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The Cambridge And The Poets Post by :paulcooper Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :October 2011 Read :1425

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The Cambridge And The Poets

Why all the English poets, with a barely decent number of exceptions, have been Cambridge men, has always struck me, as did the abstinence of the Greeks from malt Mr. Calverley, 'as extremely curious.' But in this age of detail, one must, however reluctantly, submit to prove one's facts, and I, therefore, propose to institute a 'Modest Inquiry' into this subject. Imaginatively, I shall don proctorial robes, and armed with a duster, saunter up and down the library, putting to each poet as I meet him the once dreaded question, 'Sir, are you a member of this University?'

But whilst I am arranging myself for this function, let me utilize the time by making two preliminary observations--the first one being that, as to-day is Sunday, only such free libraries are open as may happen to be attached to public-houses, and I am consequently confined to my own poor shelves, and must be forgiven even though I make some palpable omissions. The second is that I exclude from my survey living authors. I must do so; their very names would excite controversy about a subject which, when wisely handled, admits of none.

I now pursue my inquiry. That Chaucer was a Cambridge man cannot be proved. It is the better opinion that he was (how else should he have known anything about the Trumpington Road?), but it is only an opinion, and as no one has ever been found reckless enough to assert that he was an Oxford man, he must be content to 'sit out' this inquiry along with Shakspeare, Webster, Ford, Pope, Cowper, Burns, and Keats, no one of whom ever kept his terms at either University. Spenser is, of course, the glory of the Cambridge Pembroke, though were the fellowships of that college made to depend upon passing a yearly examination in the Faerie Queen, to be conducted by Dean Church, there would be wailing and lamentation within her rubicund walls. Sir Thomas Wyatt was at St. John's, Fulke Greville Lord Brooke at Jesus, Giles and Phineas Fletcher were at King's, Herrick was first at St. John's, but migrated to the Hall, where he is still reckoned very pretty reading, even by boating men. Cowley, most precocious of poets, and Suckling were at Trinity, Waller at King's, Francis Quarles was of Christ's. The Herbert family were divided, some going to Oxford and some to Cambridge, George, of course, falling to the lot of Cambridge. John Milton's name alone would deify the University where he pursued his almost sacred studies. Andrew Marvell, a pleasant poet and savage satirist, was of Trinity. The author of Hudibras is frequently attributed to Cambridge, but, on being interrogated, he declined to name his college--always a suspicious circumstance.

I must not forget Richard Crashaw, of Peterhouse. Willingly would I relieve the intolerable tedium of this dry inquiry by transcribing the few lines of his now beneath my eye. But I forbear, and 'steer right on.'

Of dramatists we find Marlowe (untimelier death than his was never any) at Corpus; Greene (I do not lay much stress on Greene) was both at St. John's and Clare. Ben Jonson was at St. John's, so was Nash. John Fletcher (whose claims to be considered the senior partner in his well- known firm are simply paramount) was at Corpus. James Shirley, the author of The Maid's Revenge and of the beautiful lyric beginning 'The glories of our birth and state,' in the innocence of his heart first went to St. John's College, Oxford, from whence he was speedily sent down, for reasons which the delightful author of Athenae Oxonienses must really be allowed to state for himself. 'At the same time (1612) Dr. William Laud presiding at that house, he had a very great affection for Shirley, especially for the pregnant parts that were visible in him, but then, having a broad or large mole upon his left cheek, which some esteemed a deformity, that worthy doctor would often tell him that he was an unfit person to take the sacred function upon him, and should never have his consent to do so.' Thus treated, Shirley left Oxford, that 'home of lost causes,' but not apparently of large moles, and came to Cambridge, and entered at St. Catharine's Hall, where, either because the authorities were not amongst those who esteemed a broad or large mole upon the left cheek to be a deformity, or because a mole, more or less, made no sort of difference in the personal appearance of the college, or for other good and sufficient reasons, poor Shirley was allowed, without, I trust, being often told of his mole, to proceed to his degree and to Holy Orders.

