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The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 23653

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


My introduction to Oxford and its life was somewhat chaotic. Out of that chaos, as I shall show later, I achieved both good and evil. But I must first explain how the chaos arose. By the time I had reached seventeen it had become obvious to my father-or, rather, to the people at the University, who so advised him-that if I was to be able to matriculate at Balliol I must set my intellectual house in order and learn something of the things upon which alone one could matriculate. The irony of accident had designed my mental equipment to be of a kind perfectly useless for the purposes of the preliminary Oxford examinations. It was no doubt true that I knew enough poetry and general literature to confound half the Dons in Balliol. I also knew enough mathematics, as, to my astonishment, a mathematical tutor at Oxford in an unguarded hour confessed to me, to enable me to take a First in Mathematical Mods. But knowledge of literature, a power of writing, a not inconsiderable reading in modern history, and the aforesaid mathematics were no use whatever for the purposes of matriculation.

In those days Latin and Greek Grammar, Latin Prose and "Latin and Greek Unseen," and certain specially-prepared Greek and Latin Books were essentials. It is true that these alone would not have matriculated me. In addition to them the writing of a good essay and of a good general paper were required, to obtain success. Still, the sine qua non was what the representative of the old Oxford in Matthew Arnold's Friendship's Garland calls "the good old fortifying classical curriculum." I could by no possibility have reached the heights of "Hittal," who, it will be remembered, wrote "some longs and shorts about the Caledonian boar which were not bad." Though English verses came so easily, Latin verses did not come at all.

After many family councils it was decided that I should accept the invitation of my uncle and aunt (Professor T. H. Green and his wife) and take up my residence with them in their house in St. Giles's. There I read for Responsions. If it had not been for some extraordinary power of resistance in the matter of Latin and Greek I ought to have found the task easy, for, as I have said elsewhere, I had two of the most accomplished scholars in the University to teach me. One was Mr. Henry Nettleship, soon to become Regius Professor of Latin. The other was a young Balliol man who had just won a Magdalen Fellowship and who was destined to become President of that famous college over which he still presides so worthily and so wisely. But, alas! I was Greek and Latin proof, and all I really gained from my learned teachers was two very close and intimate friends, and the privilege of meeting at the house of the one and in the rooms in the College of the other, a good many of the abler Dons, young and old, and getting on good terms with them. In the same way, I used to see at my uncle's house the best of Oxford company, and also a certain number of Cambridge men.

It must not be supposed, however, that I was not learning anything. I was getting a priceless store of knowledge,

[Illustration: J St Loe Strachey. ?tat 16 (From a photograph done at Cannes, about 1876.)] nay, wisdom from my uncle, who was kindness itself and who was, I am sure, fond of me. He was almost as ready to talk and to answer questions as my father. In him, too, I saw the working of a great and good man and of a noble character.

Though in a different, but equally true, way, Green was as religious a man as my father. If my father felt the personal relationship between God and His children more than Green did, that was chiefly because Green's mind could take nothing which had not the sanction of reason, or, to be more accurate, of an intuition guarded so closely by Reason that very little of the mystic element in Faith remained unchallenged. No one could live with Green without loving him and feeling reverence for his deep sincerity and his instinct for the good.

Though foolish people talked of him as a heretic, or even an infidel, he was in truth one of the most devout of men. That noble passage in Renan's play fits him exactly. The Almighty, conversing as in Job with one of His Heavenly Ministers as to this Planet's people, says:

Apprends, enfant fidèle, ma tendresse pour ceux qui doutent ou qui nient. Ces doutes, ces négations sont fondés en raison; ils viennent de mon obstination à me cacher. Ceux qui me nient entrent dans mes vues. Ils nient l'image grotesque ou abominable que l'on a mise en ma place. Dans ce monde d'idolatres et d'hypocrites, seuls, ils me respectent réellement.

Understand, faithful child, my tenderness for those who doubt and who deny. Those doubts, those denials are founded on reason; they come from my obstinate resolve to hide myself. Those who deny me enter into my plans. They deny the grotesque or abominable image which men have set up in my place. In a world of idolators and hypocrites, they alone really respect me.

