Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 27 - The Jubilee Commemoration at Oxford

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    AFTER the turmoil and fatigue of Jubilee week in London, it was pleasant to get into the country, if only for a few days. The Commemoration exercises at Oxford on the 30th of June were of especial interest, and I had looked forward to the event with many pleasant anticipations. In addition to the ordinary programme, degrees were conferred upon the colonial premiers who were guests of honor at the annual fete which was held in the gardens of Wadham College. The day reminded me of the usual commencement day at any American University-clear and hot with haymaking in progress in the fields along which we passed. I had gone to Banbury first, to spend the night with friends, returning with them to Oxford the following day.
    The streets of the fine old town were comparatively empty, contrary to expectation, the undergraduates having been rather surfeited with the preceding week's entertainments - a brilliant succession of breakfasts, luncheons, dinners and boat races-and hundreds of them had gone home. Here and there, in the open windows of their tastefully furnished chambers, both in lodgings through the town, and of apartments looking out upon the peaceful quadrangle of the grey old colleges-were the bright faces of their sisters and their girl friends; and we also had fleeting glimpses of books and pictures, the paraphernalia of sport, and other possessions which undergraduates gather around them, whatever their na-[-345-]tionality. There appeared to be a great rivalry in window-gardens, and every window-sill was a bank of brilliant flowers, so that the walls, already green with ivy, seemed to have spontaneously burst forth into blossom. A few of the men-as the young undergraduates call themselves - those who had lingered after their mates had gone, strolled along on the shady side of High street, each hat encircled with a ribbon band - the college colors of the wearer. Prior to assisting in the programme fixed for the day we looked through what is known as "The Schools" -a fine new building in which the examinations are held.
    There are a number of large well-lighted rooms, and the corridors are finished in beautiful marble from many parts of the world; lapis lazuli from Labrador, as iridiscent as an opal, having been employed in the decorations, with fine effect. The ceilings were set in squares of marble, each elaborately carved, a work which was then being slowly completed.
    The rooms in which the examinations were held contained a number of small, plain deal tables, much splashed with ink, and there were also great blotches of the same liquid on the matting-covered floor. On several of the tables were bundles of quills, for this is a region, like the Law Courts, still uninvaded by the fountain pen and other pernicious modern innovations.
    At one side, upon a canopied dais in each roam, was a stately chair of carved oak where the presiding official sat enthroned while the examinations were in progress; his elevated seat giving him an excellent view of the men ranged before him.
    Judging from the amount of ink that had been spilled, and the spirited sketches on the tables, the struggle of many of the candidates must have been a severe one. There were bold and shameless caricatures of the dons; [-346-] pictures of dogs; of men in boating dress; of female heads, and, with these, legends more or less appropriate. One troubled and discomfited soul had thus parodied Gray's Elegy:
        "Homeward the ploughed man plods his weary way."
    Another had scrawled concisely and significantly:
        "Ploughed in history."
    Still another had written:
        "Ploughed, June 22nd; what a Jubilee!"
    This verse was indicative of a spirit less gloomy:
        "There was a young man warden of Merton
        Who went into hall with no shirt on;
        When asked if twas wise
        To appear in that guise
        'Saves washin',' said the warden of Merton."
    In the corridors below, near the entrance, lists had been posted the names of those who had successfully passed their examinations; and the undergraduates, in twos and threes strolled in, read them and strolled out again.
    It is said that at the conferring of degrees the part performed by the undergraduates has now become a mere spiritless imitation of former days, and it is considered scarcely amusing.
    The exercises were held in the Sheldonian theatre, the main body of which was set aside for distinguished visitors and guests; while the undergraduates and their friends were remanded to the galleries. As the appointed hour approached, the bustle of the arriving audience increased; and stout matrons, dignified fathers and the pretty cousins and sisters of the young men, were con-[-347-]ducted to their seats and sat looking about them and talking in undertones, commenting on the place and the audience.
