious existence in the after-world would ask for no better companions than those who walked with us by the Isis and the Cherwell.

Landor called himself "a Jacobin," though his own letters show that he was as far as the most insolent young "tuft" from relishing doctrines of human equality. He had the reputation, however, of being not only a Jacobin, but "a mad Jacobin"; too mad for Southey, who was then young, and a Liberal. "Landor was obliged to leave the University for shooting at one of the Fellows through a window," is the account which Southey gave of Landor's rustication. Now fellows often put up with a great deal of horse-play. There is scarcely a more touching story than that of the don who for the first time found himself "screwed up," and fastened within his own oak. "What am I to do?" the victim asked his sympathising scout, who was on the other, the free side of the oak. "Well, sir, Mr. Muff, sir, when 'e's screwed up 'e sends for the blacksmith," replied the servant. What a position for a man having authority, to be in the constant habit of sending for the blacksmith! Fellows have not very unfrequently been fired at with Roman candles, or bombarded with soda-water bottles full of gunpowder. One has also known sparrows shot from Balliol windows on the Martyrs' Memorial of our illustration. In this case, too, the sportsman was a poet. But deliberately to pot at a fellow, "to go for him with a shot gun," as the repentant American said he would do in future, after his derringer missed fire, is certainly a strong measure. No college which pretended to maintain discipline could allow even a poet to shoot thus wildly. In truth, Landor's offence has been exaggerated by Southey. It was nothing out of the common. The poet was giving "an after-dinner party" in his rooms. The men were mostly from Christ Church; for Landor was intimate, he says, with only one undergraduate of his own college, Trinity. On the opposite side of the quadrangle a Tory and a butt, named Leeds, was entertaining persons whom the Jacobin Landor calls "servitors and other raff of every description." The guests at the rival wine- parties began to "row" each other, Landor says, adding, "All the time I was only a spectator, for I should have blushed to have had any conversation with them, particularly out of a window. But my gun was lying on a table in the room, and I had in a back closet some little shot. I proposed, as they had closed the casements, and as the shutters were on the outside, to fire a volley. It was thought a good trick, and accordingly I went into my bedroom and fired." Mr. Leeds very superfluously complained to the President. Landor adopted the worst possible line of defence, and so the University and this poet parted company.

It seems to have been generally understood that Landor's affair was a boyish escapade. A copious literature is engaged with the subject of Shelley's expulsion. As the story is told by Mr. Hogg, in his delightful book, the Life of Shelley, that poet's career at Oxford was a typical one. There are in every generation youths like him, in unworldliness, wildness, and dreaminess, though unlike him, of course, in genius. The divine spark has not touched them, but they, like Shelley, are still of the band whom the world has not tamed. As Mr. Hogg's book is out of print, and rare, it would be worth while, did space permit, to reproduce some of his wonderfully life-like and truthful accounts of Oxford as she was in 1810. The University has changed in many ways, and in most ways for the better. Perhaps that old, indolent, and careless Oxford was better adapted to the life of such an almost unexampled genius as Shelley. When his Eton friends asked him whether he still meant to be "the Atheist," that is, the rebel he had been at school, he said, "No; the college authorities were civil, and left him alone." Let us remember this when the learned Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Mr. Shairp, calls Shelley "an Atheist." Mr. Hogg sometimes complains that undergraduates were left too much alone. But who could have safely advised or securely guided Shelley?

