Archive | January 2021

Oxford, a satire

I’ve been teaching Juvenal’s satires for the first time in a while this term, and it reminded me of something.

Oxford, a satire is a version of what is probably Juvenal’s most celebrated satire, No. 3 on the city of Rome (it’s between this one and 10, on the vanity of human aspirations, at any rate). Oxford was first published, privately and anonymously, in 1910 and republished in 1922, and in it Rome is replaced as the target of criticism with “Oxford, whose fogs and enervating air/ The brain befuddle and the health impair” — the University specifically. It is an extremely accomplished piece of work, a successful reinvention of Juvenal, and that entails being just as mordantly disagreeable as the Roman satirist.

Satire is a troubling and controversial form, one that sets out to cause offence and yet was also considered by the Romans an expression of their most cherished civic virtues. The satirist is well characterised by Alvin Kernan as a figure who “believes that the case of man and society is desperate, and he applies appropriate therapeutic treatments: the whip, the scalpel, the strappado, the emetic, the burning acid. But each of these cruel methods of treatment suggests that the man who uses them exclusively enjoys his work. The more powerfully the satirist swings his scourge — and he usually does so with considerable gusto — the more he will appear to have a marked sadistic tendency” (The Cankered Muse: Satire of the English Renaissance [1976], 26). Juvenal, as Kernan makes clear, is the archetype of this savage satirist.

In this version of Juvenal from 1910, too, no feelings are spared. Here, for instance, the target is an academic like me (though students cop it too):

Vile is the tradesman that our purse has stole,
But viler still the Don that steals the soul.
The young enthusiast comes with heart aflame
For wisdom, learning, poetry, and fame;
He sees the hills of Rome in every dream,
And peoples with Greek nymphs each English stream.
'Let me drink deep,' he cries, 'of ancient lore,
And make my soul what Shelley's was before!
All joys I'll barter such a prize to gain!'
Poor youth, thy prayer how noble! yet how vain!
Can pigs grow wings and fly, unwonted birds?
Can the salt sea grow black with grazing herds?
Can the lean thistle blossom into figs?
Or Oxford aught produce save fools and prigs?
Doomed now, deposing reason from its throne,
To spend whole days with boredom and with Bohn,
To read each commentator's endless reams,
And learn for one Greek word two German names,
To hear some greybeard, chattering and perplexed,
Destroy all meaning and corrupt the text,
Or, reading out whole volumes on one word,
Hold 'nunc' in scorn, and show why 'tunc's' preferred;
Compelled in sterile toil whole months to waste,
Nor e'er to use his judgement, wit, or taste,
[He hears the Don primaeval views impart,
Scribbles them down, and learns them off by heart.
He goes to lectures; only hears a part;
Miswrites half that; and learns his note by heart.

This has Juvenal’s aggression and rhetorical point, his mock-elevated style, and his ability also to make us laugh at things we know we shouldn’t laugh at, the latter perhaps the very essence of satire.

Well, what I’m going to do here is fill in some hitherto missing details about the author of this work, anonymous at its publication, and study some of the nastiest material in a bit more detail, identifying ways in which they both tie Oxford to 1910 or 1922 and illustrate the precision of its reworking of Juvenal.

Juvenal’s third satire features the long complaint of Umbricius, a friend of the satirist who has had enough of Rome and is leaving. In Oxford Patroclus is the satirist’s friend, and the scene of the satire is transferred from the Porta Capena at the edge of Rome, from where the Appian Way began, to Oxford railway station. Patroclus has been sent down by “B_ll_l’s Dons“, but insists that he’s better off this way.

"Though Oxford hath dismissed her generous son
For toils neglected and for tasks undone,
Small cause of triumph to my foes I leave,
Least cause of all for you, my friends, to grieve.
No theme for pity on this joyous day
Am I who leave, but rather you who stay;
Pent in so vile a 'varsity and town,
Their fate is hardest who are not sent down."

The end of Oxford mimics Juvenal, too, both Umbricius and Patroclus imagining they will meet the satirist again when he goes home, in Juvenal’s case to Aquinum (3.318-22):

"But thou, my friend, the partner of my heart,
When that time comes that thou must hence depart,
O come, and read thy satires to thy friend,
And mock at Oxford, safe in Ponders End!"

In the body of the poem the irritations of a frustrated Roman are replaced by scenes from undergraduate life. These cleverly parallel Umbricius’ concerns at times, dreadful student journalism standing in for the debased literary life of Rome, for instance — another respect we’ll consider later.