Starting off again, we find John Dryden, whose very name is a tower of strength (were he to come to life again he would, like Mr. Brown of Calaveras, 'clean out half the town'), at Trinity. In this poet's later life he said he liked Oxford better. His lines on this subject are well known:

'Oxford to him a dearer name shall be
Than his own Mother-University.
Thebes did his rude, unknowing youth engage,
He chooses Athens in his riper age.'

But idle preferences of this sort are beyond the scope of my present inquiry. After Dryden we find Garth at Peterhouse and charming Matthew Prior at John's. Then comes the great name of Gray. Perhaps I ought not to mention poor Christopher Smart, who was a Fellow of Pembroke; and yet the author of David, under happier circumstances, might have conferred additional poetic lustre even upon the college of Spenser. {1}


{1} This passage was written before Mr. Browning's 'Parleyings' had appeared. Christopher is now 'a person of importance,' and needs no apology.

In the present century, we find Byron and his bear at Trinity, Coleridge at Jesus, and Wordsworth at St. John's. The last-named poet was fully alive to the honour of belonging to the same University as Milton. In language not unworthy of Mr. Trumbull, the well-known auctioneer in Middlemarch, he has recorded as follows:

'Among the band of my compeers was one
Whom chance had stationed in the very room
Honoured by Milton's name. O temperate Bard,
Be it confest that for the first time seated
Within thy innocent lodge and oratory,
One of a festive circle, I poured out
Libations, to thy memory drank, till pride
And gratitude grew dizzy in a brain
Never excited by the fumes of wine
Before that hour or since.' {2}


{2} The Prelude, p. 55.

I know of no more amiable trait in the character of Cambridge men than their willingness to admit having been drunk once.

After the great name of Wordsworth any other must seem small, but I must, before concluding, place on record Praed, Macaulay, Kingsley, and Calverley.

A glorious Roll-call indeed!

'Earth shows to Heaven the names by thousands told
That crown her fame.'

So may Cambridge.

Oxford leads off with one I could find it in my heart to grudge her, beautiful as she is--Sir Philip Sidney. Why, I wonder, did he not accompany his friend and future biographer, Fulke Greville, to Cambridge? As Dr. Johnson once said to Boswell, 'Sir, you may wonder!' Sidney most indisputably was at Christchurch. Old George Chapman, who I suppose was young once, was (I believe) at Oxford, though I have known Cambridge to claim him. Lodge and Peele were at Oxford, so were Francis Beaumont and his brother Sir John. Philip Massinger, Shakerley Marmion, and John Marston are of Oxford, also Watson and Warner. Henry Vaughan the Silurist, Sir John Davies, George Sandys, Samuel Daniel, Dr. Donne, Lovelace, and Wither belong to the sister University, so did Dr. Brady--but Oxford must not claim all the merit of the metrical version of the Psalms, for Brady's colleague, Dr. Nahum Tate, was a Dublin man. Otway and Collins, Young, Johnson, Charles Wesley, Southey, Landor, Hartley Coleridge, Beddoes, Keble, Isaac Williams, Faber, and Clough are names of which their University may well be proud. But surely, when compared with the Cambridge list, a falling-off must be admitted.

A poet indeed once came into residence at University College, whose single name--for, after all, poets must be weighed and not counted--would have gone far to right the balance, but is Oxford bold enough to claim Shelley as her own? She sent him down, not for riotous living, for no purer soul than his ever haunted her courts, but for wanting to discuss with those whose business it was to teach him questions of high philosophy. Had Shelley only gone to Trinity in 1810, I feel sure wise and witty old Dr. Mansel would never have sent him down. Spenser, Milton, and Shelley! What a triad of immortal fames they would have made. As it is, we expect Oxford, with her accustomed composure, will insist upon adding Shelley to her score--but even when she has been allowed to do so, she must own herself beaten both in men and metal.

But this being so--why was it so? It is now my turn to own myself defeated. I cannot for the life of me tell how it happened.

(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Cambridge And The Poets

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