"Undergraduate Literature." Saturday Review 3.70 (28 Feb. 1857), 196-197.

full text

During the course of the last year, a publication issued in monthly numbers from the two Universities, bearing the title of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. The issue having ceased, the separate numbers have been collected into a volume, which has recently been published. It is a volume well worth looking into–not so much on account of its literary merits, as because, having been written almost entirely, we believe, by undergraduate members of the Universities, it affords a curious specimen of the kind of thoughts and language current among the young men who are now preparing, at those seats of learning, to fill offices in Church and State. At any rate, there is one class which, small as it is, can never fail to read such a volume with interest. Those whose University days are now left far behind them cannot take up a volume full of those profound psychological investigations, that high morality and that serene certainty of the possession of truth, which distinguish the compositions of academical youth, without a keen recollection that they, too, when young, have written and talked like this. There is an interest to them in reading such a periodical as the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, akin to that experienced by a parent who takes a child to see a pantomime. Personally, they have no very keen relish for discussing the characteristics of the nineteenth century with what one of our young friends calls "its whirl of conflicting principles, its tossing sea of theories and anachronisms, beliefs and disbeliefs, truths of Heaven, and falsehoods of the Pit;" but they remember having had a relish, greater or less, for this sort of thing once upon a time, and they enjoy seeing others entertain it.

The first thing that strikes us when we open the volume is the grand air which pervades it–the generous youths take up every subject with so high a hand, make so large a demand on human capacity, and set about every task in so lofty a spirit. "We want," says the writer of the first contribution, "to see men as they were and are; not with motives, but with impulses: not equations with so many virtues minus so many vices, but men with infinite possibilities of good and evil; we want to gauge ourselves by them that we may know why we are what we are,--why they were other than we." Hoc erat in votis--the writer speaks as if he were wishing for the most modest Sabine farm. He only requests to know "why we are what we are," and is almost proud of asking so little. For himself, he will not say whether, in his subsequent pages, he is likely to succeed in solving this little problem; but "I know," he says, "I shall not fail utterly, for the effort will be good both for myself and you;" and so the preacher proceeds, and takes up his parable about Sir Philip Sidney. All the contributors write sermons, and, securing the pulpit one after another, tell us what we should think and say. The pervading tone of their didactic oratory is that of an affectionate reproachfulness. They mourn over us. They are gentle with us, but firm--they are compassionate while they rebuke. It is one of their fancies to call the reader "brother." "Let us be grateful, brothers, and not ashamed, to speak feelingly," says one of them in an article on Mr. Ruskin. "I think," he continues, "if we used more abandonment in speech to one another, were less careful for our own passing fame, how this may sound and that be construed, more desirous of securing first the thing to be said, and having no thought for the how, believing that will be given us, we should understand each other better, feel more boldness and faith in a brother’s sympathy, or, at the least, merciful patience." We all must own that this is a very pretty little exhortation, at the same time that we may perhaps be somewhat tickled with the sublime disregard of the eminent author for his fame, his belief that the style of his composition will be dictated to him by Heaven, and his hope that he and his friends will in time get to regard each other with "merciful patience."

We might be sure that these young hearts would have strong likes and dislikes. Mr. Macaulay has the unfortunate distinction of being their chief object of attack. They wish they could let him go unhurt--it is "painful that questions should recur" as to his true merits–but duty is duty. "I am convinced," says one critic, "that to a publication which aspires like this to be a teacher, it is a sacred duty, considering what Mr. Macaulay is, and what he claims to be, not to let his pretensions go unchallenged." "There are," he adds, "two ways in which this sacred duty might be discharged. One would be to ascertain the facts, to get up the history of the period about which Mr. Macaulay has written, to see in detail whether he is right or wrong." But this course he wisely discards as "ungracious and preposterous"–so he takes the other, which, as is generally the case in alternatives of this sort, is the grand à priori one. "I shall try," he says, "to point out the striking peculiarities of Mr. Macualay’s intellect, exemplifying them from the volumes before me, and I shall help you to judge whether or no these peculiarities are such as qualify a man for writing history." We may guess the ugly names which, in the performance of his sacred duty, he heaps on his victim. He is especially helped to his conclusions by analysing the meaning of the term "Whig." "When you call a man a Whig, do you not imply that he is a well-meaning man, with much confidence in common sense and logic, deficient in reverence and the religious sentiment, and not believing much in any invisible, but on the whole virtuous, and right-minded, and courageous enough in his small way? Make your Whig a rhetorician and you have Mr. Macaulay, the best and the worst of him, in one glance." What an immensity of trouble the à priori manner of reasoning saves both to this stern young man and his readers! Add together the meanings of the words "Whig" and "Rhetorician," and the sacred duty is over.

