A BOOK OF THE MOMENT
THE LURE OF OXFORD
[COPYRIGHT IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA BY THE
New York Times.] LAST week I wrote of the Lure of London. This week I write of the Lure of Oxford. That, however, is something very different from the attraction of the Great City—some- thing intimate and apart, something unique and incomparable. London is about to take the place in the world once taken by Rome and by Paris. She will hold it, till a century or more hence New York claims it, as did
The Priest who slow the slayer, And shall himself bo slain."
There is nothing in the world quite like the appeal of Oxford, nor ever will be again. Stay, I am writing like a presumptuous Oxonian and begging the question. I must crave leave of the Court of Public Opinion to amend my plea. The world affords no parallel to Oxford, or affords a parallel in Cambridge alone. That is the proper way to put 'F. Cambridge is no Thebes—only a severer and more rigid Athens. And for many men that touch of severity adds, I confess, an element which intensifies the glory.
Having dipped my flag in salute to Cambridge as is her due, I may proceed to my main contention. It is that the
Lure of Oxford is not to be measured against anything so
mundane, or if you will so virile, as the Lure of London. The great world, the international world, has never even heard of her secret, this sacred well of light, deep-embowered in the heart of a mystic woodland. The mighty multitude, the thronging millions have no eyes for the Isis and her Halls and Gardens open to the moonlight, no ears for the Chapel Bells, or for the song of Choristers flung from a high tower to greet the coming of the May. Their feet the Cumnor cowslips never trod. The tides of youth that murmur in the silvered inlets of the High and the Broad, and send their light voices to the stars, are by them as unheard as are the lark's song or the fields of ocean.
But for those to whom some happy chance, adoption by the Alma Mater, birthright, or finally some natural affinity which breaks down all bars and overcomes all obstacles, has disclosed the lure of Oxford, it is supreme. Love of her is a potent freemasonry. It is a binder of human souls throughout the earth. It is no monopoly of the rich or the fortunate. It is no respecter of persons. It is not parochial or national. It has in it the element of universality, though it is recognizable by only a minute percentage of mankind.
Yet it can be felt, and is felt, by the souls attuned to it, even though they have no academic learning, no formal culture in the Arts, and no physical contact with what a Topographer would call " the valleys of the Upper Thames and its affluent, the Cherwell." Only the other day I heard of a working man, a votary of the muses, who had felt the lure of Oxford through the pipe of the mourner of Thyrsis. This votary went to field work when a mere child—some sixty years ago—and did not learn to read till he was a man. But he is a lover of the verse of Matthew Arnold, and heard the call of Oxford. Therefore, he journeyed there so that he might tread the meadows by the stripling Thames, might see the line of festal light in Christchurch Hall and watch for the Scholar Gypsy at Bablock Hythe. But, if Matthew Arnold blew the pipe, it was the lure of Oxford that enveloped him and held him.
This, remember, is no single or exceptional instance. There are, happily, no class distinctions insisted on at Oxford, no class war, no class consciousness. The lamp of democracy, that is of human brotherhood, like the lamp of learning itself, may have often burned very low at Oxford, but neither lamp was ever quite extinguished. Now, though it would be absurd to pretend that the mass of the workers know anything or care anything about Oxford, there are always among those who do know and care divers men who have laboured with their hands and still labour for their daily bread.
On the power of Oxford over the minds of the Americans and the overseas Britons there is no need for me or anybody else to waste ink. Most of the English-speaking people who come home visit Oxford and come under the physical influence of the magic wand. But that is only natural for those who know our literature and our history. The happy arrangement by which so many young American officers did military schooling at Oxford during the War, had " rooms in College," and went to eat their dinners and hear lectures in hall, spread the knowledge of Oxford into many strange places among the thirty million homes of the Republic between the Pacific and the Atlantic. Charming was the confession of one of these lads related to me by the late Master of Balliol. After being in college for about a month or six weeks the cadet in question told him he had barely heard of Oxford before he came over, and did not even know that such a place as Balliol College existed. " But," he added, " I know now, and if I ever have sons of my own they are coming here." And no doubt they will, for the lure of Oxford remains. Even when it seems to have been forgotten it is only hidden.
What is more curious is the way in which Germans, French- men, Italians, Russians, whom the breath of Fortune's winds have brought to Oxford, own the charm. A poet of
no mean powers has preserved a foreigner's impression of Oxford. The author of _Maim in the poem entitled
" Lacordaire at Oxford " (written in 1863) is full of the lure of Oxford working on a French mind :-
"Lost to the Church and deaf to me, this town
Yet wears a reverend garniture of peace. Set in a land of trade, like Gideon's fleece Bedewed where all is dry ; the Pope may frown ; But, if this city is the shrine of youth,
How shall the Preacher lord of virgin souls,
When by glad streams and laughing lawns he strolls-- How can ho bless them not Yet in sad sooth, When I would love these English gownsmon, sighs Heave my frail breast, and weakness dims mine oyes."
