It was not always safe to say what one thought about politics at Oxford. One Mr. A. going to one Mr. Tonson, a barber, put the barber and his wife in a ferment (they being rascally Whigs) by maintaining that the hereditary right was in the P. of W. Tonson laid information against the gentleman; "which may be a warning to honest men not to enter into topicks of this nature with barbers." One would not willingly, even now, discuss the foreign policy of her Majesty's Ministers with the person who shaves one. There are opportunities and temptations to which no decent person should be wantonly exposed. The bad effect of Whiggery on the temper was evident in this, that "the Mohocks are all of the Whiggish gang, and indeed all Whigs are looked upon as such Mohocks, their principles and doctrines leading thus to all manner of barbarity and inhumanity." So true is it that Conservatives are all lovers of peace and quiet, that (May 29th, 1715) "last night a good part of the Presbyterian meeting-house in Oxford was pulled down. The people ran up and down the streets, crying, King James the Third! The true king! No Usurper. In the evening they pulled a good part of the Quakers' and Anabaptists' meeting-houses down. The heads of houses have represented that it was begun by the Whiggs." Probably the heads of houses reasoned on a priori principles when they arrived at this remarkable conclusion.
In consequence of the honesty, frankness, and consistency of his opinions, Mr. Hearne ran his head in danger when King George came to the throne, which has ever since been happily settled in the possession of the Hanoverian line. A Mr. Urry, a Non-juror, had to warn him, saying, "Do you not know that they have a mind to hang you if they can, and that you have many enemies who are very ready to do it?" In spite of this, Hearne, in his diaries, still calls George I. the Duke of Brunswick, and the Whigs, "that fanatical crew." John, Duke of Marlborough, he styles "that villain the Duke." We have had enough, perhaps, of Oxford politics, which were not much more prejudiced in the days of the Duke than in those of Mr. Gladstone. Hearne's allusions to the contemporary state of buildings and of college manners are often rather instructive. In All Souls the Whigs had a feast on the day of King Charles's martyrdom. They had a dinner dressed of woodcock, "whose heads they cut off, in contempt of the memory of the blessed martyr." These men were "low Churchmen, more shame to them." The All Souls men had already given up the custom of wandering about the College on the night of January 14th, with sticks and poles, in quest of the mallard. That "swopping" bird, still justly respected, was thought, for many ages, to linger in the college of which he is the protector. But now all hope of recovering him alive is lost, and it is reserved for the excavator of the future to marvel over the fossil bones of the "swopping, swopping mallard."
As an example of the paganism of Queen Anne's reign--quite a different thing from the "Neo-paganism" which now causes so much anxiety to the moral press-man--let us note the affecting instance of Geffery Ammon. "He was a merry companion, and his conversation was much courted." Geffery had but little sense of religion. He is now buried on the west side of Binsey churchyard, near St. Margaret's well. Geffery selected Binsey for the place of his sepulchre, because he was partial to the spot, having often shot snipe there. In order to moisten his clay, he desired his friend Will Gardner, a boatman of Oxford, who was accustomed to row him down the river, to put now and then a bottle of ale by his grave when he came that way; an injunction which was punctually complied with.
