ACADEMIC BELLES LETTRES.* WITHIN the compass of a short article
we cannot lay claim to present our readers with an exhaustive survey of all that falls under this heading. We have confined ourselves, therefore, to the three Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Dublin ; and if we shall appear to do scant justice to the second, it is because her best representative, the late Mr. Calverley, is so well known to the public that any criticism from us would be gratuitous, while the successful jeux &esprit of Mr. Trevelyan do not belong to the period to which we have limited ourselves—the last thir teen or fourteen years.
A careful perusal of the contributions of Oxford to this domain of letters during the last decade can hardly fail to
awaken, as its most striking result, a sense of surprise at the dreariness which, as a rule, seems to brood over her young singers. We expect from this category those buoyant spirits who gave birth, in 1874 and 1875, to the Shotover Papers, a magazine which, if itevinced a somewhat rebellions spirit towards
the authorities, at least exhibits the redeeming feature of a hearty love of fun. With this exception, however, the prevailing tone of Oxford poetry is one of gloom. Hardly anywhere, indeed, have we encountered a more remarkable support for the conventional foreign view of the seriousness of our national temperament than in the verses written during the last four or five years, by young men presumably in the prime of life and health, who are supposed to lead the most delightful of lives, with every variety of recreation within their reach.
Is it the Oxford climate that is at fault, wherein, as a don once put it, you never feel your bodily spirits at more than half-pressure, but are clogged by the mist and damp in which, from surrounding heights, that fair city may be generally seen weltering P Or is it the discontent begotten of much learning and study of philosophy at Balliol, the chief nest of recent Oxonian song-birds P Anyhow, the fact remains, explain it as we may, that their singing, as a rule, is in the minor key. Happily, we have abundant grounds for declining to believe that they are invariably as unhappy as they make themselves out to be,—grounds resting on individual observation sup plemented by the following passage from the Cambridge Tatter. The writer describes how he received from a friend a poem beginning as follows :—
" Once on the border-land of sleep and waking, After a day of tears ;
Just as the morning in the East was breaking, A sweet sound filled my ears ; Sweet-dropping whispers of a voice that thrilled me, Like a sharp beam of light, Ac."
"After the receipt of this, I went in the evening to visit my poor friend, and found him entertaining a somewhat noisy
supper-party I took a seat near him and accepted his hospitable proffers of oysters and porter, and by-and-bye I took an opportunity of laying a ' soft velvet touch' on his arm, and saying, in a sweet dropping whisper,' that I was glad this was not a day of tears' also. He gave me a look of mingled reproach and anguish, and swallowed two oysters without
speaking." We have hopes, at any rate, that this may be true of Oxford as well; and we are further borne out in our surmises by the fact that the authors of some of these funereal strains were simultaneously capable of concocting the most diverting of epigrams upon University celebrities. Yet, strangely enough, these same wits, if ever they do indulge in a smile in the pages before us, do so in the grimmest fashion, and with " alien jaws," to borrow a phrase from the poet they love so truly and so well.
Turning back to the Shotover Papers, we find that verse is hardly their strong point, although they contain some ingenious parodies ; and in the lines, " Vance v. Shakespeare," a telling
protest against the preposterous regime then prevailing, under which the theatre, closed in term-time to all dramatic repre sentations proper, was open to performances of a type described by a parodist as " most music-hall, most melancholy." But there is considerable humour in many of the prose pieces, notably the really delightful travesties of Professor Ruskin's discursive style,—the autobiography of Colenso comdiled from the examples in his Arithmetic, and beginning, " I owe £3,74617s. 3d. for whiskey—his own words "—and in the Fables of Fantasticus, from which we will quote the following :—
" Tax OLD BIRD AND THE ROLLING STONE.—An old bird one day perched itself upon a rolling stone, which was resting, after a long and fruitless search for moss. The poor stone was fretfully lamenting its want of success. 'I have some chaff with which they tried to catch me this morning,' said the kindly old bird, if that will do as well.'—' I've tried it, but it won't stick,' sobbed the stone.—' It will, by gum !' cried the eager old biped.—' Don't contradict r said the stone, rolling over and crushing to death the venerable bird. Murat. —Never use vulgar expressions to a stone unless it is firmly imbedded in a wall."
"How I was Ploughed in Mods" is a ludicrous paper, and illustrates admirably the habit of mind of those who, endeavour
ing to prove that they have been unfairly treated, succeed only too completely in convincing their hearers of the reverse. In our own day there was a good story current of a young nobleman who described how in a Divinity paper the examiners had
tried to catch him with the word 'Pura lot, and make him translate it " Romans ;" "but I wasn't such a fool, so I put the
Pomaeans !" And the story added that he could not conceive why they had ploughed him.
With the last number of the Shotover Papers all fun faded out of the life of the undergraduate,—that is, if we are to judge by his literature, for he can say, with great truth, " I am saddest when I sing." An unproductive gap of four years occurred, and towards the close of 1879 some undergraduates, hailing for
the most part from Balliol, put forth Waifs and Strays, a terminal magazine of Oxford verse. In the early numbers there were some faint sounds of mirth,—ghost-like mockeries of
Praed,—but with the entrance, in the fourth number, on an epoch of hand-made paper and rough edges, all such unseemly laughter was finally hushed. We have already attempted to explain this phenomenon, and will only add that the msthetie movement was then exerting considerable influence upon under graduate society, and may to some extent have been answerable for it. Winter and death, wrecks, ruined castles, and unrequited love, these are the favourite themes ; and it must be admitted that they are treated in a strain of the most approved melancholy. Witness this extract ;—
"Even like ./Eueas in these days must we
Steer a doomed coarse in heaviness of soul,— Above our beads dark heavens that flash and roll, Beneath, the hanger of the moaning sea ; A love in ruin on the forsaken shore, And, ah ! what perilous promised land before ?"
From among all the contributions, those signed with the initials " J. W. M." and " H. C. B." seem to us to stand out by their
conspicuous merit. The former writer, whether in his sonnets, Latin or English, or in such a tour de force as the piece entitled "Santa Cruz," displays a sense of form often exquisite, always noticeable ; an easy mastery of rhythm, and abundant evidences of refined scholarship. The latter's verses are grateful from
their quaint whimsicality—the nearest approach to humour we have discovered in this magazine--as well as from the genuine feeling that inspires them. He, at least, does not spend his time crooning over a creedless lot, like some of his brothers. Some
times, however, they contrive to be diverting in spite of themselves, as when one tells us,—
"On Oxford's towers the tranquil stars look down, The sleeping city sighs with gentle breath ; Closed are the eyes, relaxed the careful frown, This wearied brain of England slumbereth."
How refreshing is this assurance that our young barbarians are not all at play ! And yet this sense of importance reflects, though in a rather ludicrous way, that strong affection for their Alma Mater which is one of the moat agreeable features of
Oxford and Cambridge men. When Mr. Keeley Halswelle's clever pictures of the Thames were exhibited in London some months back, the rooms used to be crowded with University men, delighted amid the gloom of London to get a glimpse of their beloved river again. How true it is that Oxford men or Oxford undergraduates are always thinking about Oxford, may be gathered from the story of the three visitors to Schaffhausen, we think it was, who inscribed the following quatrain in the hotel book :—
" Three Oxford men came here to see These celebrated falls ;
Two had not taken their degree, And one had not passed Smalls."
