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An essay by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

C.S.C. And J.K.S.

Title:     C.S.C. And J.K.S.
Author: Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch [More Titles by Quiller-Couch]

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?

The accident that cut short his career is not wholly to blame, I think. At any rate, it will not explain away the exception I have taken to his verse. Had that been destined to exhibit the humanity which we seek, some promise of it would surely be discoverable; for he was a full-grown man at the time of that unhappy tumble on the ice. But there is none. It is all sheer wit, impish as a fairy changeling's, and always barren of feeling. Mr. Birrell has not supplied the explanatory epithet, so I will try to do so. It is "donnish." Cambridge, fondly imagining that she was showing right appreciation of Calverley thereby, gave him a Fellowship. Mr. Walter Besant, another gentleman from Calverley's college, complained, the other day, that literary distinction was never marked with a peerage. It is the same sort of error. And now Cambridge, having made Calverley a don, claims him as a Cambridge poet; and the claim is just, if the epithet be intended to mark the limitations imposed by that University on his achievement.


Of "J.K.S.," whose second volume, _Quo Musa Tendis?_ (Macmillan & Bowles), has just come from the press, it is fashionable to say that he follows after Calverley, at some distance. To be sure, he himself has encouraged this belief by coming from Cambridge and writing about Cambridge, and invoking C.S.C. on the first page of his earlier volume, _Lapsus Calami_. But, except that J.K.S. does his talent some violence by constraining it to imitate Calverley's form, the two men have little in common. The younger has a very different wit. He is more than academical. He thinks and feels upon subjects that were far outside Calverley's scope. Among the dozen themes with which he deals under the general heading of _Paullo Majora Canamus_, there is not one which would have interested his "master" in the least. Calverley appears to have invited his soul after this fashion--"Come, let us go into the King's Parade and view the undergraduate as he walks about having no knowledge of good or evil. Let us make a jest of the books he admires and the schools for which he is reading." And together they manage it excellently. They talk Cambridge "shop" in terms of the wittiest scholarship. But of the very existence of a world of grown-up men and women they seem to have no inkling, or, at least, no care.

The problems of J.K.S. are very much more grown-up. You have only to read _Paint and Ink_ (a humorous, yet quite serious, address to a painter upon the scope of his art) or _After the Golden Wedding_ (wherein are given the soliloquies of the man and the woman who have been married for fifty years) to assure yourself that if J.K.S. be not Calverley's equal, it is only because his mind is vexed with problems bigger than ever presented themselves to the Cambridge don. To C.S.C., Browning was a writer of whose eccentricities of style delicious sport might be made. J.K.S. has parodied Browning too; but he has also perpended Browning, and been moulded by him. There are many stanzas in this small volume that, had Browning not lived, had never been written. Take this, from a writer to a painter:--

"So I do dare claim to be kin with you,
And I hold you higher than if your task
Were doing no more than you say you do:
We shall live, if at all, we shall stand or fall,
As men before whom the world doffs its mask
And who answer the questions our fellows ask."

Many such lines prove our writer's emancipation from servitude to the Calverley fetish, a fetish that, I am convinced, has done harm to many young men of parts. It is pretty, in youth, to play with style as a puppy plays with a bone, to cut teeth upon it. But words are, after all, a poor thing without matter. J.K.S.'s emancipation has come somewhat late; but he has depths in him which he has not sounded yet, and it is quite likely that when he sounds them he may astonish the world rather considerably. Now, if we may interpret the last poem in his book, he is turning towards prose. "I go," he says--

"I go to fly at higher game:
At prose as good as I can make it;
And though it brings nor gold nor fame,
I will not, while I live, forsake it."

It is no disparagement to his verse to rejoice over this resolve of his. For a young man who begins with epic may end with good epic; but a young man who begins with imitating Calverley will turn in time to prose if he means to write in earnest. And J.K.S. may do well or ill, but that he is to be watched has been evident since the days when he edited the _Reflector_.[B]


[A] I am bound to admit that the only authority for this is a note written into the text of Aubrey's _Lives_.

[B] The reader will refer to the date at the head of this paper:--

"Heu miserande puer! signa fata aspera rumpas,
Tu Marcellus eris.
* * * * *
Sed nox atra caput tristi circumvolat umbra."

[The end]
Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's essay: C.S.C. And J.K.S