But if these philosophers have their hates, they have their loves too; and nothing can exceed the warmth of their attachments. Before some men they humble themselves–they are content to feel, in the presence of their heroes, foolish and little, hardly better than the abject Macaulay himself. "Macaulay’s faith," says one of them, in an "Essay on Mr. Carlyle," "is, we must say, but a little one. But Macaulay is not the only tailless fox among us. Alas! we are a company of poor, snub-tailed creatures." And so, in this frame of humility, he proceeds with his devotional exercise. Nor have we any reason to find fault with the objects they select for their worship–"our wise, devout Maurice; Kingsley, who, under Maurice, as general of a division, is, like Ney, ‘le plus brave des braves;’ Ruskin, who has taught us that art, too, is no field for arbitrary taste, but a glorious empire subject to the Divine law." The last-named gentleman seems, on the whole, to elicit the warmest admiration; and the young enthusiast who writes about him cannot endure the imperfect cordiality with which the world receives the author of Modern Painters. The cold welcome given to his favourite sets the essayist to mourn over the scanty recognition accorded to living virtue. Half a century ago, the collegian who had the same thought running in his head would have gone off into the old tag about "Virtutem incolumem odimus," &c. But times are changed, and our undergraduate homilist now writes–"This severance of possession from enjoyment, and familiarity from comprehension, seems to me, in the breadth and depth of the losses it brings with it, one of the saddest curses that has followed on the Fall." Of Mr. Ruskin he proceeds to say, quietly and pointedly, that "he is no writer of Mishnas, nor binder of the sheaves of other men’s reaping; but one who has stood face to face with the morning, and caught some new truth before the sun went down." We fancy we trace the pen of the same panegyrist in an "Essay on Mr. Carlyle," excepting that, out of compliment to his subject, he talks more decided Carlylese. "Oh, to go back," he cries out, "for one instant from Carlyle to the world. The world condemns Carlyle for his ‘Might is Right,’ and calls him idolator; but what sort of reading does the world like, distributing solid rewards accordingly? Macaulay, ‘Times’ leaders, opposition speeches, and other mighty clever things, more or less unconscionable; things in great measure as it seems to me manifesting that seeming Might which is without Right. Is this a fact, reader? or is it not? Truly a sincere, wise, and consistent world." Nothing is more striking throughout the whole book than the scorn in which the world is held. No epithets are abusive enough for it. Divided from it by a year, perhaps, of coming college life and fifty miles of railway, these youths look with the loftiest abhorrence on the sphere in which their fathers and uncles and elder brothers are content to move.

There is no subject into which they are not ready to plunge at the shortest notice. It all comes so easy to them. One writer settles the philosophical position of Plato and Bacon in a page and three quarters. It is naïvely assumed, here as elsewhere, that any passage which the writer has come across in his first perusal of a famous work is unknown to the rest of the world. He recommends Bacon’s critics to read the 124th and 129th aphorisms of the ist book of the Novum Organon, which having, we fancy, just done himself, he feels entitled to be "indignant at seeing men in this age, which calls itself so enlightened and moral, write as if Bacon would have regarded the electric telegraph or the steam-engine as the noblest productions of the human mind." But he soon gets away from aphorisms to the grand à priori process, which is so much simpler, and morally so much loftier. These were not the opinions which Bacon held; "for," he reasons, "I cannot think that any transcendent genius, in its essence so spiritual, can be satisfied with any mere material results." He then proceeds to discharge his duty of grave reprobation, and stigmatizes those who forget "that an ancient Greek and a modern Englishman searching after truth, thereby to benefit the human race, must have far more in common than can be nullified by any difference." He has now proved his point, and hastens to the practical application–"Let us then set Plato and Bacon side by side in the first rank of great and noble men, attending more to their agreement than their difference." The whole article is beautiful in tone and language, but it raises in us a wish to try the effect of setting the philosopher to construe a moderately hard passage of the Republic.

It is strange how those who are just learning bum to teach, and think all idiots and fools who will not listen to them. We cannot but smile when we find in the volume one essay on the "Work of Young Men in the Present Age," and another on "Woman; her Duties, Education, and Position." That an undergraduate should think it a sacred duty to tell other young men that they must be diligent and patient, and to tell young ladies that they should take care of their health and read poetry betrays a singular conception of his general position in the world. But this is the way of youth--it is only by experience that we learn that our first thoughts on the great subjects of life, which seem to us so new and fresh, are old and stale to others. Perhaps the present generation of University men would not allow that they are fairly represented by the Magazine; but even if they are, it is a production of which the universities have as much reason to be proud as to be ashamed. If there is some folly and conceit, and a little priggishness and bombast, in the lecturings of these beardless parsons, it is evident in every page how much they have to thank the places of their education for the direction in which their follies run. At any rate they are trying, in their own way, to get at what is good; and they are preserved by a familiarity with the writings of great authors, from the petty frivolity of smart writing, into which almost all beginners who have not received a college education are led by the study of French novels, and the fatal desire to imitate Mr. Dickens. The folly is short-lived, and the good remains. In two or three years we may prophesy that these essayists will be excellent, sensible, humdrum creatures, and about as likely to think it a sacred duty to offer little sermons to an ungrateful public as to walk in cap and gown along Pall Mall.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews