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The Late Master Of Trinity Post by :Brandy Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :November 2011 Read :1981

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The Late Master Of Trinity

(DR. W. H. THOMPSON)


THE interest that attaches to the life of a notable man is generally very complex: it entwines itself with the great events which our hero helped to bring about, his personal relations with the other great men of his time, his view of the movements agitating society. And then there is a further interest in his private life. We desire to see the secret sources from which he drew the inspiration he carried into the outside world; we are anxious to know whether he was most real when before the public, and made his inner life subserve his outer, or whether he withdrew from the dust of battle and the rush of the world, into the quiet of his own circle, feeling that he was returning home. All these varying moods are an attractive study: when the mask falls away and we know that he was most dispirited when he seemed most serene, or in reality buoyed up by a divine elation when apparently crushed by a sorrow that seemed irreparable--the disentangling the central strand from the variegated web is a task of fascinating difficulty.

But in the life which we are here endeavouring to trace there was no such bewildering complexity. The secret history of an essentially reticent mind cannot be written; it is at the best sympathetic guessing. In a life where events are rare, circumstances monotonous, a character with few friends and fewer intimates, withdrawn alike from the political, the religious, the social arena, there can be little to record, unless there has been some definite line taken throughout, some marked attitude which a nature has consistently maintained towards the outer world.

In the case of the late Master of Trinity we can lay our finger at once upon the characteristic which made him what he was--which gave to a personality such an exclusive strength that when it fades from the world we feel that no replacing is possible. He stood to the action and thought of the present day in the character of a judge: like Rhadamanthus in the old fables, who dealt not with motives or tendencies, but with recorded acts, who sate to give judgment upon them, his function was one of pure criticism. How much that is needed in an age where on the one hand so much is excused on the score of irresistible fatality, while on the other hand such an unreasonable preponderance is given to the value of action, is acutely felt in the face of such a loss as his.

It is a part of the strange irony of life that the personalities which make themselves most strenuously felt among their own generation have a way of slipping out of history. A man who is much occupied in leaving his mark in life, in stemming or colouring the whirling stream that passes him, has little time to spend in piling monuments on the banks to be the envy and wonder of the fluid tides that come and go. The wild grief that we often encounter in books, sometimes in real life, that centres about the disappearance of some apparently unemphatic figure can be thus explained: his vitality did not lend itself to visible labour; it was content to modify the temporary and fluctuating. When such an attitude is artistically maintained: when a character most highly gifted, with a taste and delicacy of perception that overrides the captiousness of less instinctive critics, is seen to devote itself not to gathering straws, but to merely watching life, an atmosphere is created which is at once intensely attractive and baffling. When a patient silence is maintained upon questions which appear to the young and fervent to be essential to the progress of the race; when an impenetrable contempt for fanaticism and extravagance occasionally steals out in pungent sentences; when the outbursts of not unnatural emotions are drily repressed; when the overbalancing of enthusiasm is not forgiven, a deep and provoking wonder grows gradually up as to what standpoint such a critic has reached that such judgments should be possible; as to what platforms, what further heights are visible, that the plain should seem so low and despicable. Of all fascinations there is none like the fascination of contempt, and when this is seen, justified by a sure touch, a genuine grasp of ideas, a most piercing intellect, and seen moreover steadfast in a place of which the very atmosphere is that of generous and ardent spirits, the wonder becomes almost intolerable.

There is a great and common misapprehension which accepts no criticism as valid except what proceeds from a basis of superior capacity. The ordinary man requires the critic to be a better man than the performer whom he dissects, to be able to beat his victim on his own ground. But this is a deep-seated error. The creative power often confers no clearness of vision on its possessor; the best critics are seldom originative men. The critic is, in fact, meant to clear the air about great work for ordinary people; to ascertain the best points of view, and to sting to death the crawling nerveless creatures who are just capable of obscuring by the closeness of their imitative powers the beauty of their great exemplar.

To this task the late Master of Trinity brought an instinctive taste of the first order. He possessed a mind so delicate as to be only saved from becoming hypercritical by a certain robustness and virility of taste, a literary discrimination which led the men to whom he lectured to scribble down his very epithets on the margins of their note-books, and which carried into all he wrote a flavour few writers have leisure to bestow. And yet he was no pedant.

But this critical faculty had its negative side; it grew at the expense of the other sides of his intellect. No faculty can be sustained in such perfection except by a loss of balance. And there is something like a sense of failure that crosses us when we look over the list of works by which he will soon be known: an edition of a dialogue or two of Plato's, a few reviews, a sermon or two, occasional contributions to a classical journal--and that is all.