In Love and Idleness (London, 1883) we have a collection of .pieces, nearly all of which had previously appeared in Waifs and Strays, by three of the cleverest contributors, two of whom
we have already alluded to. Perhaps there is nothing better in the book than the verses entitled, " In Scheria," a glimpse into the after-life of Nausicaa, instinct with classical feeling, and remarkable for the rare charm of the versification. Excellent, 'too, is the sombre piece, " Loca senta situ," which recalls the scenery of Keats's ballad, " La Belle Dame sans Merci," and the lines on a drawing of Lionardo, at Venice. Of the fantastical " Doggerel in Delft," we have been most struck by the ingenious " Monologue d'outre Tombe," where an exact compliance to a peculiar metre is combined with an extraordinary freakishness of thought. The same quaint vein is shown in the " History of Philip the Deacon" and " The Last Tennis Party." Of the sonnets, those on "The Lost Self," "Love Unreturned," and -" On a Madonna and Child, by Bellini," have struck us as the most successful. For sheer cleverness and power of assimila tion, there is nothing more remarkable than the descriptive poem, called " Santa Cruz," narrating an episode in the career of Admiral Blake; but the eclecticism of the style is somewhat -kaleidoscopic. The grim Puritan sentiment of the time is dexterously conveyed by the use of Scriptural phraseology ;
-while the whole poem is cast in a Tennysonian mould, with a Swinburuian lilt of rhythm and turn of expression. The morbid vein we have spoken of above is luckily not so noticeable in this
really very interesting volume ; and yet to all Oxonian poets and poetasters of recent years we think that this vigorous protest of
a Cambridge singer may be addressed with more or less of point :—
" 0 brother poets, why with aimless craving Torture your souls and quarrel with your lot ?
Why with such bitter pains and abject slaving Seek ye for that which satisfieth not ?
What boots it with a garish modern vesture To deck the skeleton of days gone by ?
To galvanise a corpse to grin and gesture, To dance with death a masquerading lie ?
We are not Greeks: have not the ages brought us A purer creed, a yet more sacred fire ?
Can we not love the noble arts Greece taught us, Without a thought of wallowing in her mire ? Time is not ours to toy mid flowers or fountains In drowsy odorous gardens of delight ; Man has to plough the wastes, to scale the mountains, Has friends to succour, and has foes to fight."
At anyrate, it is exhilarating in the extreme to turn from the wailings of most of these youthful bards, spite of their cleverness and imagination, to the breezy Philistinism of The Light Green.
This short-lived magazine was due to the enterprise and wit of two or three Cambridge undergraduates, the title being suggested by a serial named the Dark Blue, which, beyond the title, possessed hardly a single feature characteristic of Oxford. For the benefit of non-University readers, we cannot resist quoting the following stanza from " The Heathen Pass-ee,"—Bret Harte's " Heathen Chines " re-written, rather than parodied,— describing of Tom Crib how
" In the crown of his cap Were the Furies and Fates,
And a delicate map Of the Dorian States, And we found in his palms, which were hollow, What are frequent in palms,—that is, dates."
This is really a triumph of wit and ingenuity. And "The May Exam.," by Alfred Pennysong, though perhaps a trifle brutal, is irresistibly comic. One line will suffice to show its malicious fidelity,—" And Charley Vane came out so grand, in a tall, white chimney-pot." The same remarks apply to the burlesque on Hamlet. For we do not share George Eliot's morbid horror of parodies, nor believe, as she dreads, that a day will come when the original will only be referred to for comparison with the travesties. On the contrary, we hold that these Cambridge wits have earned our gratitude far more effectually by helping to furnish food for honest laughter than their Oxford compeers, who "steer a doomed course in heaviness of soul." Of all the parodies of a much-parodied Victorian poet, there is, perhaps, none so felicitous as the inimitable lines on the Octopus, in The Light Green, from which we take these four lines at random, for all are equally good : "In thy eight-fold embraces enfolden,
Let our empty existence escape ; Give us death that is glorious and golden, Crushed all out of shape !"
