Poems and Prose Remains, Vol. I

A Passage Upon Oxford Studies

Extracted From

A Review of the Oxford University

Commissioners’ Report, 1852.

(Published in the ‘North American Review,’ for April 1853, Vol. lxxvi. No. 159.)

Arthur Hugh Clough

‘I WENT to Oxford from the sixth form (the highest class) of a public school. I had at that time read all Thucydides, except the sixth and seventh books; the six first books of Herodotus; the early books of each author I had done at least three times over. I had read five plays, I think, of Sophocles, four of Æschylus—several of these two or three times over; four, perhaps, or five, of Euripides; considerable portions of Aristophanes; nearly all the “Odyssey;” only about a third of the “Iliad,” but that several times over; one or two dialogues of Plato—the “Phædo,” I remember, was one; not quite all Virgil; all Horace; a good deal of Livy and Tacitus; a considerable portion of Aristotle’s “Rhetoric,” and two or. three books of his “Ethics;” besides, of course, other things. I mention these, because they have to do with Oxford. I had been used to do my very best in translating in the class. We were not marked; but expressions of approbation, graduated carefully, and invariably given by the rule so formed, were quite sure to let every boy know how he had done his part. The more diligent used to listen with eagerness for note and comment; the idlest amongst us were considerably afraid of reprimand. We were wont, moreover, to do three long originaI exercises every week, out of school. These were looked over with us singly, and marked by a regular scale. To fall below 26 I used to consider latterly a disgrace; to attain 28, a very great piece of honour. I knew perfectly well when I did ill, and when I did well.

‘No words, not even those of Mr. Lowe, can express the amount of the change which I experienced on entering the lecture-rooms of my college—though confessedly one of the very best in Oxford—and on embarking upon the course of University study. Had I not read pretty nearly all the books? Was I to go on, keeping up my Latin prose writers, for three years more? Logic and Ethics had some little novelty; there was a little extra scholarship to be obtained in some of the college lectures. But that was the utmost. I should have wished to take to Mathematics, which I had hitherto rather neglected; but Mathematics alone would not lead to a Fellowship, and I did not feel any certainty that I could stand the strain of work for a “Double-First.” I had been pretty well sated of distinctions and competitions at school; I would gladly have dispensed with anything more of success in this kind, always excepting the 200l. a year of the Fellowship. What I wanted was to sit down to happy, unimpeded prosecution of some new subject or subjects; surely, there was more in the domain of knowledge than that Latin and Greek which I had been wandering about in for the last ten years. Surely, there were other accomplishments to be mastered, besides the composition of Iambics and Ciceronian prose. If there were, however, they existed not for me. There were the daily lectures in the morning, which I did not like to miss (and, indeed, could hardly have missed to any profitable extent); nor yet, if I attended them, to neglect to prepare for them. The daily lectures now, and the weary re-examination in classics three years ahead! An infinite lassitude and impatience, which I saw reflected in the faces of others, quickly began to infect me. Quousque Latin prose? Though we should gain by it prizes and honours academical, beyond all academical example, it would not the less certainly be a mere shame and waste of strength to make the effort. I did go on, for duty’s sake, and for discipline and docility, sadly doing Latin prose; but, except in docility, profiting but little. Could I only have hoped to get through the whole business in a year or a year and a half’s time, and then to be free to do what, before that is over, one never does, study! Some pleasure, too, there would have been, even in that old Greek and Latin, could one but have been free to pasture freely, following a natural instinct, upon its fairly extensive field. But no; if one did anything, one must “get up” the books for the schools, and they were—three years ahead. Even the present alteration in the statute, by which the suffering pilgrim is allowed to lay down a portion of his classical burden at the feet of the examiners, at the end of the second year, appears to me insufficient; ever so much classics and theology still remain behind, to be carried on, as before, to the end of the third year. No proper emancipation, no true admission to the rights of manly reading, is given, until the moment when, for most, it comes too late.

‘The masters of the public schools have, it is true, been in fault; they have pushed on their pupils too hastily; have prepared them prematurely for the ultimate honours of the degree; have neglected the “Æneid” and the “Iliad” for the sake of Aristophanes and the Ethics. Yet it is true, nevertheless, that this very examination in Ethics, &c., used to be passed, not so many years ago, by young men not a bit older than the boys at the top of the public schools. Arnold took his First at nineteen, Peel his “Double-First” at twenty. Surely, after the age of nineteen or twenty, it is really time that this schoolboy love of racing, this empty competition, should be checked. There is less, a great deal, at Oxford than at Cambridge; but there is a great deal too much at Oxford. For the preliminary discipline of boys, I grant it to be needful; to carry it forward into the very years of legal manhood, appears to me a most foolish and ill-advised innovation. The existing change I cannot account sufficient; every one, as before, must do his literæ humaniores. Still, if four substantial departments were once reaIly and fairly established for the third year, I am happy in the belief that no one would think so very much of high honours in any one of them. Examinations are useful things, and the stricter they are, the better; and the results, I suppose, can hardly be made public without some honour attending them. But by the great principle, “divide et impera,” we shall, I hope, overpower much of this pernicious distinction. We shall be able to prove to young men whether they really know what they think they know, without declaring them (dî meliora!), to themselves and all the world, to be the cleverest men in Oxford. Examinations, I repeat, are essential; but no examinations will do much good unless there be, independent and irrespective of them, a real inward taste, and liking, and passion, shall I say, not for competitive effort and distinction, but for study, and the subjects themselves of study. Examinations are sadly apt to impair this spring of happy spontaneity" honos, indeed, alit artes, but not that honour which attends the success of the race-horse; which testifies to a mere personal and comparative superiority. Far more grateful, and of far higher value than any such popular plaudit, is, to the faithful student, the strictly plain and severely true ascertainment, not of whom he has beat, but of what he has done: the real desideratum for him is the exact and well-considered verdict of an accomplished judge of details; to details and separate branches, therefore—not to aggregates of studies, but to distinct studies—should examinations be applied. Quot homines, tot studia; quot studia, tot examinations: Have as many as you please; the more they are in number, the less imposing they are singly; multiply them indefinitely. Only, of all Senior Wranglers, Medallists, and even “Double-First,” let us be fairly and finally rid.’

Poems and Prose Remains vol. I - Contents

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