Dec. 5, 1891. Cambridge Baras.
What I am about to say will, no doubt, be set down to tribal malevolence; but I confess that if Cambridge men appeal to me less at one time than another it is when they begin to talk about their poets. The grievance is an old one, of course–at least as old as Mr. Birrell’s “Obiter Dicta”: but it has been revived by the little book of verse (“Quo Musa Tendis?“) that I have just been reading. I laid it down and thought of Mr. Birrell’s essay on Cambridge Poets, as he calls them: and then of another zealous gentleman, hailing from the same University, who arranged all the British bards in a tripos and brought out the Cambridge men at the top. This was a very characteristic performance: but Mr. Birrell’s is hardly less so in these days when (to quote the epistolary parent) so much prominence is given to athleticism in our seats of learning. For he picks out a team of lightblue singers as though he meant to play an inter-University match, and challenges Oxford to “come on.” He gives Milton a “blue,” and says we oughtn’t to play Shelley because Shelley isn’t in residence.
Now to me this is as astonishing as if my butcher were to brag about Kirke White. My doctor might retort with Keats; and my scrivener–if I had one–might knock them both down with the name of Milton. It would be a pretty set-to; but I cannot see that it would affect the relative merits of mutton and laudanum and the obscure products of scrivenage. Nor, conversely (as they say at Cambridge), is it certain, or even likely, that the difference between a butcher or a doctor is the difference between Kirke White and Keats. And this talk about “University” poets seems somewhat otiose unless it can be shown that Cambridge and Oxford directly encourage poesy, or aim to do so. I am aware that somebody wins the Newdigate every year at Oxford, and that the same thing happens annually at Cambridge with respect to the Chancellor’s Prize. But–to hark back to the butcher and apothecary–verses are perennially made upon Mr. Lipton’s Hams and Mrs. Allen’s Hair Restorer. Obviously some incentive is needed beyond a prize for stanzas on a given subject. I can understand Cambridge men when they assert that they produce more Wranglers than Oxford: that is a justifiable boast. But how does Cambridge encourage poets?
Oxford expelled Shelley: Cambridge whipped Milton.[A] Facit indignatio versus. If we press this misreading of Juvenal, Oxford erred only on the side of thoroughness. But that, notoriously, is Oxford’s way. She expelled Landor, Calverley, and some others. My contention is that to expel a man is–however you look at it–better for his poesy than to make a don of him. Oxford says, “You are a poet; therefore this is no place for you. Go elsewhere; we set your aspiring soul at large.” Cambridge says: “You are a poet. Let us employ you to fulfil other functions. Be a don.” She made a don of Gray, of Calverley. Cambridge men are for ever casting Calverley in our teeth; whereas, in truth, he is specially to be quoted against them. As everybody knows, he was at both Universities, so over him we have a fair chance of comparing methods. As everybody knows, he went to Balliol first, and his ample cabin’d spirit led him to climb a wall, late at night. Something else caused him to be discovered, and Blaydes–he was called Blaydes then–was sent down.
Nobody can say what splendid effect this might have had upon his poetry. But he changed his name and went to Cambridge. And Cambridge made a don of him. If anybody thinks this was an intelligent stroke, let him consider the result. Calverley wrote a small amount of verse that, merely as verse, is absolutely faultless. To compare great things with little, you might as well try to alter a line of Virgil’s as one of Calverley’s. Forget a single epithet and substitute another, and the result is certain disaster. He has the perfection of the phrase–and there it ends. I cannot remember a single line of Calverley’s that contains a spark of human feeling. Mr. Birrell himself has observed that Calverley is just a bit inhuman. But the cause of it does not seem to have occurred to him. Nor does the biography explain it. If we are to believe the common report of all who knew Calverley, he was a man of simple mind and sincere, of quick and generous emotions. His biographers tell us also that he was one who seemed to have the world at his feet, one who had only to choose a calling to excel in it. Yet he never fulfilled his friends’ high expectations. What was the reason of it all?