Undergraduates are now more closely looked after, as far as reading goes, than perhaps they like--certainly much more than Shelley would have liked. But when we turn from study to the conduct of life, is it not plain that no OFFICIAL interference can be of real value? Friendship and confidence may, and often does, exist between tutors and pupils. There are tutors so happily gifted with sympathy, and with a kind of eternal youth of heart and intellect, that they become the friends of generation after generation of freshmen. This is fortunate; but who can wonder that middle-aged men, seeing the generations succeed and resemble each other, lose their powers of understanding, of directing, of aiding the young, who are thus cast at once on their own resources? One has occasionally heard clever men complain that they were neglected by their seniors, that their hearts and brains were full of perilous stuff, which no one helped them to unpack. And it is true that modern education, when it meets the impatience of youth, often produces an unhappy ferment in the minds of men. To put it shortly, clever students have to go through their age of Sturm und Drang, and they are sometimes disappointed when older people, their tutors, for example, do not help them to weather the storm. It is a tempest in which every one must steer for himself, after all; and Shelley "was borne darkly, fearfully afar," into unplumbed seas of thought and experience. When Mr. Hogg complains that his friend was too much left to himself to study and think as he pleased, let us remember that no one could have helped Shelley. He was better at Oxford without his old Dr. Lind, "with whom he used to curse George III. after tea."

There are few chapters in literary history more fascinating than those which tell the story of Shelley at Oxford. We see him entering the hall of University College--a tall, shy stripling, bronzed with the September sun, with long elf-locks. He takes his seat by a stranger, and in a moment holds him spell-bound, while he talks of Plato, and Goethe, and Alfieri, of Italian poetry, and Greek philosophy. Mr. Hogg draws a curious sketch of Shelley at work in his rooms, where seven-shilling pieces were being dissolved in acid in the teacups, where there was a great hole in the floor that the poet had burned with his chemicals. The one-eyed scout, "the Arimaspian," must have had a time of tribulation (being a conscientious and fatherly man) with this odd master. How characteristic of Shelley it was to lend the glow of his fancy to science, to declare that things, not thoughts, mineralogy, not literature, must occupy human minds for the future, and then to leave a lecture on mineralogy in the middle, and admit that "stones are dull things after all!" Not less Shelleyan was the adventure on Magdalen Bridge, the beautiful bridge of our illustration, from which Oxford, with the sunset behind it, looks like a fairy city of the Arabian Nights--a town of palaces and princesses, rather than of proctors.

"One Sunday we had been reading Plato together so diligently, that the usual hour of exercise passed away unperceived: we sallied forth hastily to take the air for half-an-hour before dinner. In the middle of Magdalen Bridge we met a woman with a child in her arms. Shelley was more attentive at that instant to our conduct in a life that was past, or to come, than to a decorous regulation of the present, according to the established usages of society, in that fleeting moment of eternal duration styled the nineteenth century. With abrupt dexterity he caught hold of the child. The mother, who might well fear that it was about to be thrown over the parapet of the bridge into the sedgy waters below, held it fast by its long train.

""Will your baby tell us anything about pre-existence, Madam?" he asked, in a piercing voice, and with a wistful look."

Shelley and Hogg seem almost to have lived in reality the life of the Scholar Gipsy. In Mr. Arnold's poem, which has made permanent for all time the charm, the sentiment of Oxfordshire scenery, the poet seems to be following the track of Shelley. In Mr. Hogg's memoirs we hear little of summer; it seems always to have been in winter that the friends took their long rambles, in which Shelley set free, in talk, his inspiration. One thinks of him

"in winter, on the causeway chill,
Where home through flooded fields foot travellers go,"

returning to the supper in Hogg's rooms, to the curious desultory meals, the talk, and the deep slumber by the roaring fire, the small head lying perilously near the flames. One would not linger here over the absurd injustice of his expulsion from the University. It is pleasant to know, on Mr. Hogg's testimony, that "residence at Oxford was exceedingly delightful to Shelley, and on all accounts most beneficial." At Oxford, at least, he seems to have been happy, he who so rarely knew happiness, and who, if he made another suffer, himself suffered so much for others. The memory of Shelley has deeply entered into the sentiment of Oxford. Thinking of him in his glorious youth, and of his residence here, may we not say, with the shepherd in Theocritus, of the divine singer:

[Greek verse which cannot be reproduced]

"Ah, would that in my days thou hadst been numbered with the living, how gladly on the hills would I have herded thy pretty she-goats, and listened to thy voice, whilst thou, under oaks and pine-trees lying, didst sweetly sing, divine Comatas!"

Andrew Lang