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Ch. 9: A General View

We have looked at Oxford life in so many different periods, that now, perhaps, we may regard it, like our artist, as a whole, and take a bird's-eye view of its present condition. We may ask St. Bernard's question, WHITHER HAST THOU COME? a question to which there are so many answers readily given, from within and without the University. It is not probable that the place will vary, in essential character, from that which has all along been its own. We shall have considered Oxford to very little purpose, if it is not plain that the University has been less a home of learning, on the whole, than a microcosm of English intellectual life. At Oxford the men have been thinking what England was to think a few months later, and they have been thinking with the passion and the energy of youth. The impulse to thought has not, perhaps, very often been given by any mind or minds within the college walls; it has come from without--from Italy, from France, from London, from a country vicarage, perhaps, from the voice of a wandering preacher. Whencesoever the leaven came, Oxford (being so small, and in a way so homogeneous) has always fermented readily, and promptly distributed the new forces, religious or intellectual, throughout England.

It is characteristic of England that the exciting topics, the questions that move the people most, have always been religious, or deeply tinctured with religion. Conservative as Oxford is, the home of "impossible causes," she has always given asylum to new doctrines, to all the thoughts which comfortable people call "dangerous." We have seen her agitated by Lollardism, which never quite died, perhaps, till its eager protest against the sacerdotal ideal was fused into the fire of the Reformation. Oxford was literally devastated by that movement, and by the Catholic reaction, and then was disturbed for a century and a half by the war of Puritanism, and of Tory Anglicanism. The latter had scarcely had time to win the victory, and to fall into a doze by her pipe of port, when Evangelical religion came to vex all that was moderate, mature, and fond of repose. The revolutionary enthusiasm of Shelley's time was comparatively feeble, because it had no connection with religion; or, at least, no connection with the religion to which our countrymen were accustomed. Between the era of the Revolution and our own day, two religious tempests and one secular storm of thought have swept over Oxford, and the University is at present, if one may say so, like a ship in a heavy swell, the sea looking much more tranquil than it really is.

The Tractarian movement was, of course, the first of the religious disturbances to which we refer, and much the most powerful.

It is curious to read about that movement in the Apologia, for example, of Cardinal Newman. On what singular topics men's minds were bent! what queer survivals of the speculations of the Schools agitated them as they walked round Christ Church meadows! They enlightened each other on things transcendental, yet material, on matters unthinkable, and, properly speaking, unspeakable. It is as if they "spoke with tongues," which had a meaning then, and for them, but which to us, some forty years later, seem as meaningless as the inscriptions of Easter Island.

This was the shape, the Tractarian movement was the shape, in which the great Romantic reaction laid hold on England and Oxford. The father of all the revival of old doctrines and old rituals in our Church, the originator of that wistful return to things beautiful and long dead, was--Walter Scott. Without him, and his wonderful wand which made the dry bones of history live, England and France would not have known this picturesque reaction. The stir in these two countries was curiously characteristic of their genius. In France it put on, in the first place, the shape of art, of poetry, painting, sculpture. Romanticism blossomed in 1830, and bore fruit for ten years. The religious reaction was a punier thing; the great Abbe, who was the Newman of France, was himself unable to remain within the fantastic church that he built out of medieval ruins. In England, and especially in Oxford, the aesthetic admiration of the Past was promptly transmuted into religion. Doctrines which men thought dead were resuscitated; and from Oxford came, not poetry or painting, but the sermons of Newman, the Tracts, the whole religious force which has transformed and revivified the Church of England. That force is still working, it need hardly be said, in the University of to-day, under conditions much changed, but not without thrills of the old volcanic energy.