Oxford lost in Hearne's time many of her old buildings. It is said, with a dreadful appearance of truth, that Oxford is now to lose some of the few that are left. Corpus and Merton, if they are not belied, mean to pull down the old houses opposite Merton, halls and houses consecrated to the memory of Antony Wood, and to build lecture-rooms AND HOUSES FOR MARRIED DONS on the site. The topic, for one who is especially bound to pray for Merton (and who now does so with unusual fervour), is most painful. A view of the "proposed new buildings," in the Exhibition of the Royal Academy (1879), depresses the soul. In the same spirit Hearne says (March 28th, 1671), "It always grieves me when I go through Queen's College, to see the ruins of the old chapell next to High Street, the area of which now lies open (the building being most of it pulled down) and trampled upon by dogs, etc., as if the ground had never been consecrated. Nor do the Queen's Coll. people take any care, but rather laught at it when 'tis mentioned." In 1722 "the famous postern-gate called the Turl Gate" (a corruption for Thorold Gate) was "pulled down by one Dr. Walker, who lived by it, and pretended that it was a detriment to his house. As long ago as 1705, they had pulled down the building of Peckwater quadrangle, in Ch. Ch." Queen's also "pulled down the old refectory, which was on the west side of the old quadrangle, and was a fine old structure that I used to admire much." It appears that the College was also anxious to pull down the chamber of King Henry V. This is a strange craze for destruction, that some time ago endangered the beautiful library of Merton, a place where one can fancy that Chaucer or Wyclif may have studied. Oxford will soon have little left of the beauty and antiquity of Patey's Quad in Merton, as represented in our illustration. What the next generation will think of the multitudinous new buildings, it is not hard to conjecture. Imitative experiments, without style or fancy in structure or decoration, and often more than medievally uncomfortable, they will seem but evidences of Oxford's love of destruction. People of Hearne's way of thinking, people who respect antiquity, protest in vain, and, like Hearne, must be content sadly to enjoy what is left of grace and dignity. He died before Oxford had quite become the Oxford of Gibbon's autobiography.
Oxford has usually been described either by her lovers or her malcontents. She has suffered the extremes of filial ingratitude and affection. There is something in the place that makes all her children either adore or detest her; and it is difficult, indeed, to pick out the truth concerning her past social condition from the satires and the encomiums. Nor is it easy to say what qualities in Oxford, and what answering characteristics in any of her sons, will beget the favourable or the unfavourable verdict. Gibbon, one might have thought, saw the sunny, and Johnson the shady, side of the University. With youth, and wealth, and liberty, with a set of three beautiful rooms in that "stately pile, the new building of Magdalen College," Gibbon found nothing in Oxford to please him--nothing to admire, nothing to love. From his poor and lofty rooms in Pembroke Gate-tower the hypochondriac Johnson--rugged, anxious, and conscious of his great unemployed power--looked down on a much more pleasant Oxford, on a city and on schools that he never ceased to regard with affection. This contrast is found in the opinions of our contemporaries. One man will pass his time in sneering at his tutors and his companions, in turning listlessly from study to study, in following false tendencies, and picking up scraps of knowledge which he despises, and in later life he will detest his University. There are wiser and more successful students, who yet bear away a grudge against the stately mother of us all, that so easily can disregard our petty spleens and ungrateful rancour. Mr. Lowe's most bitter congratulatory addresses to the "happy Civil Engineers," and his unkindest cuts at ancient history, and at the old philosophies which "on Argive heights divinely sung," move her not at all. Meanwhile, the majority of men are more kindly compact, and have more natural affections, and on them the memory of their earliest friendships, and of that beautiful environment which Oxford gave to their years of youth, is not wholly wasted.
There are more Johnsons, happily, in this matter, than Gibbons. There is little need to repeat the familiar story of Johnson's life at Pembroke. He went up in the October term of 1728, being then nineteen years of age, and already full of that wide and miscellaneous classical reading which the Oxford course, then as now, somewhat discouraged. "His figure and manner appeared strange" to the company in which he found himself; and when he broke silence it was with a quotation from Macrobius. To his tutor's lectures, as a later poet says, "with freshman zeal he went"; but his zeal did not last out the discovery that the tutor was "a heavy man," and the fact that there was "sliding on Christ Church Meadow." Have any of the artists who repeat, with perseverance, the most famous scenes in the Doctor's life--drawn him sliding on Christ Church meadows, sliding in these worn and clouted shoes of his, and with that figure which even the exercise of skating could not have made "swan-like," to quote the young lady in "Pickwick"? Johnson was "sconced" in the sum of twopence for cutting lecture; and it is rather curious that the amount of the fine was the same four hundred years earlier, when Master Stoke, of Catte Hall (whose career we touched on in the second of these sketches), deserted his lessons. It was when he was thus sconced that Johnson made that reply which Boswell preserves "as a specimen of the antithetical character of his wit"--"Sir, you have sconced me twopence for non-attendance on a lecture not worth a penny."
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.
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