But it is easy enough to establish and maintain the lure of Oxford. Tile trouble is to analyze it and to make some effort to understand whence it comes. In this effort I and all others who attempt the task of explaining in what the lure
of Oxford consists and what are its origins, will find immense help in the two fascinating volumes entitled A History of the University of Oxford, by Sir Charles Mallet, himself a dis-
tinguished son of Oxford. At first sight it may seem more than a little incongruous to greet a book of such high historical learning, and so full of archaeological and topographical discoveries, as if its use was to be to explain the fascination of the Collegiate City. Yet I am sure that Sir Charles will not be hurt or made uncomfortable by my calling his delightful and most valuable book as my first witness. No one can read it without realizing that the author feels intensely the lure of Oxford, and puts the proper valuation on that lure. There- fore, he will be as interested as any man could be in an attempt to show the foundations on which that fascination is built.
Three things combine to make up the lure of Oxford. In the first place there is its geographical position. That is singularly happy. It might have been deliberately and consciously chosen as the place in which to create a charm to move the hearts of the whole English kill. Oxford is in the very centre of England, and, what is more, ethnologically it is the centre of what may be called pure Englishry. Oxford springs out of surroundings as absolutely and entirely English as did Shakespeare himself. The scenery, the climate have all the English savour, and all are representative of the ethos of the race. There are no high mountains, there are no vast rivers, there arc no huge lakes, there arc no raging cataracts.
There is nothing savage or untameable by nian in the landscape. And yet Oxford and the adjacent country is no Capua, no Lotusland, no place like the Pacific Islands in which man can live the beautiful life without effort. If there arc no great, overwhelming phenomena of Nature, yet the climate is not of the kind which dims men's minds with luxury. It is, in fact, a Whig landscape and a Whig climate : one in which the golden mean is insisted on at every turn. The place and
the physical surroundings are English to the backbone—not commonplace, not dull, not too moderate, but, for good or ill,'
English all over. The Englishman of Oxfordshire, or War- wickshire, or Berkshire has not been brought up to know the sea, or to love it, or fear it. And yet he becomes as intrepid a sailor as if he had been cradled close to Atlantic waves, or to the racing tides of the Channel. Again, the gentle
'landscape has never diminished the martial ardour of the Englishman, nor its peacefulness and sense of sheltered life taken away from him the love of adVenture. The country people of the inner shrine of England always have been, and are, as courageous and hardy in the physical world as Shakes- peare was in the world of the mind. Oxford stands in the centre of the central shrine, and therefore it is no wonder that she should seem Alma Mater to the Illuminated of the race, and win their hearts with her firm, yet gentle, mien.
_But, if Nature gave Oxford charm, man has added to it, though, in a singular way. No king,,no statesmen, no body of rich and art loving burghers, as in Florence or in Venice, determined to beautify their city. Oxford, with its towers and domes, its colleges and gardens, has turned into one of the most beautiful cities in the world by a kind of natural selection. Bid nobody ever planned to make it beautiful as aiwbole, or till quite recent years gave a thought as to how it was going to expand and develop, and what were the best lines for such development. The High, perhaps the most beautiful street in Europe, grew to be so quite accidentally ; so• did, the walks in the great meadows round Christ Church and Merton, or at the back of Magdalen. No one deliberately so arranged things that Trinity, Wadham, New College, and Balliol, and their gardens should make the exquisite " Quadri- lateral " of stones and trees and flowers that they do. Again, the Schools, the Sheldonian, All Souls', Brasenose, and the Rad- cliffe Camera, are another example, not of planning, but of a harmony by chance as exquisite as a chorus of nightingales. Whatever the masons and the bricklayers set up in Oxford in old days, the enchanted and enchanting town seemed to be
able to turn to favour and to loveliness. Even such Mid- Victorian ineptitudes as the Randolph and the Science Museum
somehow contrive to take their place and to get their proper aura. In fine the Oxford buildings as a whole, mediaeval, classical, and modern, produce an effect which no conscious design could have bettered. I am quite willing to think that this is an example to be venerated rather than followed, and that it was may by a miracle that Oxford muddled through to beauty. All I insist on is that as she did so her lure is thereby the greater, not the less.
So much for the beauty bestowed by nature and by a careless ordered Art. And here I may say, incidentally, that how these things came about—i.e., how the Colleges came to be built—is shown.wonderfully well in Sir Charles Mallet's volumes• It is, indeed, little short of a miracle that such a harmcny
was produced out of such violent and wilful indiscrimination. Deus vobis haec otia fecit. Only through the intervention of the genius loci was the restful peace of the Oxford buildings and the Oxford gardens obtained !
