Letter from Oxford

At this season, and in this city, the air is tense and chill with spring. Oxford is never really quiet; and now the gathering rooks, as raucous as clockwork, are beginning to tangle and untidy the branches of the high trees in the Meadows and in Magdalen deer-park. Our winter sleep has been short this year, and not deep. Autumn lasted until Boxing Day and beyond; the cold snap which brought skaters and an ice-yacht onto the broad flood of Port Meadow has gone as swiftly as it came.

These recent months have been filled with an unusual stir and hurry, for the radio and television units of the BBC have been frequent visitors. This term, too, one has been able to read with a certain degree of interest the newspaper reports of the latest ‘Oxford Hoax’. Such a hoax, which generally involves someone pretending to be someone else, is as much an item of news to the majority of people inside Oxford as to those outside. I think this fact ought to be mentioned because one has the impression, when reading outside reports of local happenings, that journalists and audience alike imagine a ferment, a seething of excitement in the University at some trivial plot or small event. On the contrary, the most usual reaction is one of simulated detachment, of bored indifference. One may not condone such an attitude. Indeed, to older and wiser heads such adolescent poses and affectations may seem but faintly amusing. But it is still a point worth emphasizing that in such a very large community, composed of so many diverse elements ‘yoked by violence together’, what goes on in the next room or at the other end of the town might as well be happening in another climate, another sphere. Most people, perhaps, have this conception of life at the University: of quiet scholarly lives of the minority contrasted with the frantic, almost defiant, bustle of the mass of the student population, a mass which cannot easily be separated into its parts. But it is not like this. Not only the College Fellow in his garden, silent between bells, but also the young student, the poet, maybe, hunched in his mackintosh at the top of a bus in the Banbury Road, sits apart from the crowd. Or he follows in the wake of a vision of life that goes before him and which he cannot grasp, a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

For it is a commonplace that, to each man, the world is what he sees and makes. The sportsman, the young man who ‘knows all the right people’, the girl who finds her work too much for her, all who rub shoulders in this City and this University, build – and have built for them – a world in which their neighbour has little part or place. Nevertheless, for the majority, living and studying within the bounds of a moderate State or College grant, there are common meeting – and passing – places; the lecture-room, the ‘Scala’ cinema in Walton Street, the ‘Stowaway’ for a meal at night. Here, and in the wide or narrow streets, the flood of living eddies and tugs and seldom runs slack. Such is the abundant traffic that a newcomer to Oxford sees and hears.

But what of each separate link in this unending chain, each knot of a body, or a mind that says ‘I’? The doctor’s son from Cheshire, or the police-constable’s son from a Worcestershire village, who have great expectations, though as yet small claim, to be called poets: to the one and the other of these Oxford is a succession of traffic and broad walks, or the river-smells, and the smell of petrol and tar: of the clouds, as quiet and heavy as snow, sliding and lifting from the gables and narrow roofs in Holywell. But inside this, each knows a couple of familiar rooms, two or three close friends and a circle of acquaintances. In fact, whether he likes it or not, the young Oxford poet and writer finds himself a member of a small mutual insurance group; so does the actor or the sportsman. It is inevitable that in such an environment a person who has any capacity at all for friendship should gather to himself a small tight shell of people. But only a very unenterprising person would keep his head drawn down inside the whole time.

From the outside all cliques and societies doubtless appear equally brittle, equally sterile. But from within, if one knows their growth, senses the changes of atmosphere, of pressure, they offer more chances of life than might appear. At the present time the young writers in Oxford happen to like each other, enjoy one another’s company for the pictures or a pub. Most of them turn up to the Poetry Society or the English Club each week to hear visiting poets and authors read their own work and to talk about it. They also criticize, abuse, and occasionally praise each other’s work as it appears in manuscript or print.

This is how they see themselves; but ‘how others see us’ has always been the rub. And big words in strange mouths are unpalatable. The Oxford Literary Scene, as it is sometimes called, has been severely criticized by the Cambridge journal Granta in a review of Oxford Poetry, 1953:

‘For at least a generation, Oxford poets have inhabited a club atmosphere in which they have glorified incompetence by calling it “modern” or “neurotic”, and magnified defects by congratulating each other on them.’

Incompetence there may very well be; but it is certainly true to say that, over the past two or three years at least, there has been little of the self-congratulatory spirit in the neighbourhood. As Bacon once said: ‘There is no such flatterer as is a man’s self, and there is no such flattery of a man’s self as the liberty of a friend’. There does seem to be quite general agreement that each artist, young or old, must work out his own salvation, must cut his own path; and that only those with the most strength and the most courage are likely to get to the end. This has always been the case, one supposes, but some decades forget it more readily than others. But to give light and encouragement (and this can often come in the shape of severe but just criticism) is surely the true ‘liberty of a friend’. It may be only a poor and narrow light in this marshy air; but in such a case a lantern swung is a surer weapon than the jawbone of an ass.