But what I gained from my uncle and his friends, from Nettleship and from Warren, and also from the people I used to meet at the house of my great-uncle, Dr. Frederick Symonds, was not all that I achieved in the year before I matriculated. The air of Oxford did not repress but greatly stimulated my love of verse and belles-lettres, and I careered over the green pastures of our poetry like the colt let loose that I was. Elizabethan plays were at the moment my pet reading, and without knowing it I emulated Charles James Fox, who is said while at Oxford to have read a play a day-no doubt out of the Doddesley collection. I even went to the Bodleian in search of the Elizabethans, and remember to this day my delight in handling the big and little books mentioned by Lamb in his Dramatic Selections. I recall how I turned over the leaves of such enchanting works as Inigo Jones's designs for The Tempest played as a Masque. Though I do not happen to have seen it since, and so speak with a forty years' interval, the pen-and-ink drawing of Ariel, portrayed exactly like a Cinquecento angel, is fixed in my mind. It has all the graciousness and gentleness of Bellini and all the robust beauty of Veronese or Palma Vecchio. To tell the truth, I was in the mood of the lady of the Island over which Prospero waved his wand. I could say with Miranda, "O brave new world, that has such men and women in it!" Indeed, though I still stood outside the gates, as it were, I had already felt the subtle intoxication of Oxford.

The result of all this was that when I at last got through Responsions and entered Balliol, with the understanding that directly I got through Pass Mods. I was to abandon the Classics and read for the History School, I knew, as it were, too much and too little. This knowledge of some things and want of knowledge of others produced a result which was highly distasteful to the normal academic mind. In a word, I was in the position of Gibbon when he went up to Magdalen. His ignorance would have astonished a schoolboy and his learning a professor, and no doubt he seemed to the greater part of the High Table an odious and forward young man.

All the same, and though no one then believed it, I was extraordinarily innocent, if not as to my ignorance, as to my learning. When I met a Don who, I was told, was "unsurpassed" in the Greek or Latin classics and could probably appreciate them as well as if he had been a Greek or Roman of the best period, I was tremendously excited. I felt sure that being so highly endowed in this direction he could not possibly have neglected English literature, and must know all about that also, and so would be of the greatest help to me. I was inclined, therefore, to rush at these scholars with the perfect assurance that I could get something from them. When, however, they either evaded my questionings or told me curtly that they had never heard of the people about whom I asked, I felt sure that this was only said to get rid of me. For some reason unknown to me I had managed, I felt, to offend them as Alice offended the creatures in Wonderland.

I can recall a specific example. I found a certain learned scholar who had never even heard of, and took no interest in, Marlowe's Dido and ?neas, and could not be drawn into expressing an opinion as to whether the translations were good or bad. In other cases I found that even the names of men like Burton of the Anatomy of Melancholy produced no reaction. Yet, wretched Latinist as I was, I had been thunderstruck with delight when, rummaging the Cathedral after a Sunday service, where, by the way, I heard Pusey preach his last sermon, I came upon Burton's tomb, and read for the first time the immortal epitaph which begins:

Paucis notus, paucioribus ignotus,

I can see now that what I thought was the pretended ignorance of the Dons, and their fastidious unwillingness to talk to an uneducated schoolboy, as I believed myself to be, was nothing of the kind. I have not the slightest doubt now that they regarded me as a cheeky young ass who was trying to show off in regard to things of which he was totally ignorant and of which, needless to say, they were ignorant too, for, alas! the minute study of the Classics does not appear to necessitate a general knowledge of literature. A scholar fully en rapport with Aristophanes or Juvenal and Martial may never have read Ben Jonson's Alchemist, or Beaumont and Fletcher's Knight of the Burning Pestle; or studied Charles Churchill, or Green on The Spleen.

There was a mental attitude which the typical Don, full of the public- school spirit and its dislikes, could never forgive. Except for the few intimate friends who were devoted to me-Nettleship and Warren, T. H. Green and, later, curiously enough, Mr. A. L. Smith, the present Master of Balliol,-I was, I expect, universally regarded as the most intolerable undergraduate they had ever beheld.

Jowett, the Master of Balliol, evidently felt the Stracheyphobia very strongly, or perhaps I should say felt it his duty to express it very strongly. He had not, I think, a great natural instinct in regard to the characters of young men, but he was naturally anxious to improve those with whom he came in contact. His method was to apply two or three fixed rules. One of these was-and a good one in suitable cases-that if you got hold of a boy who thought too much of himself, the best thing was to stamp upon him upon every possible occasion, and so help him to reform his ways. No doubt it saved a great deal of trouble to give this rule a universal application, and it was often successful. Every now and then, however, the generalisation failed.

Fortunately for me, I was not only of a contented nature, but so happy- and also so happy-go-lucky-that I was not the very least worried by the opinion of my educational superiors. I should have been genuinely pleased to have pleased them, but as I had clearly failed in that, I did not trouble about it further. I could always console myself with the thought that schoolmasters and dons were notoriously narrow-minded people, and that when one got out into the big world their opinions would matter very little.