I first came across this version of Juvenal in Martin Winkler’s fine Penguin Classics collection Juvenal in English from 2001, where the author is identified as Geoffrey Howard, but Winkler appears to have no further information about him. Geoffrey Howard clearly was the author, as will emerge, but I’m not quite sure how his name came to light. It seems to be something to do with the second publication in 1922, when the author identified himself as G.H., and his address as “Temple”, and there is evidence here that his identity was known in some circles in 1929. The author of this copy of Oxford, a satire, Charles W. Baty, who inscribed it in around 1920, was equally confident:

Confusion reigns to the present day, nevertheless, among antiquarian book dealers and in bibliographical works such as Minor British Poets, 1789-1918 (Davis, Calif., 1983-6), Vol. 4 no. 302, the issue being, aside from the anonymity of the original publication, an unfortunate coincidence that a work with exactly the same title, Oxford, a satire, had been published by Sir Andrew Caldecott in 1907. The minimal authorial indications provided by the 1922 edition of Howard’s satire, at any rate, initials and a legal connection, are the key to a fuller biography.

By 1922 Geoffrey Howard was a practicing barrister, called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1919. He was a quietly successful lawyer, a County Court Judge from 1952 until his retirement in 1963, but he had broader interests than the Law, as we shall see. He died in 1973 at the age of 83.

At the time of his composition of Oxford, a satire Howard was an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, studying Modern History between 1908 and 1911 (my thanks to Judith Curthoys, Archivist at Christ Church, for those details). One thought I had after working out his dates was that between an undergraduate publication in 1910 and a republication in 1922 most likely lay service during the First World War, and he did indeed serve in France as an officer in the Royal Fusiliers. A poignant memorial on the Christ Church site records the death of his older brother Arthur (who had attended the same college, and served in the same regiment). Arthur Howard had been severely wounded in 1917, but died of his wounds only in 1923. Three poems by Geoffrey Howard feature in the wartime publication Soldier poets, songs of the fighting men (1916), important context for the poetry of Sassoon and Owen, as explained by P. Norgate, “Wilfred Owen and the Soldier Poets”, The Review of English Studies 40 (1989), 516-530, and they offer strong incidental confirmation that Howard’s talent lay in comic verse.

The most significant thing I’ve discovered, though as always not necessarily ahead of someone else whom I’ve missed, is that the author of Oxford, a satire, alongside his legal career, enjoyed modest literary celebrity between the wars, and that his post-war publications betray a clear affinity with his Oxford juvenilia/juvenalia.

The evidence (starting from a hint in a posting on comes from a short obituary of Howard in The Times on May 31, 1973 and a personal reminiscence by the eminent lawyer Graham Swanwick on June 8. In addition, one of Howard’s pupils was Elizabeth Lane, the first woman High Court Judge in England, and her autobiography, Hear the other side (Audi alteram partem) (1985), has a little more detail on him. It emerges, at any rate, that under the pseudonym “Marmaduke Dixey” Howard wrote extensively for Punch and produced, alongside two satirical novels, a collection of poems, and an extended humorous poem, published in the early days of contract bridge, on how to play that game. The collection, Words, Beasts and Fishes (1936), consists of amusing animal fables displaying the same deftness and wit as Oxford. His model in this book is interesting, too, the Fables of John Gay, one of the Golden Age of English satirists sometimes referred to as Scriblerians. The Beauties of Bridge (1938) similarly suggests the mock heroics of Pope in The Rape of the Lock, while the cover of the 1922 edition of Oxford imitates in language and presentation an eighteenth-century Scriblerian publication. To imply as this cover does that Juvenal is the fons et origo of at least one thread of English verse satire is of course uncontroversial.

Well, if I have reunited “Marmaduke Dixey” with his earlier composition in and about Oxford, that is one thing achieved. But I did say that Oxford also successfully captures some less palatable aspects of his model. Any authentic reinvention of Juvenal is going to be distasteful by the very nature of Juvenalian satire, as I’ve suggested, a poetry of critical abuse that respects nothing and is indiscriminate in whom it offends. Here, by way of illustration, depressingly predictable, both satirists, 1,800 years apart, engage in a passing, almost casual, anti-semitism, and in both cases this oldest and most persistent of prejudices attributes to Jews a reprehensible commitment to money-making.

But perhaps the key component of Juvenal 3, on the evidence of its many imitators, at least, is the more extended attack that it contains on a people, the Greeks, who by their migration to Rome, it claims, combined with the deceitful character that the satire attributes to them, have made the city uninhabitable for “authentic” Romans like Umbricius. A trend in the numerous post-Renaissance versions of Juvenal’s poem is to replace those Greeks with whatever contemporary group offered the best equivalent scapegoat. For Samuel Johnson and his rather snappier predecessor John Oldham (1653-83), both of whom relocate Juvenal’s satire from Rome to London (Johnson’s London was first published in 1738), it was the French who had ruined it, while in Edward Burnaby Greene’s The Satires of Juvenal Paraphrastically Imitated, and Adapted to the Times (1763), Juvenal’s non possum ferre, Quirites,/ Graecam Vrbem, “I cannot endure, fellow Romans, a Rome turned Greek”, becomes “unmoved I cannot see/ poor England sink a Scottish colony.” Passages from all these authors can be found in Winkler’s excellent anthology.

