A Fortnight At Cambridge

I came, I saw, and I was conquered
("King's College, Cambridge" by Roman Boed is licensed under CC BY 2.0)


[This article first appeared in the January 21, 1931 issue of Commonweal]

My pipe is a black and stumpy object, unlovely to the eye and to the nose. Yet I cherish it as the friend who shared with me an intellectual adventure in the ancient and honorable University of Cambridge. I had planned, last year, to content myself with seeing England's literary landmarks tourist fashion, beginning at Oxford, proceeding to Stratford, and ending in London, with Westminster Abbey and the Cheshire Cheese. Shortly before sailing, I received from the Cambridge Board of Extra-Mural Studies a discreet bulletin announcing the inauguration of a summer session of lectures on Shakespeare and the English novel, "specially suited to the needs of students from English-speaking countries overseas." Mindful of Lord Essex's advice "rather to go a hundred miles to speak with one wise man than five miles to see a fair town," I eagerly seized this opportunity of sharing with ripe scholars the stores of their knowledge of English letters. In company with a hundred other American students I arrived in Cambridge the afternoon of July 23, the opening day of the session.

I had bespoken a room in St. Edmund's House, a residence for priests studying in the university. An antiquated taxi jolted me past the colleges flanking Trumpington Street, and came to a convulsive stop before a stately brick house mantled with ivy. The Master of St. Edmund's, a genial and scholarly priest, greeted me cordially and conducted me to what he called my "diggings," a large room looking out upon a garden in midsummer bloom. Open bookshelves of dark oak lined the walls, and a jolly little fireplace in one corner made me hope bad weather would give me an excuse to enjoy the luxury of a wood fire. A large study table was placed between the two windows, and a capacious easy chair, set near the fireplace, invited one to sink into its depths and read by the hour. The Master interrupted my survey of the study. "Do you smoke?" he asked.  I was forced to blush a negative. "Buy yourself a pipe and start tonight. The only way to read is with a pipe in your mouth, and your head in clouds of smoke. Now, if you have nothing particular to do, I'll show you a bit of Cambridge."

As we turned from Queen's Road down an avenue shaded by lofty elms, my companion initiated me into Cambridge lore. I learned that what Oxford knew as a quad, Cambridge called a court; that the proper pronunciation of Caius was Keys; and that May Week really occurred In June. In the midst of an exciting description of a recent cricket match, he suddenly cried, "Ecce!" And turning I saw spread before me the Backs of Cambridge. It was now late afternoon, and the sun cast long shadows on the closely shaven lawns of delicate green, sloping gently down from the college walls to the banks of the river Cam. A small boat appeared from beneath the Old Bridge near the plum-colored walls of St. John's College, and glided slowly past Trinity College Library, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. I watched it as it continued underneath Clare Bridge, and disappeared from view near the spot where the spires of King's College Chapel tower majestically above the white walls of Clare College. I came, I saw, and I was conquered by the quiet charm of the river, college, and sward whose beauty has made the Backs of Cambridge one of the showplaces of England.

"You have seen Cambridge as I would like you to remember it," said the Master quietly. "Now explore the colleges for yourself. And here is a bit of advice. When a door is unlocked, open it and walk in. Cambridge does not flaunt her beauties, neither does she hide them." I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering about the narrow streets and peering into college courts. Coming upon a tobacco shop, I purchased a pipe and a package of what the clerk assured me was "an exceptionally mild smoking mixture." When I returned to St. Edmund's for dinner, I met the other priests staying there during the long vacation. These included several English fathers, a Hungarian Benedictine engaged in research work in physics, two young Irish priests pursuing special studies in English, and an American Jesuit just arrived to begin the three-year course in Latin and Greek. Dinner was a lively affair, the talk ranging from a recent tennis match to an animated discussion of a mooted point of theology. When we adjourned to the den for coffee, one of the English priests attacked the piano, and soon the room was ringing with the "March of the Peers" from "lolanthe." The conversation and music were so delightful that I found it hard to tear myself away to attend the first meeting of the summer session held that night in the Arts School on Bene't Street.