    The procession of University dignitaries marched in with the distinguished guests of the day, and occupied the seats reserved for them; it was headed by the Vice- Chancellor in his scarlet gown, followed by the doctors of divinity in scarlet robes with sleeves of black velvet; doctors of law in scarlet and rose-colored, with the masters of arts in plain black cap and gown; with them appeared the Mayor of Oxford in his official dress and wearing his gold chain. The center of observation was Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Canadian Premier, who had been received with great enthusiasm wherever he was present during the week of the Jubilee. His finely cut features, smooth face and long, waving hair gave him an appearance of great refinement and intellectuality, a somewhat ascetic type, strikingly different from the more florid and heavily bearded faces of the Englishmen seated near him. The addresses were in Latin-the old sonorous Latin of the monks-and it was pleasing to realize that the mannerisms of our western schools were unknown in this great university. What we call "Continental Latin," Oxford has scorned as art affectation, an outcome of the so-called aesthetic movement of twenty years ago.
    On Commemoration Day what at other times would be regarded as common propriety is thrown to the winds; latitude is given the undergraduates which has no parallel anywhere in the United States; it might be regarded as the annual reaction, which is permitted once in the year, against the punctilious subordination that prevails at other times.
    The dons, whom they must properly recognize, and who are properly respected on most occasions but this, are apparently "paid off," to use the English phrase, and it is [-348-] a wiping out of old scores that is accepted with the utmost good humor; a species of what American students would call "getting even," although it is devoid of ill-nature and there is nothing in it approaching mean revenge. It is certain, however, that it is a pretty severe sort of chaffing; a good many of the comments strike home with unerring aim. The well-known foibles of the victims are mercilessly exposed, and all this is done with the politeness of Chesterfield and in the most polished and admirable diction, varied only by apt quotations from the Music hall lore of the moment.
    The effect, to an American, is startling. The parenthetic remarks from the galleries, where it is impossible to identify the speaker, breaking in upon the flowing periods, the musical Latin of the orators-men of the highest social and official position and of the profoundest learning.
    For example, it was pretty well understood that a gentleman present expected knighthood in the award of Jubilee honors, and one of the speakers was suddenly interrupted by a voice:
    "That is quite enough, thanks. We should now be pleased to hear from Mr. D-."
    There was strong emphasis on the "Mr." which served to remind that disappointed gentleman and the audience, as well, of the title which had been withheld. This audacious speech was seconded by some one else who remarked:
    "Speak up Mr. D.- we are not quite able to hear you."
    "Perhaps Mrs. D- will oblige."
    The latter remark was not approved; "dragging her in" was considered unfair and rather beyond the limits of even Commemoration Day indulgence.
    As one of the stateliest of the candidates moved for-[-349-]ward to the platform, another fresh young voice quoted cheerfully and gaily, the Empire ditty:
"Now we shan't be long."
    How the orators could keep their countenance and continue speaking in the midst of these disconcerting and often very funny interruptions was puzzling; but they knew what they must expect and were in a certain degree prepared; at any rate, it was a forcible proof of their powers of concentration, and of their dignity, acquired and inbred.
    The exercises at the theatre were followed by a splendid luncheon in the hall at All Souls', and in the afternoon by the fete which began at half past three. The gardens of Wadham which had been selected for the occasion, were beautiful and extensive, but they lacked the water-view which adds so greatly to the attractions of Magdalen and other colleges. The scene was most charming, and the grounds, with their velvet lawns, trees and shrubbery, with glimpses of the walls and spires of the adjacent colleges, was a fitting and harmonious setting for the picture. The dignitaries of the college again appeared in their scarlet robes, silken hoods, and adornments of ermine; here and there was an Indian Prince, his European dress modified by his white or bright colored turban; a pretty Indian Princess in draperies of gauze and a veil of thin yellow tissue, which became her admirably, sat surrounded by her friends, looking on with childish delight. In addition to all these more conspicuous figures, were the ordinary folk, men in morning dress, irreproachably gloved, with the inevitable top hat, the innovation of the Prince of Wales not yet having disturbed the conservatism of Oxford; ladies gaily attired in light silks and muslins, hats and bonnets covered with flowers, carrying red, blue, white and yellow parasols which, in the sunshine brightened the lawns with unusual [-350-] and ever-changing color. There was the inevitable luncheon of ices, cakes, strawberries, grapes, claret-cup and lemonade which was served under a marquee, while elsewhere tea, coffee, bread and butter were provided those who preferred plainer fare.