But, after all, the material charm would have mattered very little had not Oxford kept her soul alive. She might easily have become as devitalized as are so many of the beautiful cities of Germany, France, and Italy. " How fair, but a corpse ! " is upon our lips as we pace streets in which
no longer high thoughts give inspiration, or .great deeds call
to be followed. Sir Charles Mallet's volumes show in the strongest way how by another and greater miracle Oxford grasped what was essential in the education of the mind and
in the making of the good citizen. Therefore, she would never forgo her claim to true learning or allow anyone to
take it from her. She was illuminated in the Middle Ages, and she has kept her illumination, as her proud motto says, ever since. Sir Charles dwells strongly on this point, and rightly, for it is a marvel. In the full tide of the Middle Ages, the period when the Church was everything and theology almost the only gate by which you could enter the Courts of Scholarship, Oxford University, though hardly founded, dared to decree that no man should take a degree in theology if he had not previously taken one in Arts. In 1253 a statute was passed—it was the first written statute to which a date can be assigned—in which the following words were contained
Quod nullus tin eadem Universitale ineipiat in theologia nisi prius rexerit in artibus in aliqua Universitate.
The University was abundantly right. The study of theology without the humanities is a dreadful and dangerous thing and produces the bigotry of the Cloister on the one Ode and that of the Conventicle on the other. Theology seeded the arts of humanities to save her as much as Science does at the present moment, and the best minds of the Church recognized this, as again do tile hest. minds-of Science-in our day. It derogates nothing from the place of the spiritual and the divine to say that the truth cannot be seen unless a man's eyes and mind have been cleared by a liberal education. If it was splendid of the University to have taken this line, the way in which it defended its position was even
more splendid. When the -Friars, especially the Friars of St. Francis, came to Oxford, they were greeted with open arms, for they, too, were illuminated, and by a wise and gentle spirit. But very soon after the settlement of the Franciscans at Oxford, assisted by the Dominicans, they even pleaded —see Sir Charles Mallet's account of the whole matter—that their rules forbade them to take an Arts degree. A Franciscan Friar, Thomas of York, appears in the very year of the statute just quoted to have petitioned for leave " ' to incept in theology ' although he had not previously ' ruled in Arts.' " And then a very English thing, and a wise thing, was done by the University. The Chan- cellors and Masters insisted on adhering to their statutes, but made a special case for Friar Thomas and granted him a dispensation. For a time the controversy rested, but in the fourteenth century there was a recrudescence of the dispute. The Dominicans this time took up the cudgels. It was intolerable, they declared, that the supreme science " of theology should have to lower its flag to the arts. The University would not give way, but justified its action Then the Dominicans appealed to Rome, and there was high debate in the University and threats " to burn the saucy Friars with their buildings over their heads." The University declared, indeed, that the Friars had used " oily words " to the Pope and had stirred up the Oxford mob. But here, again, the thing ended in a compromise. The University " won on points " and its statute was upheld, but one or two minor concessions were made.
It is a fascinating story and most ably told ; but the truth is, the whole book is a mass of learning and yet so full of good matter that it is a book almost impossible to skip, and certainly quite impossible to review adequately in a newspaper. The only thing to do is to try, as I have tried, to waken men's imaginations to what Oxford is and to send them to study for themselves. If they like knowledge, they will thank me for having put up such a signpost as this to Sir Charles Mallet's book. And, curiously enough, even if they are not concerned or think they are not concerned with things of history and the arts, they will, nevertheless, find much to amuse and interest them. The truth is, the book is an encyclopaedia of men, things, and ideas. Indeed, it reminds one, in spite of its scientific method and wise practicalness, of another distinguished Oxford book, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton may be said to have found melancholy in all men, in all times, and in all places ; and Sir Charles Mallet in the same way finds Oxford everywhere, as he should, for it is everywhere. When he mentions a thing he does not merely dryly allude to it, but gives us something to carry away. For example, when he is dealing with that very interesting subject, the Arabic translations of Aristotle, Plato, and Hippocrates, with which the Spaniards endowed us, he gives us a very stimulating account of Saracenic learning in Spain. Another example is the admirably short and yet vivid account which we get of mediaeval philosophy and of the Nominalists and Realists. It may seem daring to put these things into a history of the university side by side with plans of Oxford and reproductions of the drawings of colleges at various stages in their history ; but Sir Charles was quite right. His comprehensiveness is in the way of true scholarship. At least, so it seems to me. I have always despised the man who keeps on telling you by inference or in plain terms that such a thing is out of his period or out of his sphere and that, therefore, he is not going to say anything about it. Frankly, I like the good sportsmanship of a man of letters who, like Sir Charles Mallet, whenever he flushes game lets fly his hawks and is not always thinking whether he was or was not out for that particular branch of the sport.
With so much of comment I must make my adieu to Sir Charles's first two volumes and wish him all• good luck for the future. When he gets to the Tractarian period and then the Broad Church era of Jowett and Green the " story " should prove of very great interest and should be an
inspiration to the Oxford' of to-day. Controversy- is good for Oxford. She must not be content to lie upon the- sofa
and look beautiful. J. ST. LOE STRACHEY.