Tag Archives: Oxford

Anomalous First Lines: Arnold’s ‘Scholar-Gypsy’

“Go, for they call you, shepherd, from the hill;”

The first line of ‘The Scholar-Gypsy’, one of Matthew Arnold’s best-known poems, is anomalous in two ways: first by the introduction of a shepherd whose identity and purpose are never detailed, and secondly by the use of the word “you”.

The shepherd is, according to various pieces of literary analysis, an evocation of the pastoral spirit. All well and good, but what is he doing? The poet summons him to get to his morning work, and then asks him to “again begin the quest” in the evening – the quest being (presumably) the search for the Scholar Gypsy. The first stanza reads in full:

Go, for they call you, shepherd, from the hill;
Go, shepherd, and untie the wattled cotes!
No longer leave thy wistful flock unfed,
Nor let thy bawling fellows rack their throats,
Nor the cropp’d herbage shoot another head.
But when the fields are still,
And the tired men and dogs all gone to rest,
And only the white sheep are sometimes seen
Cross and recross the strips of moon-blanch’d green,
Come, shepherd, and again begin the quest!

The poet will wait for the shepherd all day in the shady corner of a half-reaped field, rereading Glanville’s ancient account of the Oxford student who dropped out to join a band of gypsies. It is a slow start to a rambling poem, and though shepherds are mentioned again they prove unnecessary in the 24 stanzas that follow. The poet is determined to track down the scholar-gypsy who is a) seen from time to time, b) over 200 years old, and c) ageless because he is untainted by modern life (Matthew Arnold wasn’t that big on science or history, apparently). The purpose of tracking the scholar-gypsy down turns out to be to tell him:

But fly our paths, our feverish contact fly!
For strong the infection of our mental strife,

And then thy glad perennial youth would fade,
Fade and grow old at last, and die like ours.

Thanks a lot, Matthew Arnold! You want to track down someone who is hard to find, in order to warn him not to make contact because it will be fatal? Not sure you’re thinking clearly here…

The other anomaly in the first line of the poem is the use of the word “you”. It is natural enough, until you realise that the remaining 249 lines are purely “thee” and “thou”. If Arnold wanted to write in the artificial language that was still (barely) normal for poetry in his day, why didn’t he do so in the first line of the poem? I can’t think of any reason, and assume it was unintentional – perhaps the first line of the poem just came to him as it is, and he accepted it; but as he worked on the rest of the poem in more deliberate fashion he adopted the style he felt appropriate. A pity. He stood on the cusp of contemporary language, but didn’t quite get there.

Photo: “sheep at hillside” by christophercjensen is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Poem: ‘Oxford’

Purple voices, rich and rare,
Glowing in the jeweled air,
Handling esoteric themes,
Mysteries like running streams
Dammed with unexpected care
Into almost-answered prayer
Where you’d think no calmness could
In the wildest of the wood.
Thoughts and unknown meanings dance,
Wordwise weave you in a trance,
Darkly glowing, rich and rare,
Purple voices, glowing air.

This was first published in Candelabrum, the now-defunct journal dedicated to keeping formal/traditional poetry alive in the UK through the darkest days of free verse, i.e. from 1970 to 2010. I only discovered the magazine in 2004, better late than never–I had almost given up writing poetry, having been unable to publish anything at all up to that point. I remain grateful to its editor Leonard McCarthy, the Anglo-Irish formalist poet.

Photo: “Deep in conversation” by NatBat is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Odd poem: ‘Motor Bus’, macaronic poem by A. D. Godley

What is this that roareth thus?
Can it be a Motor Bus?
Yes, the smell and hideous hum
Indicat Motorem Bum!
Implet in the Corn and High
Terror me Motoris Bi:
Bo Motori clamitabo
Ne Motore caedar a Bo—
Dative be or Ablative
So thou only let us live:
Whither shall thy victims flee?
Spare us, spare us, Motor Be!
Thus I sang; and still anigh
Came in hordes Motores Bi,
Et complebat omne forum
Copia Motorum Borum.
How shall wretches live like us
Cincti Bis Motoribus?
Domine, defende nos
Contra hos Motores Bos!