    The animation of an English gathering is scrupulously subdued on such occasions; people strolled about or sat in groups talking in low agreeable voices, or listened critically to the music, a delightful band being stationed in one part of the gardens, while elsewhere a quartette of male voices sang old glees and ballads.
    The Vice Chancellor was the central figure of the fete, a man of remarkable distinction and dignity, and Bishops and other clergy were largely represented, each distinguishable by his hood, bands or sleeves. The Mayor who was present at the fete with his wife, was respectfully and cordially greeted on every side and invariably addressed as "Mr. Mayor. In England a title is a title, and it is on no account ever forgotten.
    From the moment a man is knighted he is addressed as "Sir" and his wife as "Lady," and there is none of the awkward "getting used to it" that would inevitably follow with us-stumbling and jumbling together the new and the old- "Mr" - "Sir," or "Mrs." - "Lady." A title is highly valued and to withhold the proper address, once it is acquired, is looked upon as a species of injustice and lack of breeding; its instantaneous and unerring recognition is one more evidence of the exactitude of the British mind.
    I had the great pleasure of being introduced to Dr. R-, the head of the Oxford University Extension movement, which has been so successful and which is yearly widening its usefulness, both in Great Britain and the United States. Dr. R- spoke With much pleasure of the movement in America, where its advancement had far ex-[-351-]ceeded anything that could have been hoped for it, and he gave me some information as to meetings that were to be held the first week in August, at which many Americans were expected to be present.
    At half past five the crowd began to thin, carriages and cabs that had been waiting at the college entrance driving rapidly away with the departing guests.
    It has been charged that the English Universities - Oxford especially - have not been sufficiently popular to exert the influence upon the masses which their great wealth and their almost limitless resources might enable them to do. While watching the stately figures of the officials, the doctors and dons, strolling about, and listening to the chimes from the college towers that broke through the strains of music, I could not help recalling the terrible arraignment of Thomas Hardy - the despairing and futile struggle of one poor creature who starved and perished from lack of knowledge that was denied him.
    As we, too, drove away, the recollection was intensified by the sight of a man's face at a window, with a trio of little children about him, watching with wistful eyes the departure of the guests from the college entrance. But there was also the hopeful reflection that the time must come, without the shadow of a doubt, when the good things of this life, mental and spiritual, as well as material, shall be the portion of no favored class; but the righteous reward of the human being who proves himself worthy of their possession.
    At no time in the history of mankind had this broad and benevolent spirit made such progress as during the reign of the sovereign, the anniversary of whose succession had just been celebrated here as elsewhere, with universal rejoicing. The years that had been full of honor to her, had brought corresponding blessings to her people; [-352-] and, while want and ignorance and misery still survived, it was not the hopeless suffering and degradation that had prevailed in preceding reigns.
    The great University, the fountain source of national wisdom, had thrown down many of its barriers, and its rich opportunities were being placed within reach of all who sought to profit by them. From the gardens, still flooded with sunshine and filled with cheerful voices, came the familiar strains of the national hymn; and, as we thought of the bright promise of the future, the protection for the down-trodden, the relief for the distressed which is the gospel of the new dispensation, the essence of modern civilization, we too echoed with profoundest sincerity its benediction: "God Save the Queen."