There is a dissatisfaction attending the production of all work even in the most creative minds; but when to this there is added a keenly fastidious taste, working in a region where there can hardly be a constant glow of enthusiasm to propel a student through his exertions, it will be seen that natural difficulty must have been great. In his later years, moreover, the Master had to contend with constant ill-health--and ill-health, too, engendering a hypochondriacal tendency, which is of all physical evils the hardest for a student to struggle against. A malaise which seems to require the distraction of the mind is fatal to its attaining a firm standpoint for laborious origination. And so his intellect turned aside into the easier path of wide and various literary diversion, the impulse, the imperious conscience, so to speak, of the writer to produce, growing fainter and fainter.

Such a mind as this, with its insight into philosophy, its unique power of entering into the heart of subtle ideas and refined phrases, joined with its keen discernment of the modern spirit, might have done a great work of reconciliation. The Master was the founder of the present Cambridge Platonic School; but he is more the suggester and inspirer of the movement, than its leader--or even, to any great extent, its pioneer. He was neither the hard progressive thinker nor the revolutionary scholar--he was merely one of those who by their acute touch, by the subtle mastery with which they present ideas, inspire enthusiastic effort--the Master, indeed, made more than one subtle mind which came under his influence, turn in that direction and do the tasks that he was perhaps himself incapable of performing.

But to the outer world he was perhaps best known as a conversationalist; he had the kind of reputation upon which stories are fathered. Men who knew the oracular background from which Dr. Thompson's utterances proceeded, who knew the inimitable air, the droop of the eyelids, the inscrutable coldness of the eyes and lips, the poise of the head, were ready to give a fictitious value to sayings that had the sanction of his name. To couple his name, falsely or truly, with an epigram gave it an indefinable prestige; his personality thrown into the scale made a sarcasm that might have passed unnoticed into a crushing hit.

Those of his epigrams that survive (and there are a considerable number of a first-rate order) will appeal, it must be confessed, chiefly to those whose humour is of the caustic and derisive order. When he said, for instance, on hearing that the numbers of a rival college were diminishing, that he had heard that emigration was increasing among the lower classes, or that he had never realised what was the full force of the expression in the bidding prayer, "the inferior clergy," till he saw the minor canons of a northern cathedral--the fancy, though irresistibly tickled by the collocation, will on reflection recognise the cruelty of the expressions. And yet those who knew him best concur in saying that the Master was an intrinsically kind man; so promptly generous indeed that in the days when he was a college tutor, undergraduates in trouble went naturally to him for help and advice--a most weighty proof to those who know the undergraduate world and its reticence.

The explanation is that these sayings were uttered solely with reference to the amusement of those who heard them, with no ulterior idea: he had no wish that the venom of these stings should circulate and rankle--least of all that they should penetrate to those who formed the subjects of them. But he could not resist an epigram--when, for instance, on accompanying a popular preacher who was to preach at St. Mary's, he found that they were so hampered by the crowd at the door as to be almost unable to force an entrance--his suave utterance, "Make way, gentlemen, or some of us will be disappointed," was genuinely uttered, because the thought had occurred to him, and he was convinced that it would amuse the throng, and with no sort of wish to harrow the feelings or dash the satisfaction of the divine at his side.

Only two years before the Master's death, the writer of these pages heard him say in a meditative manner at the Lodge at Trinity, speaking of an offensive speaker at a meeting held the previous day, "So-and-so was very unfortunate; he reminded me of his father"--whereupon, his sentences having somewhat an oracular effect about them, those present instinctively turned in his direction, thinking that some interesting reminiscences had been aroused--when he continued "he succeeded in being at once dull and flippant" (a pause), "no uncommon combination." This last is a specially characteristic utterance--a strong personal judgment relieved by a general application--if we may use the word--a "back-hander" to humanity. This was what he delighted in doing. No one, again, had a greater power of freezing enthusiasm, when expressed with what he considered unnecessary vehemence. A well-known divine tells me that in his undergraduate days he was once spending the evening in Thompson's rooms, and the conversation turned on the respective merits of certain celebrated Madonnas. This gentleman expressed himself strongly in favour of Raffaell's "Madonna della Seggiola" as compared with Lionardo's "Vierge aux Rochers," adding, "There can be no reasonable doubt on the subject." "When you are older you will think differently," said Thompson.

"Have you forgotten my rusty sword?" muttered Bentley to some contumacious Fellow of Trinity, threatening to revive an ancient regulation long in abeyance. The late Master's sword was neither rusty, nor were mankind ever suffered to forget it. About once in every calendar year, at one of the college meetings, it would whistle flashing from its sheath, and go straight to the heart of the opponent through the vulnerable point of the harness. Thompson never thrust but he killed.