Oxford, a satire also targets an out-group responsible for Patroclus’ alienation from Oxford, and while Howard’s victims feature only momentarily, it is an interesting target he chooses. He has been pillorying student publications:

Yet, O my friends, these wretched rags forgive!
Who could write English where few English live?
Dark, alien tribes have driv'n our native far,
And all the Ganges flows into the Cher.
Such Ethiopian hosts the 'High' adorn,
Such crowds of Rajahs jostle in the 'Corn,'
That should the timid Briton come in sight
They start, affronted, at a face that's white!

The ingenuity here, for instance the transformation of iam pridem Syrus in Tiberim defluxit Orontes, “Long since has the Syrian Orontes flowed into the Tiber”, is undeniable, and as offensive as Juvenal’s xenophobia. A further point, though, is that, whether Howard considered this or not, the target matches Juvenal’s Greeks quite precisely, since the presence of these Indian and African students at Oxford was as much a consequence of empire as the Greek inhabitants of Rome.

Sumita Mukherjee’s Nationalism, emigration and migrant identities: the England-returned (2010) is an interesting study of Indian students in the U.K. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in particular for providing the perspective of those students, often from personal archives. One detail will convey Oxford’s Juvenalian exaggeration: in the Lee-Warner “Report into the Position of Indian Students in the UK” of 1907 (not officially published until 1922), out of 700 Indian students at universities in the UK the vast majority were in London, while in Oxford there were a sum total of 32 (Mukherjee p.17). Numbers at Oxford did increase rapidly after 1906, when the requirement to sit Responsions, entrance examinations including compulsory Latin or Greek, were relaxed (English could be taken instead of the ancient languages, Mukherjee p.22). But they were never as large as Oxford, a satire implies, needless to say. A pie chart reproduced by Mukherjee (p.24) giving the proportions of “Dominion and Indian” students at UK universities or related institutions gives 45% for Indians and 37% for Africans (including 11% Egyptians, counted separately), incidentally, bearing in mind Howard’s reference to students from Africa.

The aim in making British higher education available to students from India (and African colonies) was to give the elites of India and elsewhere in the Empire an investment in the continuation of British rule, especially if, as in many cases, they returned to government service such as the Indian Civil Service (ICS). In practice, though, an inevitable consequence of gathering together students from all over India as Indians was to promote nationalist discussion and feeling (Mukherjee 47), additionally raising the reasonable question in the minds of these students why suitably qualified Indians should not be running their own country. It is possible that when Howard was writing his satire the status of Indian students was particularly on the agenda, as in July 1909 an Indian student in London, Madan Lal Dhingra, had assassinated William Curzon Wyllie, a high official of the British Indian government. This story also emerges from the same milieu, on a warmer note.

What we have in Oxford, a satire, then, is an early work by a writer who would achieve some prominence between the wars, and it offers some evidence why. Howard/Dixey was a poet steeped in Classical and eighteenth-century satire, and achieved an idiom — mock-elevated, rhetorically pointed, hyperbolic — that captures unusually well the Juvenalian voice, and targets its victims just as disproportionately as his notorious Roman model. I encourage my students to see that Juvenal, though writing in the early second century AD, was often rehearsing highly conventional lines of attack dating back as far as his great precursor, C. Lucilius, at the end of the second century BC. Details of Juvenal’s exposure of the Greekness of Rome in Satire 3 closely (and self-consciously) evoke complaints that Lucilius had made — but then Romans had been worrying that they were turning into Greeks for as long as they’d been Romans, and satire was always a privileged vehicle for Rome’s deepest self-expression and anxieties.

Howard was in obvious ways applying a critical template of hoary antiquity to Oxford University, but some of the most Juvenalian details of this poem also offer glimpses of circumstances in 1910, not least the irrational anxiety, expressed in spectacularly racist terms, that the colonised were usurping the privileges of the coloniser.

A final thought, though, returning to the indiscriminate character of satire in the tradition of Juvenal. There are a few minor changes between the 1910 and 1922 editions of Oxford, a satire, and four lines added to the 1922 version are perhaps worth noting. It is a supplement to a list of tedious visitors an undergraduate can expect to his rooms, and “Miles” is the Latin miles, “soldier”:

No longer to my rooms shall Claudius stroll,
Drink all my whisky, and explain his soul,
Or, sitting hourly in my easy chair,
Twiddle his thumbs and wonder if they're there!
The melancholy Miles shall no more
Spread out his matches and re-win the war
In tones so tedious, and with slang so stale,
You'd rather face the battle than the tale. [1922]

There is truly nothing, and nobody, that Juvenal and his imitators are unprepared to satirize, it seems.