In a word, I accepted the situation with a cheerful and genuine acquiescence. The Master did not like me, but then, why should he? I was obviously not a model undergraduate. This acquiescence was soon buttressed by a reasoned if somewhat unfair estimate of the Master's character. I very soon began to hear plenty of Oxford gossip about him and his failings-chief among them being his supposed favouritism. He was very generally called a snob, which no doubt, in a superficial sense, he was, and I soon got my nose well in the air in regard to his worship of dukes and marquesses and even of the offscourings of Deb

rett and his willingness to give special privileges to their errant progeny. I had, however, to give the Master credit for the way in which he would often shower his partial favours on some boy who had climbed the ladder of learning and risen from a Board School to become a Scholar or Exhibitioner of Balliol. My general feeling, however, was that of the idealist who despises the schoolmaster or the scholar who becomes worldly in his old age, and even goes so far as to follow the shameless maxim, "Dine with the Tories and vote with the Whigs."

Of course I know now that Jowett's apparent worldliness and snobbishness were calculated. He was very anxious to get good educative influences exerted over the men who were to rule the country. This, translated into action, meant getting the big men of the day, the Optimates of British politics and commerce, to send their sons to Balliol. He also, no doubt, liked smart society for itself. Men of the world, especially when they were politicians or persons of distinction, greatly interested the translator of Plato, Thucydides, and Aristotle. Though he was not the kind of man to inflate himself with any idea that he was "Socrates redivivus" I have no doubt that he found the worldlywise malice of Lord Westbury as piquant as the Greek philosopher did the talk of Alcibiades.

Young men, however, do not make excuses, and, as I have said, I was inclined to be much scandalised, and to feel complacently self-righteous over stories of the Master's "love of a lord"

The feeling which I engendered in the minds of the rest of the Balliol Dons differed very little from that entertained by the Master. I can say truthfully that I never received a word of encouragement, of kindly direction, or of sympathy of any sort or kind from them in regard to my work or anything else. The only exception was Mr. A. L. Smith. The reason, I now feel sure, was that they believed that to take notice of me would have only made me more uppish. I daresay they imagined I should have been rude or surly, or have attempted to snub them. Still, the fact is something of a record, and so worthy of note.

If I had been at a public school and had learned there to understand the ways of teachers and masters, as the public-school boy learns to understand them, as an old fox learns to understand the cry of the hounds and of the huntsmen, I should have had no difficulty whatever in getting on good terms with the College. As it was, I misunderstood them quite as much as they misunderstood me. Each of us was unable to handle the other. Yet I think, on a balance of accounts, I had a little more excuse on my side than the Dons had. I was very young, very immature, and without any knowledge or experience of institutional social life. They, on the other hand, must have had previous knowledge of the exceptional boy who had not been at a public school. Therefore they should quite easily have been able to adjust their minds to my case. They should not have allowed themselves to assume that the "uppishness" was due to want of that humility which they rightly expected in their pupils.

Curiously enough, my undergraduate contemporaries at Balliol were far more successful in their efforts at understanding somebody who had not been at a public school. They appeared to have no prejudices against the homebred boy. I was never made in the least to feel that there was any bar or barrier between me and my fellow-freshmen. As proof of this, I may point to the fact that every one of my intimate friends at Balliol were public-school boys. I have no doubt I was considered odd by most of my contemporaries, but this oddness, and also my inability to play football or cricket, never seemed to create, as far as I could see, any prejudice. Indeed, I think that my friends were quite discerning enough and quite free enough from convention to be amused and interested by a companion who was not built up in accordance with the sealed pattern.

In spite of the Dons, about whom I troubled singularly little, in spite of my being ploughed twice for Mods., sent down from my college, made to become an unattached student, and only reinstated at Balliol after I had got through Mods, and was guaranteed to be going to do well in the History Schools, I can say with absolute truth that I was never anything but supremely happy at Oxford-I might almost say deliriously happy.

I may interpolate here that when I went back to Balliol after my year as an unattached student, the only thing that the Master said, on readmitting me, was something of this kind: "The College is only taking you back, Mr. Strachey, because your history tutor says that you are likely to get a First." I was appropriately shocked at this, for I had become well aware that Jowett was looked upon by a good many people in the University as simply a hunter for Firsts, a Head who did not care much what kind of people he had in his College, or how their minds were developed in the highest sense, so long as they came out well in the Schools List. He was alleged, that is, to take a tradesman's view of learning. These kinds of gibe I naturally found soothing, for I was able to imagine myself as a scholar, though not as a winner of a First. Incidentally, also, though I did not acknowledge it to myself, I think I was a little hurt by the Master's want of what I might call humanity, or at any rate courtesy in his treatment of the shorn lamb of Moderations. However, I have not the least doubt that he thought he was stimulating me for my good. This, indeed, was his constant mood. I remember at Collections his telling me that I should never do anything except, possibly, be able to write light trifles for the magazines. On another occasion he asked me what I was going to do in life. I told him that I wanted to go to the Bar, which was then my intention. To this he replied oracularly, "I should have thought you would have done better in diplomacy."