Probably the Anglican ideas ceased to be the most powerfully agitating of intellectual forces in Oxford about 1845. A new current came in from Rugby, and the influence of Dr. Arnold and the natural tide of reaction began to run very strong. If we had the apologiae of the men who thought most, about the time when Clough was an undergraduate, we should see that the influence of the Anglican divines had become a thing of sentiment and curiosity. The life had not died out of it, but the people whom it could permanently affect were now limited in number and easily recognisable. This form of religion might tempt and attract the strongest men for a while, but it certainly would not retain them. It is by this time a matter of history, though we are speaking of our contemporaries, that the abyss between the Lives of the English Saints, and the Nemesis of Faith, was narrow, and easily crossed. There was in Oxford that enthusiasm for certain German ideas which had previously been felt for medieval ideas. Liberalism in history, philosophy, and religion was the ruling power; and people believed in Liberalism. What is, or used to be, called the Broad Church, was the birth of some ten or fifteen years of Liberalism in religion at Oxford. The Essays and Reviews were what the Tracts had been; and Homeric battles were fought over the income of the Regius Professor of Greek. When that affair was settled Liberalism had had her innings, there was no longer a single dominant intellectual force; but the old storms, slowly subsiding, left the ship of the University lurching and rolling in a heavy swell.

People believed in Liberalism! Their faith worked miracles; and the great University Commission performed many wonderful works, bidding close fellowships be open, and giving all power into the hands of Examiners. Their dispensation still survives; the large examining- machine works night and day, in term time and vacation, and yet we are not happy. The age in Oxford, as in the world at large, is the age of collapsed opinions. Never men believed more fervidly in any revelation than the men of twenty years ago believed in political economy, free trade, open competition, and the reign of Common-sense and of Mr. Cobden. Where is that faith now? Many of the middle-aged disciples of the Church of Common-sense are still in our midst. They say the old sayings, they intone the old responses, but somehow it seems that scepticism is abroad; it seems that the world is wider than their system. Not even open examinations for fellowships and scholarships, not half a dozen new schools, and science, and the Museum, and the Slade Professorship of Art, have made Oxford that ideal University which was expected to come down from Heaven like the New Jerusalem.

We have glanced at the history of Oxford to little purpose if we have not learned that it is an eminently discontented place. There is room in colleges and common rooms for both sorts of discontent--the ignoble, which is the child of vanity and weakness; and the noble, which is the unassuaged thirst for perfection. The present result of the last forty years in Oxford is a discontent which is constantly trying to improve the working, and to widen the intellectual influence, of the University. There are more ways than one in which this feeling gets vent. The simplest, and perhaps the most honest and worthy impulse, is that which makes the best of the present arrangements. Great religious excitement and religious discussion being in abeyance, for once, the energy of the place goes out in teaching. The last reforms have made Oxford a huge collection of schools, in which physical science, history, philosophy, philology, scholarship, theology, and almost everything in the world but archaeology, are being taught and learned with very great vigour. The hardest worked of men is a conscientious college tutor; and almost all tutors are conscientious. The professors being an ornamental, but (with few exceptions) MERELY ornamental, order of beings, the tutors have to do the work of a University, which, for the moment, is a teaching-machine. They deliver I know not how many sets of lectures a year, and each lecture demands a fresh and full acquaintance with the latest ideas of French, German, and Italian scholars. No one can afford, or is willing, to lag behind; every one is "gladly learning," like Chaucer's clerk, as well as earnestly teaching. The knowledge and the industry of these gentlemen is a perpetual marvel to the "bellelettristic trifler." New studies, like that of Celtic, and of the obscurer Oriental tongues, have sprung up during recent years, have grown into strength and completeness. It is unnecessary to say, perhaps, that these facts dispose of the popular idea about the luxury of the long vacation. During the more part of the long vacation the conscientious teacher must be toiling after the great mundane movement in learning. He must be acquiring the very freshest ideas about Sanscrit and Greek; about the Ogham characters and the Cyprian syllabary; about early Greek inscriptions and the origins of Roman history, in addition to reading the familiar classics by the light of the latest commentaries.