I have said that emphasis is laid on personal exploration; this is coupled with a distrust of anything approaching the nature of a manifesto. But most agree as to what lines are good to follow, which seem to lead the seeker farthest before leaving him on his own. The gods whose knees we clutch, one or the other of us, are Yeats, Empson, Dylan Thomas, a diverse enough trio.

If for any reason the Oxford writers consider themselves as a Group it is because they have as a nucleus the Fantasy Press. This was established about two years ago, at Eynsham near Oxford, by the young artist Oscar Mellor and his wife. They began by printing a few pamphlets for the University Poetry Society; and a series of Fantasy Poets now comprises the names of about twenty young writers. Its scope has also been extended beyond the immediate bounds of the university to include selections from the work of such writers as Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie and Thom Gunn. The Press also produces a quarterly magazine New Poems, and has taken over from Messrs Blackwell the publication of the annual volume of Oxford Poetry. Various of the books and pamphlets have been reviewed in the columns of The New Statesman, The Times Literary Supplement, and Time and Tide. Fantasy publications have a sale not only in Oxford but also in Birmingham, Cambridge and London.

The event that probably attracted the widest attention in Oxford writing in general and to the work of the Fantasy Press in particular, was the award of the Arts Council prize of 1953 to the young poet Elizabeth Jennings, whose first book, Poems, was printed and published last year by Oscar Mellor.

It has always been comparatively easy to get poems published in Oxford magazines. But, over the last few years, short-story writers have been badly served, finding infrequent and, of necessity, cramped space in the pages of Isis. To remedy this, a new magazine has recently been brought out, devoted entirely to the publication of short stories. Edited by Derek Wilson of Brasenose College and printed by Fantasy Press, Signpost invites contributions from unestablished authors both inside and outside the University.

But if you are in search of an attack of any sort of melancholia Oxford, I suppose, is the place to find it. This city of sun and water can prove a shallow forcing-bed of youth and talent and energy. And here, amid so many thousands of young people bent of the pursuit of love and happiness, here is the place of all places on earth to be very lonely and very unhappy.

One might think that the great strength and appeal of Oxford lay in its tradition; that an awareness of this would grant a sense of peace and security. But one has found tradition as cold a shadow here as in Westminster Abbey. There is small comfort in being crowded out by ghosts. Under the chill salty-smelling stone of the great Tudor gate-houses, beneath the high rows of portraits in the halls, thin-lipped prelates, all evil-looking old men, you are browbeaten by the past. Tradition is carried to the point of parody and pathos in the advertisements of tailors and marmalade-makers. ‘Generations of Oxford Men’ they write, beneath caricatures of weedy young lads in knickerbockers and norfolk jackets. To be enthusiastic about such traditions requires a particular blend of insensitivity, a bland refusal to hear the bells and wheels of ambulances and fire-engines and heavy lorries shaking the sham and the genuine Gothic frontages to dust. Close by the end of the taxi rank in the Broad a little cross is set into the roadway to mark the place of the Oxford martyrs Latimer and Ridley. But to stand and contemplate such a spot in the midst of all the traffic would be to invite a less glorious, though possibly less lingering, fate for oneself.

Tradition has grown outward, too, beyond the city-boundary. There can be no real escape down to Iffley, or northward by Marston Ferry or Godstow. Even there one is cold-shouldered by the shades of Arnold and Carroll, bruised by blazered elbows and jaded by the so very carefully modulated voices in bar-rooms and along the riverbank. And yet there are sudden flashes of delight for the unwary, when Merton, seen from the Meadows in a windy spring morning, stands hard-cut and glittering; or when the crocuses begin to thrust and trim their narrow wicks; and on the chestnut boughs the oiled buds unravel into leaf. And to have a vision of the rooks and blown trees from a high window in Longwall is to see again that ‘towery city and branchy between towers’ that Hopkins knew and that Keats once saw in his life and loved: ‘This Oxford I have no doubt is the finest city in the world – it is full of old Gothic buildings – Spires – Towers – Quadrangles – Cloisters – Groves, etc, and is surrounded with more clear streams than I ever saw together.

But Keats came to Oxford in the Long Vacation when Oxford, left to itself, was breathing its own air and all its hosts, broken and scattered, were in their homes or wandering in search of strange strands. It is worthy of notice, one feels, that the so-called ‘Oxford Poet’ is living away from university for at least six months of the year. So the boy born and brought up in Worcestershire or Yorkshire is still to all intents a local boy. He does not, unless he is very unfortunate, lose touch with his home ground. His roots still ache for their soil. And the poem he writes or publishes in Oxford may well have been conceived during a ramble over the Lickey Hills or round by Bewdley and the Severn. He is probably left more to his own devices than is his young contemporary who lives and works and frequents literary circles in, say London or Edinburgh. Oxford is essentially a place of meeting and parting. She stands steady amid the rush and swirl of form and fashion, dressed in her own garb and full of her own song. Keats and Arnold and Hopkins have spoken, and what they have said can scarcely be wished unsaid. Anyway

The words of Mercurie
Are harsh after the songs of Apollo.
You that way: we this way.’

[Geoffrey Hill, The London Magazine, May 1954]

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