I have scanned both the 1910 and 1922 editions of Oxford, a satire in my possession, and you should find them at their respective links.


What follows is sheer speculation, but I should start with an explanation.

Last summer I went with my family to Deal in Kent for a week, and one day, intrigued by theories about Julius Caesar’s landing place in 55 and 54 BC, as one is bound to be, I took a long walk down the coast from Deal to within sight of the White Cliffs at Kingsdown.

In Kingsdown I found myself walking past something fine and unexpected, a beautifully presented Edwardian house by the sea with a Latin text carved in its façade.

The text reads si mea laeta placet casa tu precor hospes adesto, or with punctuation, si mea laeta placet casa, tu, precor, hospes, adesto; in English literally, “If my happy cottage is pleasing, do, I pray, stranger, be here”, or more fluently, “If you like my cheerful cottage, stranger, do please come in.” You may notice, though, that some of the letters are larger than others (I pick them out in bold): SI MEA LAETA PLACET CASA TV PRECOR HOSPES ADESTO. These larger letters, understood as Roman numerals, add up (I + V + L + L + C + C + C + D + M) to 1906, apparently the date when the house was constructed. In other words, it’s a chronogram, about which I blogged here, while here I pondered a connection between this chronogram in Deal and the examples from Oxford (including my own college, Brasenose) that I’d discussed in that blog. I so pondered because this example in Deal is a great piece of work, the nicest I’ve seen. Like the chronogram at Brasenose it is in verse, a dactylic hexameter, and it would be an extremely elegant composition even if it weren’t also a dating formula.

Well, I did some rapid research on the internet yesterday, and I started with one slighter stronger assumption, and one decidedly weak. The strong one is that chronograms of this quality are not easy to produce and are thus likely to be the work of a limited number of people. The weak is the one I’ve mentioned: given that I’ve identified two chronograms in Oxford, one on the façade of Frewin Hall from 1888 and another on the front of the Rhodes Building from 1911, as the work of Charles Shadwell, Fellow and later Provost of Oriel College, Oxford, I suspected that this example might have something to do with him too.

What I established yesterday was that in 1963, in the will of Alan Bruce Blaxland, the house bearing the chronogram, named “Pleasaunce” (a name alluded to in PLACET), was given as his residence at the time of his death. Alan Bruce Blaxland C.B. O.B.E. had been a senior officer in the British Indian Army during the Second World War, his most controversial role perhaps coming after the war when he chaired the court-martials of men who had joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army: he died on September 2, 1963 in the Victoria Hospital, Deal, at the age of 71.

In the 1901 and 1911 censuses we find Alan Bruce Blaxland at the ages of 8 and 18 at home with his family, two further brothers and two sisters, his mother Constance and father Bruce, a Church of England clergyman. In 1901 Bruce Blaxland was vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Lilleshall, Shropshire, and in 1911 of the Abbey Church in Shewsbury.

And it’s with Bruce that I start to indulge in wild speculation. The first step is the observation that both Bruce and Constance were from east Kent, Bruce from Canterbury, and Constance from Eastry, which is just a few miles from Kingsdown — my guess is that the house Alan Bruce Blaxland was living in in 1963 was built by his parents as a holiday home back where they spent their childhoods. The next step, and the ice gets less and less secure the further out I venture, involves the Revd. Bruce Blaxland’s education, since according to this very comprehensive account of his career (and I’ve checked out some of the relevant details in The Times archive), he studied Modern History at Oriel College, Oxford from 1879 to 1882, achieving a First Class degree.

This was, needless to say, precisely when Charles Shadwell was a fellow of Oriel, with his hobbies (as listed in Who’s Who) of “punting, billiards, chess problems, chronograms”. (One can read Walter Pater’s essay Diaphaneité, which describes an ideal personality, living a “purity of life”, modelled on his friend Charles Shadwell, and wonder about those recreations.) From 1874 to 1887, Shadwell, a man devoted to his college, was treasurer of the college, and from 1905 to 1914 its head. In between he lived at Frewin Hall, Oxford, carried out extensive renovations, and popped a Latin, hexametrical chronogram over the front door. I can think of any number of ways by which Blaxland and Shadwell might have become acquainted, and I’m obviously imagining that either Bruce Blaxland got into chronography himself when an undergraduate, inspired by Shadwell (in which case he was an excellent pupil), or (and I think this more likely) Blaxland requested a chronogram from Shadwell at a later date. The coincidence of an Oriel connection just seems too great to me otherwise.

Anyhow, it’s my blog, and I can speculate as much as I like.