At this season, and in this city, the air is tense and chill with spring.
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
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
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
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
‘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
The event that probably attracted the widest attention in
It has always been comparatively easy to get poems published in
But if you are in search of an attack of any sort of melancholia
One might think that the great strength and appeal of
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
‘The words of Mercurie
Are harsh after the songs of Apollo.
You that way: we this way.’