This elegant piece of nonsense was written in January 1914 to celebrate the introduction of a motorised omnibus service in the city of Oxford–hence the reference to two of its main streets, the Corn(market) and High Street. Noticing that both ‘motor’ and ‘bus’ could be the nominative singular of Latin nouns, Professor Godley wrote this series of couplets, declining and rhyming the nouns through all their presumed cases, singular and plural. (The poem presumes the old-fashioned English pronunciation of Latin with many hard vowels needed for the rhymes.) And why not? ‘Motor’ is Late Latin for ‘mover’, and ‘bus’ is a casual modern abbreviation of ‘omnibus’, Latin for ‘for everyone’. The entire piece is written in a mixture of English and Latin, and translates roughly as:

What is this that roars so,
Can it be a motor bus?
Yes, the smell and hideous hum
Indicates a motor bus!
In the Cornmarket and the High Street
Terror of the motor bus fills me:
To the motor bus I will call out
Lest I be killed by the motor bus–
You can be Dative or Ablative
So long as you let us live:
Where shall your victims flee?
Spare us, spare us, O Motor Bus!
So I sang; while still
Motor buses came in hordes
And the whole market place was filled
With a mass of motor buses.
How shall wretches like us live
Surrounded by motor buses?
O Lord, defend us
From these motor buses!

Macaronic, or mixed languages, literature has ancient roots, showing up wherever two languages overlap in one population for a while, frequently in verse, frequently for humorous effect: alternating Persian and Arabic verses or hemistichs of Saadi and Hafez; Rumi’s occasional mix of Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Greek; Indian poetry written in alternating indigenous Hindi and the Persian of the Mughal rulers; and Latin and vernacular languages throughout Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. Modern examples include the Beatles’ ‘Michelle’ and José Feliciano’s ‘Feliz Navidad’.

Photo: “Brandesburton, with NER motor buses 1915 (archive ref PO-1-18-1)” by East Riding Archives is marked with CC0 1.0

Odd Poems: Oxbridge rivalry

The King, observing with judicious eyes
The state of both his universities,
To Oxford sent a troop of horse, and why?
That learned body wanted loyalty;
To Cambridge books, as very well discerning
How much that loyal body wanted learning.

This poem was written by Joseph Trapp in response to events in England in 1714. King George I, to celebrate his coronation, purchased the entire library of the recently deceased bibliophile Bishop of Ely and donated it to Cambridge University, more than tripling the number of books in the university library. Meanwhile Oxford had been having one of its frequent periods of disorder, and the King had had to send in troops to restore calm.

Oxford has a long history of riots, beginning in 1209 with “the hanging of the clerks”. In his 1220s history of England, Roger of Wendover wrote:

“About this time, a certain clerk engaged in the liberal arts at Oxford killed a certain woman by accident and when he found that she was dead he decided to flee.

“But when the mayor of the city and many others who had gathered found the dead woman they began to search for the killer in his house which he had rented together with three of his fellow clerks.

“Not finding the man accused of the deed they seized his three fellow clerks who said they were wholly ignorant of the murder and threw them into prison; then a few days later they were, by order of King John, in contempt of the rights of the church, taken outside the city and hanged.

“When the deed had been done, both masters and pupils, to the number of three thousand clerks, left Oxford so that not one remained out of the whole university; they left Oxford empty, some engaging in liberal studies at Cambridge and some at Reading.”

In effect, Cambridge University was founded by refugee scholars from Oxford–though there is some dispute about the actual timing and the numbers. Then the Pope got involved as part of his disputes with King John, and sent a Papal Legate who, among other things, imposed a payment by the town of Oxford to its University of 52 shillings per year in perpetuity.

The disputes between Town and Gown have continued for centuries, the most severe being the St Scholastica Day riot of 1355. This began with two students complaining about the quality of wine in a pub and ended three days later with 63 University people dead, as well as 30 people from the town and surrounding countryside. And you can read a 1990s anarchist analysis of the continuing conflict in our own time here.

But let’s go back to 1714. George I had been brought in from Hanover to be King with the support of the Whig party; their opposition, the Tories, were on uncertain ground as many of them supported the rival Stuart claim to the throne. George therefore looked favourably on Cambridge with its Whig establishment, while Oxford was a Tory stronghold. Hence the response to Joseph Trapp’s poem by William Browne:

The King to Oxford sent a troop of horse,
For Tories own no argument but force:
With equal skill to Cambridge books he sent,
For Whigs admit no force but argument.

And the rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge continues to this day.