What is the tangible result, and what the gain of all these labours? The answer is the secret of University discontent. All this accumulated knowledge goes out in teaching, is scattered abroad in lectures, is caught up in note-books, and is poured out, with a difference, in examinations. There is not an amount of original literary work produced by the University which bears any due proportion to the solid materials accumulated. It is just the reverse of Falstaff's case--but one halfpenny-worth of sack to an intolerable deal of bread; but a drop of the spirit of learning to cart-loads of painfully acquired knowledge. The time and energy of men is occupied in amassing facts, in lecturing, and then in eternal examinations. Even if the results are satisfactory on the whole, even if a hundred well-equipped young men are turned out of the examining-machine every year, these arrangements certainly curb individual ambition. If a resident in Oxford is to make an income that seems adequate, he must lecture, examine, and write manuals and primers, till he is grey, and till the energy that might have added something new and valuable to the acquisitions of the world has departed.

This state of things has produced the demand for the "Endowment of Research." It is not necessary to go into that controversy. Englishmen, as a rule, believe that endowed cats catch no mice. They would rather endow a theatre than a Gelehrter, if endow something they must. They have a British sympathy with these beautiful, if useless beings, the heads of houses, whom it would be necessary to abolish if Researchers were to get the few tens of thousands they require. Finally, it is asked whether the learned might not find great endowment in economy; for it is a fact that a Frenchman, a German, or an Italian will "research" for life on no larger income than a simple fellowship bestows.

The great obstacle to this "plain living" is perhaps to be found in the traditional hospitality of Oxford. All her doors are open, and every stranger is kindly entreated by her, and she is like the "discreet housewife" in Homer -

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In some languages the same word serves for "stranger" and "enemy," but in the Oxford dialect "stranger" and "guest" are synonymous. Such is the custom of the place, and it does not make plain living very easy. Some critics will be anxious here to attack the "aesthetic" movement. One will be expected to say that, after the ideas of Newman, after the ideas of Arnold, and of Jowett, came those of the wicked, the extravagant, the effeminate, the immoral "Blue China School." Perhaps there is something in this, but sermons on the subject are rather luxuries than necessaries in the present didactic mood of the Press. "They were friends of ours, moreover," as Aristotle says, "who brought these ideas in"; so the subject may be left with this brief notice. As a piece of practical advice, one may warn the young and ardent advocate of the Endowment of Research that he will find it rather easier to curtail his expenses than to get a subsidy from the Commission.

The last important result of the "modern spirit" at Oxford, the last stroke of the sanguine Liberal genius, was the removal of the celibate condition from certain fellowships. One can hardly take a bird's-eye view of Oxford without criticising the consequences of this innovation. The topic, however, is, for a dozen reasons, very difficult to handle. One reason is, that the experiment has not been completely tried. It is easy enough to marry on a fellowship, a tutorship, and a few small miscellaneous offices. But how will it be when you come to forty years, or even fifty? No materials exist which can be used by the social philosopher who wants an answer to this question. In the meantime, the common rooms are perhaps more dreary than of old, in many a college, for lack of the presence of men now translated to another place. As to the "society" of Oxford, that is, no doubt, very much more charming and vivacious than it used to be in the days when Tony Wood was the surly champion of celibacy.

Looking round the University, then, one finds in it an activity that would once have seemed almost feverish, a highly conscientious industry, doing that which its hand finds to do, but not absolutely certain that it is not neglecting nobler tasks. Perhaps Oxford has never been more busy with its own work, never less distracted by religious politics. If we are to look for a less happy sign, we shall find it in the tendency to run up "new buildings." The colleges are landowners: they must suffer with other owners of real property in the present depression; they will soon need all their savings. That is one reason why they should be chary of building; another is, that the fellows of a college at any given moment are not necessarily endowed with architectural knowledge and taste. They should think twice, or even thrice, before leaving on Oxford for many centuries the uncomely mark of an unfortunate judgment.

Andrew Lang