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Oxford   By: (1844-1912)

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OXFORD

by Andrew Lang

PREFACE

These papers do not profess even to sketch the outlines of a history of Oxford. They are merely records of the impressions made by this or that aspect of the life of the University as it has been in different ages. Oxford is not an easy place to design in black and white, with the pen or the etcher's needle. On a wild winter or late autumn day (such as Father Faber has made permanent in a beautiful poem) the sunshine fleets along the plain, revealing towers, and floods, and trees, in a gleam of watery light, and leaving them once more in shadow. The melancholy mist creeps over the city, the damp soaks into the heart of everything, and such suicidal weather ensues as has been described, once for all, by the author of John a Dreams. How different Oxford looks when the road to Cowley Marsh is dumb with dust, when the heat seems almost tropical, and by the drowsy banks of the Cherwell you might almost expect some shy southern water beast to come crashing through the reeds! And such a day, again, is unlike the bright weather of late September, when all the gold and scarlet of Bagley Wood are concentrated in the leaves that cover the walls of Magdalen with an imperial vesture.

Our memories of Oxford, if we have long made her a Castle of Indolence, vary no less than do the shifting aspects of her scenery. Days of spring and of mere pleasure in existence have alternated with days of gloom and loneliness, of melancholy, of resignation. Our mental pictures of the place are tinged by many moods, as the landscape is beheld in shower and sunshine, in frost, and in the colourless drizzling weather. Oxford, that once seemed a pleasant porch and entrance into life, may become a dingy ante room, where we kick our heels with other weary, waiting people. At last, if men linger there too late, Oxford grows a prison, and it is the final condition of the loiterer to take "this for a hermitage." It is well to leave the enchantress betimes, and to carry away few but kind recollections. If there be any who think and speak ungently of their Alma Mater, it is because they have outstayed their natural "welcome while," or because they have resisted her genial influence in youth.

CHAPTER I THE TOWN BEFORE THE UNIVERSITY

Most old towns are like palimpsests, parchments which have been scrawled over again and again by their successive owners. Oxford, though not one of the most ancient of English cities, shows, more legibly than the rest, the handwriting, as it were, of many generations. The convenient site among the interlacing waters of the Isis and the Cherwell has commended itself to men in one age after another. Each generation has used it for its own purpose: for war, for trade, for learning, for religion; and war, trade, religion, and learning have left on Oxford their peculiar marks. No set of its occupants, before the last two centuries began, was very eager to deface or destroy the buildings of its predecessors. Old things were turned to new uses, or altered to suit new tastes; they were not overthrown and carted away. Thus, in walking through Oxford, you see everywhere, in colleges, chapels, and churches, doors and windows which have been builded up; or again, openings which have been cut where none originally existed. The upper part of the round Norman arches in the Cathedral has been preserved, and converted into the circular bull's eye lights which the last century liked. It is the same everywhere, except where modern restorers have had their way. Thus the life of England, for some eight centuries, may be traced in the buildings of Oxford. Nay, if we are convinced by some antiquaries, the eastern end of the High Street contains even earlier scratches on this palimpsest of Oxford; the rude marks of savages who scooped out their damp nests, and raised their low walls in the gravel, on the spot where the new schools are to stand. Here half naked men may have trapped the beaver in the Cherwell, and hither they may have brought home the boars which they slew in the trackless woods of Headington and Bagley... Continue reading book >>




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