“The difference that there was in the temperaments of the two comrade regiments showed itself in the last moments of the onset. The Scots Greys gave no utterance except to a low, eager, fierce moan of rapture—the moan of outbursting desire. The Inniskillings went in with a cheer. With a rolling prolongation of clangour which resulted from the bends of a line now deformed by its speed, the ‘three hundred’ crashed in upon the front of the column.”
Dec. 5, 1891. Cambridge Baras.
What I am about to say will, no doubt, be set down to tribal malevolence; but I confess that if Cambridge men appeal to me less at one time than another it is when they begin to talk about their poets. The grievance is an old one, of course—at least as old as Mr. Birrell’s “Obiter Dicta”: but it has been revived by the little book of verse ("Quo Musa Tendis?”) that I have just been reading. I laid it down and thought of Mr. Birrell’s essay on Cambridge Poets, as he calls them: and then of another zealous gentleman, hailing from the same University, who arranged all the British bards in a tripos and brought out the Cambridge men at the top. This was a very characteristic performance: but Mr. Birrell’s is hardly less so in these days when (to quote the epistolary parent) so much prominence is given to athleticism in our seats of learning. For he picks out a team of lightblue singers as though he meant to play an inter-University match, and challenges Oxford to “come on.” He gives Milton a “blue,” and says we oughtn’t to play Shelley because Shelley isn’t in residence.
Now to me this is as astonishing as if my butcher were to brag about Kirke White. My doctor might retort with Keats; and my scrivener—if I had one—might knock them both down with the name of Milton. It would be a pretty set-to; but I cannot see that it would affect the relative merits of mutton and laudanum and the obscure products of scrivenage. Nor, conversely (as they say at Cambridge), is it certain, or even likely, that the difference between a butcher or a doctor is the difference between Kirke White and Keats. And this talk about “University” poets seems somewhat otiose unless it can be shown that Cambridge and Oxford directly encourage poesy, or aim to do so. I am aware that somebody wins the Newdigate every year at Oxford, and that the same thing happens annually at Cambridge with respect to the Chancellor’s Prize. But—to hark back to the butcher and apothecary—verses are perennially made upon Mr. Lipton’s Hams and Mrs. Allen’s Hair Restorer. Obviously some incentive is needed beyond a prize for stanzas on a given subject. I can understand Cambridge men when they assert that they produce more Wranglers than Oxford: that is a justifiable boast. But how does Cambridge encourage poets?