In Kottabos, a Trinity College, Dublin, miscellany, we have a blending of the two elements which characterise the verse of the older Universities,—the melancholy of Oxford and the mirth of Cambridge. Kottabos is a publication quite unique in itself, being a common ground on which all members of Trinity College, Dublin, past and present—of all grades—meet in a rivalry of scholarship, wit, and humour. Though edited by one of the Professorial staff—himself a fine scholar and welcome contributor—there is no donnish spirit about its pages, but rather a catholicity of sentiment and a freedom of expression that are probably unsurpassed in any publication of the sort. From this it will be seen that Kottabos stands on a different and more advantageous footing than the other magazines we have been discussing, and the results do not belie our expectations.
Amid so much good original verse, it is hard to award the palm. For fire and vigour it is perhaps due to Mr. Mulvany's " Garden-Party in the time of Nero," a really splendid poem, and by far the best of his contributions. Here is a brilliant picture from it :—
"Never were seen such sights as the Emperor's gardens show, All the world's delights outspread wherever you go ! Tables are set for all, and couches for whose will, Slave-girls come at your call, and the cooks have a royal skill,— Bakers that roast and knead, and cunning women that toil, Mixing sweet poppies' seed, fresh honey, and flawless oil, Fish from the Lucrine track, and boar from Umbria's plains, Of skylarks' tongues no lack, and store of nightingales' brains ; And of all wines men know, whose cost is beyond compare, Flowing in streams below, or fountain-tossed in the air, Or sailed-on, in mimic seas, by vessels of pearl that hold Pilots, who give to the breeze their tresses and zones of gold."
In less skilful hands the metre, with its double rhyme, would have degenerated into a mere jingle. Of the serious verse, we will take a sample from the poem on the text, "Thou hart sent sleep, and stricken sleep with dreams ":— " Why have the gods thus cast on man such sadness and woe ? All the day must be toil, with labour of brain and of bands; Yet when the night with her wings has covered the evening glow, Still must he labour and toil, inhabiting shadowy lands.
Again must he mourn a form which he fain would ever forget, Again must he gaze on a face marred by the fingers of Death; Again must he look on eyes with rivers of weeping wet, And again feel fanning his cheeks the sweets of a breathless breath.
Surely a terrible gift did the Titan bear to man When he gave him fire from heaven, and forethought placed in his mind ; Better far would be be to fulfil hie earthly span, Only knowing what is, not looking before or behind."
In Mr. S. K. Cowan, Kottabos possesses a parodist capable at times of Calverleyan flights. His "Tennysonian Idyll" is excruciatingly absurd, a wonderful bit of sustained burlesque. We will confine ourselves to one short extract :— " And in those days he bought a pair of dogsCsesar and Pompey—each so like to each, That not one single man in the whole world
Could tell the difference. And be made a song And sang it : strangely could he make and sing. Like is my Cresar, so they say, they say : But Pompey is as like him any day : I know not which is liker, he or him."
The condensed novelette, " X. Y., or the Cambridge Man," a skit on the late Mortimer Collins's highly-coloured style of heroworship ; " An Appeal," a protest against the ordinary lodginghouse diet, and for which we would suggest as an alternative title " Chopping without Changing ;" and " Half-hours with the
Classics," are merely the titles of some of the happiest pieces in this charming miscellany, where fun and fancy, Irish melancholy and Irish mirth, find such unfettered utterance. From the last named piece, supposed to be written by a young lady who has been reading "Classics for English Readers," we will make our final quotation :—
" Pensive through the land of Lotus, Sauntered we by Nilus' side ; Garrulous old Herodotus
Still our Mentor, still our guide, Prating of the mystio bliss Of Isis and of Osiris.
All the learned ones trooped before us, All the wise of Hellas' land, Down from mystic Pythagoras To the hemlock-drinker grand ; Dark the hour that closed the gates Of gloomy Dis on thee, Socrates!"
In conclusion, we have only to make the suggestion, that the editor of Kottaboa should give us a collection of the best pieces
of English verse, humorous and pathetic, that have appeared in this magazine, and which in that form ought to achieve the popularity they so richly deserve, but can hardly hope to win while scattered through the pages of a miscellany which, by its title and the refined classicism of much of its contents, appeals only to an audience of scholars.