That tickled me. It was clearly a back-hander over an ingenious attempt which I had made a day or two before to prove how much better it would be for me to get off three days before Collections and so obtain another whole week in the bosom of my family at Cannes! No doubt Jowett's system of controlling the recalcitrant portions of the College through sarcasm was well meant and occasionally fairly successful. Taking it as a whole, however, I felt then, as I feel now, that sarcasm is the one weapon which it is never right or useful to use in the case of persons who are in the dependent position when compared with the wielder of the sarcastic rapier;-persons in statu pupillari, persons much younger than oneself, persons in one's employment, or, finally, members of one's own family. Sarcasm should be reserved for one's equals, or, still better, for one's superiors. The man who is treated with sarcasm, if he cannot answer back either because it is true, or he is stupid, or he is afraid to counter-attack a superior, is filled, and naturally filled, with a sense of burning indignation. He feels he has had a cruel wrong done to him and is in no mood to be converted to better courses. That to which his mind reacts at once is some form of vengeance, some way of getting even with his tormentor. The words that burn or rankle or corrode are not the words to stimulate. No doubt Socrates said that he was the gadfly of the State and stung that noble animal into action, but what may be good for a sluggish old coach-horse is not necessarily good for a thoroughbred colt with a thin skin.

To return to my general feeling about Oxford while I lived there. Instinctively I seem to have realised what I came to see so clearly in my post-Oxford days, that the great thing that one gets at a University is what Bagehot called the "impact of young mind upon young mind." Though there must be examinations and lectures, and discipline and hard reading, nothing of all this matters a jot in comparison with the association of youth with youth and the communion of quick and eager spirits. I have lived my life with clever people, men and women who thought themselves masters of dialectic, but I can say truthfully that I have never heard such good talk as in my own rooms and in the rooms of my contemporaries at Oxford. There, and there only, have I seen practised what Dr. Johnson believed to be an essential to good talk, the ability to stretch one's legs and have one's talk out. It may be remembered that Dr. Johnson, in praising John Wesley as a talker, sadly admitted that his great qualities in this respect were all marred because Wesley was always in a hurry, always had some pressing business in hand which cut him short when at his best.

The happy undergraduate never has to catch a train, never has an editor or a printer waiting for him, never has an appointment which he cannot cut, never, in effect, has money to make. He comes, indeed, nearer than anybody else on earth to the Hellenic ideal of the good citizen, of the free man in a free state. If he wants to talk all through the night with his friends, he talks. The idea of his sparing himself in order that he may be fresh next morning for Mr. Jones's lecture never enters his head for a moment. Rightly; he considers that to talk at large with a couple of friends is the most important thing in the world. In my day we would talk about anything, from the Greek feeling about landscape to the principles the Romans would have taken as the basis of actuarial tables, if they had had them. We unsphered Plato, we speculated as to what Euripides would have thought of Henry James, or whether Sophocles would have enjoyed Miss--'s acting, and felt that it was of vital import to decide these matters. But I must stop, for I see I am beginning to make most dangerous admissions. If I go on, indeed, I am likely enough to become as much disliked by the readers of the present day as I was by the Oxford Dons of forty years ago.

I could fill this book with stories of my life at Oxford, of its enchantment, of my friendships, of my walks and rides and of my expeditions up the river; for, not being a professional athlete, I had time to enjoy myself. It would be a delight also to recall my associations, the first in my life, with young men who were writing verses, like myself, such men as Beeching, Mackail, Spring Rice (our Ambassador during the War, at Washington), Rennell Rodd, Nicolls, and a dozen others. But space forbids. I can only quote Shenstone's delightful verses on Oxford, in his Ode to Memory, verses which I have quoted a hundred times:

And sketch with care the Muses' bow'r,

Where Isis rolls her silver tide,

Nor yet omit one reed or flow'r

That shines on Cherwell's verdant side,

If so thou may'st those hours prolong

When polish'd Lycon join'd my song.

The song it Vails not to recite-

But, sure, to soothe our youthful dreams,

Those banks and streams appear'd more bright

Than other banks, than other streams;

Or, by thy softening pencil shown,

Assume they beauties not their own?

And paint that sweetly vacant scene

When, all beneath the poplar bough,

My spirits light, my soul serene,

I breathed in verse one cordial vow

That nothing should my soul inspire

But friendship warm and love entire.

I do not mean to inflict upon my readers the tiresome record of my failure to pass Moderations, or the description of how I did eventually get through by a process which came very near to learning by heart English translations of Xenophon's Memorabilia, a portion of Livy's History, and Horace's Epistles. To do so would be both long and tedious. The circumstances have, however, a certain interest considered from one point of view, and that is the use and misuse of the classics for educational purposes.

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