When upon the discussion of some trivial point he turned stiffly to a dilettante Fellow who had professed ignorance of the question, and said: "I am surprised Mr.----, that you are not acquainted with the fact: it is so very unimportant"; or when, at a lecture, after closing a list of books that he recommended, he ended by saying of one of the works of his predecessor in the mastership, that "he had looked through it and corrected some of the grosser blunders,"--we cannot help feeling that such improvisations, though amazingly ingenious in themselves had better not have been uttered if they were (as they actually were) capable of personal application. If humour is the saline element, the wholesome preservative of the tone of life, we sometimes meet it concentrated, when its bitterness seems its only characteristic. It is worth noting too, that though a deeply conscientious, nay religious man, Thompson managed to create a very opposite impression upon his pupils. An old pupil of his has told me that he experienced a curious shock of surprise at finding Thompson's name on the title-page of a book of family prayer. It had hardly occurred to him to think of him as a clergyman.

The Mastership of Trinity is a unique position; with its traditions it confers a kind of intellectual peerage upon its occupant. It is the only great position at Cambridge which is of Crown appointment and not elective. At another college the man who means to end by being Master has to gain the confidence of and conciliate his colleagues; and a Headship is generally conferred upon the man who has best deserved it by worth and weight, and by cheerful labour spent in furthering the college interests; but at Trinity no such exertions are needed. College opinion is, of course, considered; but a man has far more need to impress the outer world. If, on attaining this position, a man isolates himself from his fellow-workers, makes no efforts to attain popularity, arrogates to himself a critical position, no remarks are possible, so common elsewhere, of the type of "kicking away the ladder by which the ascent was made." It is a great testimony to Dr. Thompson's weight and impressiveness, that among the remarks that have been made as to his manner of administrating the position, it has never been hinted that he was unworthy to succeed that intellectual Titan, Whewell. Dr. Thompson had no encyclopædic knowledge to show; he had no vast capacities of dealing with general subjects; he had not a remarkably comprehensive mind. But he was a man of whom it was impossible to think meanly; he extorted admiration even where he did not win sympathy. His presence among heads of houses, in the Senate House, at Boards and Syndicates, was instinctively felt to confer an honour upon his associates; he had, in fact, some of the "kingly" attributes about him. He moved naturally in an atmosphere of deference, not only the deference conceded to a man whose speech is feared; his manner had something to do with it, no doubt. It was majestic; there is no other word.

It is to be feared that the impression he will leave will be that of a man whose mind was deliberately depreciative; and it cannot be denied that his best things were in the depreciatory manner. But they were only occasional flashes in much conversation of the subtle, deft type that perpetually flowed from him. Of course such a stream cannot be remembered if it is not "photographed" at the time. It only exists in beautiful impressions left on the hearer's mind. Friends who went to see him for a few minutes' chat on business stayed an hour beguiled by the entertainment. It is said of him, that "much of the enjoyment of talking to him was that the expectation of conversational friandises was so frequently gratified." Such a delicate turn as occurs in the prefatory remarks to his edition of the Phædrus will illustrate this. He says, that in sorting "a heap of Neoplatonic rubbish, many remarks emerge that are learned, even sensible"; the inversion of the two epithets--the suspicion hinted that the ground covered by the first is by no means conterminous with the ground of the second, is the kind of turn he delighted to give.

At no period of his life was he probably a very arduous worker; though always fond of serious and sustained reading he used to lament the change of the dinner-hour--which, in the old barbarian days was at such a time as four--as depriving him of his long peaceful evenings, when he did all the work he ever did; and, as has been already said, he was the victim for many years of a very hypochondriacal temperament--which may account for many things--for his never applying himself to the production of a magnum opus--for the acid turn of his wit. He was a great smoker at one time; it is said to have affected him injuriously.

The wonderful magnificence of his face and figure will haunt those who knew them well. The complexion like parchment; the large ear; the short snow-white hair in such strange contrast to the coal-black mobile eyebrows, with which, as is recorded of Dr. Keate, he seemed able to point at anything; then the critical wrinkles of the brow; the droop of the eyelid, slowly raised as he turned to you, as though to give your faltering remarks his more particular attention; the eye, formerly so keen, in latter days so curiously dull and obscured; the depressed curve of the lip drawn down at the corners--it was a face which it will be absolutely impossible to forget, which it was impossible not to take delight in watching; it was a face from which you could not help expecting some memorable utterance.

There is a strange pathos in his criticism when he was first shown the magnificent but somewhat appalling portrait of himself painted by Mr. Herkomer, taken when he was not far from the end. "Do I really look as though I held the world so cheap?" he said. It was like a kind of recantation, a kind of protest against the opinion which held him to be so innately an unkindly man; a kind of claim to be reckoned as one of the human race whom he was popularly supposed to despise.

An impressive figure is gone from us. We cannot, without a pang, see our characteristic types pass and disappear from the gallery of life. The late Master of Trinity possessed, perhaps, a character that appealed more to the older, to the humorous than to the young, the generous, the ardent. But we shall terribly misunderstand him if we do not see that a heart beat beneath the cynical mask, that the figure inside the sardonic shrine was of pure gold.

1886.


(The end)
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Late Master Of Trinity

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