Sconcing seems to have been the penalty for offences very various in degree. "A young fellow of Balliol College having, upon some discontent, cut his throat very dangerously, the master of his College sent his servitor to the buttery-book to sconce him five shillings; and," says the Doctor, "tell him that the next time he cuts his throat I'll sconce him ten!" This prosaic punishment might perhaps deter some Werthers from playing with edged tools.
From Boswell's meagre account of Johnson's Oxford career we gather some facts which supplement the description of Gibbon. The future historian went into residence twenty-three years after Johnson departed without taking his degree. Gibbon was a gentleman commoner, and was permitted by the easy discipline of Magdalen to behave just as he pleased. He "eloped," as he says, from Oxford, as often as he chose, and went up to town, where he was by no means the ideal of "the Manly Oxonian in London." The fellows of Magdalen, possessing a revenue which private avarice might easily have raised to 30,000 pounds, took no interest in their pupils. Gibbon's tutor read a few Latin plays with his pupil, in a style of dry and literal translation. The other fellows, less conscientious, passed their lives in tippling and tattling, discussing the "Oxford Toasts," and drinking other toasts to the king over the water. "Some duties," says Gibbon, "may possibly have been imposed on the poor scholars," but "the velvet cap was the cap of liberty," and the gentleman commoner consulted only his own pleasure. Johnson was a poor scholar, and on him duties were imposed. He was requested to write an ode on the Gunpowder Plot, and Boswell thinks "his vivacity and imagination must have produced something fine." He neglected, however, with his usual indolence, this opportunity of producing something fine. Another exercise imposed on the poor was the translation of Mr. Pope's "Messiah," in which the young Pembroke man succeeded so well that, by Mr. Pope's own generous confession, future ages would doubt whether the English or the Latin piece was the original. Johnson complained that no man could be properly inspired by the Pembroke "coll," or college beer, which was then commonly drunk by undergraduates, still guiltless of Rhine wines, and of collecting Chinese monsters.
Carmina vis nostri scribant meliora poetae Ingenium jubeas purior baustus alat.
In spite of the muddy beer, the poverty, and the "bitterness mistaken for frolic," with which Johnson entertained the other undergraduates round Pembroke gate, he never ceased to respect his college. "His love and regard for Pembroke he entertained to the last," while of his old tutor he said, "a man who becomes Jorden's pupil becomes his son." Gibbon's sneer is a foil to Johnson's kindliness. "I applaud the filial piety which it is impossible for me to imitate . . . To the University of Oxford I acknowledge no obligations, and she will as cheerfully renounce me for a son, as I am willing to disclaim her for a mother."
Johnson was a man who could take the rough with the smooth, and, to judge by all accounts, the Oxford of the earlier half of the eighteenth century was excessively rough. Manners were rather primitive: a big fire burned in the centre of Balliol Hall, and round this fire, one night in every year, it is said that all the world was welcome to a feast of ale and bread and cheese. Every guest paid his shot by singing a song or telling a story; and one can fancy Johnson sharing in this barbaric hospitality. "What learning can they have who are destitute of all principles of civil behaviour?" says a writer from whose journal (printed in 1746) Southey has made some extracts. The diarist was a Puritan of the old leaven, who visited Oxford shortly before Johnson's period, and who speaks of "a power of gross darkness that may be felt constantly prevailing in that place of wisdom and of subtlety, but not of God . . . In this wicked place the scholars are the rudest, most giddy, and unruly rabble, and most mischievous." But this strange and unfriendly critic was a Nonconformist, in times when good Churchmen showed their piety by wrecking chapels and "rabbling" ministers. In our days only the Davenport Brothers and similar professors of strange creeds suffer from the manly piety of the undergraduates.
Of all the carping, cross-grained, scandal-loving, Whiggish assailants of Alma Mater, the author of Terrae Filius was the most persistent. The first little volume which contains the numbers of this bi-weekly periodical (printed for R. Franklin, under Tom's Coffee-house, in Russell Street, Covent Garden, MDCCXXVI.) is not at all rare, and is well worth a desultory reading. What strikes one most in Terrae Filius is the religious discontent of the bilious author. One thinks, foolishly of course, of even Georgian Whigs as orthodox men, at least in their undergraduate days. The mere aspect of Mr. Leslie Stephen's work on the philosophers of the eighteenth century is enough to banish this pleasing delusion. The Deists and Freethinkers had their followers in Johnson's day among the undergraduates, though scepticism, like Whiggery, was unpopular, and might be punished. Johnson says, that when he was a boy he was a lax TALKER, rather than a lax THINKER, against religion; "but lax talking against religion at Oxford would not be suffered." The author of Terrae Filius, however, never omits a chance of sneering at our faith, and at the Church of England as by law established. In his description of the exercises of the Club of Wits, only one respectably clever epigram is quoted, beginning, -
"Since in religion all men disagree, And some one God believe, some thirty, and some three."
This production "was voted heretical," and burned by the hands of the small-beer drawer, while the author was expelled. In the author's advice to freshmen, he gives a not uninteresting sketch of these rudimentary creatures. The chrysalis, as described by the preacher of a University sermon, "never, in his wildest moments, dreamed of being a butterfly"; but the public schoolboy of the last century sometimes came up in what he conceived to be gorgeous attire. "I observe, in the first place, that you no sooner shake off the authority of the birch but you affect to distinguish yourselves from your dirty school-fellows by a new drugget, a pair of prim ruffles, a new bob-wig, and a brazen-hilted sword." As soon as they arrived in Oxford, these youths were hospitably received "amongst a parcel of honest, merry fellows, who think themselves obliged, in honour and common civility, to make you DAMNABLE DRUNK, and carry you, as they call it, a CORPSE to bed." When this period of jollity is ended, the freshman must declare his views. He must see that he is in the fashion; "and let your declarations be, that you are CHURCHMEN, and that you believe as the CHURCH believes. For instance, you have subscribed the Thirty-nine Articles; but never venture to explain the sense in which you subscribed them, because there are various senses; so many, indeed, that scarce two men understand them in the same, and no TRUE CHURCHMAN in that which the words bear, and in that which they were written."
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