As I walked slowly home from the lecture, I resolved while in Cambridge to study English literature, not in books but in places; to walk where Milton once paced, to stand where Erasmus taught, to see Spenser's room, and seek out Marlowe's favorite haunts. Then back in my room I performed a solemn rite. I strengthened my wavering resolution by recalling to mind the names of great pipe smokers of antiquity, and carefully filled the bowl of the pipe with long shreds of tobacco. Then I applied a match, and valiantly puffed. The acquisition of all knowledge is painful, and learning to smoke English tobacco proved no exception. However I have lived to commemorate Cambridge in many a fragrant pipeful.

Next morning the lectures proper began. The mornings of the summer session were devoted to two ninety-minute lectures, separated by a fifteen-minute intermission. The course on Shakespeare was given by T. R. Henn, a fellow of St. Catherine's College. Mr. Henn was a brilliant and scholarly young man, greatly absorbed in his subject. Every sentence of his lecture on different plays of Shakespeare was loaded with ore. He loved to dwell on the minutiae of quarto and folio readings, and to contrast the tragedies of his two literary gods, Shakespeare and Euripides. From his course I learned the importance of Aristotle's "Poetics" as a standard of literary criticism.

The lectures on the English novelists given by Percy L. Babington of St. John's College were a sheer delight. Mr. Babington gazed on us the morning of his first lecture, with a cold eye and wearied imperturbability. "Cheese," he announced in a harsh rasping voice, "is fit to be eaten only when it is positively scampering." Then he proceeded with his discourse on Richardson. He delighted to give dramatic readings of selections from the authors under consideration. When he ended his lecture on Dickens a la Mrs. Gamp—"Of course I could tell you much more if I was so disposed; but I am not"—the class paid him the tribute of spontaneous applause, which pleased him immensely. From both series of lectures I acquired a new respect and love for that body of literature known as English letters.

One spot in Cambridge I never tired of visiting was the Hall of Magdalene, the college of that inimitable gossip, Samuel Pepys. I would mount the staircase in the rear of the Hall, and gaze down on the high table where the fellows ate in all their glory, and on the long rows of oaken tables and benches where the undergraduates sat. I used to reflect on the wisdom of the Cambridge authorities who enjoined that the students take a certain number of meals in common. The gay, wise and witty talk, the clash of opinion and flash of thought which is part of the conversation at every meeting of students, is regarded as one of the most important elements in the education of a member of a college.

From Magdalene it was only a short walk to Trinity College Library, where I spent many happy hours pouring over the manuscript of "Henry Esmond" written in Thackeray's exquisitely neat hand, and the first sketch of "Paradise Lost," in Milton's handwriting. This rough draft shows that Milton first intended to treat his theme dramatically. In the library is Thorwaldsen's statue of Byron, twice refused by the deans of Westminster Abbey. It was but a step from Trinity to King's College Chapel. I used to go there every day, admiring the fan vaulting roof, the superb beauty of the organ screen, and the majestic windows, which perhaps inspired Milton to pen the lines:


Storied windows rightly dight,

Casting a dim religious light.


On the last day of the summer session I received from G. F, Hickson, secretary to the Board of Extra- Mural Studies, a certificate of attendance testifying that I had "been in regular and satisfactory attendance at the courses . . . each of which amounted to fifteen hours of systematic instruction by means of lectures and class discussions." Then I returned to St. Edmund's to take leave of the Master and the priests who had so kindly welcomed me, and made me one of them during my stay at the house. Dispatching my valise to the station, I lit my pipe and went for a last look at college, river and inn. As I walked up Trumpington Street, I reviewed my fortnight in Cambridge. I remembered the conversations at St. Edmund's, which Dr. Johnson would have pronounced "good talk." I thought of the intellectual stimulus received in the lectures given by finished scholars. And as the moment of departure grew near, I realized how dear to me had grown the quiet university city. Turning into Queen's College, I crossed the bridge and took a last look at the Backs. The grey colleges stretched out as far as the eye could see, and the Cam was shaded by overhanging elms. As I gazed at the colleges, rich in tradition and gracious in age, these lines of Wordsworth came to me:


I could not print

Ground where the grass had yielded to the steps

Of generations of illustrious men

Unmoved. I could not always lightly pass

Through the same gateways, sleep where they had slept,

Wake where they waked, range that inclosure old,

That garden of great intellects, undisturbed.

Place also by the side of this dark sense

Of noble feeling, that those spiritual men,

Even the great Newton's own ethereal self,

Seemed humbled in these precincts.


They seemed best to express what every lover of Cambridge has felt.

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