Oxford expelled Shelley: Cambridge whipped Milton.[A] Facit indignatio versus. If we press this misreading of Juvenal, Oxford erred only on the side of thoroughness. But that, notoriously, is Oxford’s way. She expelled Landor, Calverley, and some others. My contention is that to expel a man is—however you look at it—better for his poesy than to make a don of him. Oxford says, “You are a poet; therefore this is no place for you. Go elsewhere; we set your aspiring soul at large.” Cambridge says: “You are a poet. Let us employ you to fulfil other functions. Be a don.” She made a don of Gray, of Calverley. Cambridge men are for ever casting Calverley in our teeth; whereas, in truth, he is specially to be quoted against them. As everybody knows, he was at both Universities, so over him we have a fair chance of comparing methods. As everybody knows, he went to Balliol first, and his ample cabin’d spirit led him to climb a wall, late at night. Something else caused him to be discovered, and Blaydes—he was called Blaydes then—was sent down.
Nobody can say what splendid effect this might have had upon his poetry. But he changed his name and went to Cambridge. And Cambridge made a don of him. If anybody thinks this was an intelligent stroke, let him consider the result. Calverley wrote a small amount of verse that, merely as verse, is absolutely faultless. To compare great things with little, you might as well try to alter a line of Virgil’s as one of Calverley’s. Forget a single epithet and substitute another, and the result is certain disaster. He has the perfection of the phrase—and there it ends. I cannot remember a single line of Calverley’s that contains a spark of human feeling. Mr. Birrell himself has observed that Calverley is just a bit inhuman. But the cause of it does not seem to have occurred to him. Nor does the biography explain it. If we are to believe the common report of all who knew Calverley, he was a man of simple mind and sincere, of quick and generous emotions. His biographers tell us also that he was one who seemed to have the world at his feet, one who had only to choose a calling to excel in it. Yet he never fulfilled his friends’ high expectations. What was the reason of it all?
The accident that cut short his career is not wholly to blame, I think. At any rate, it will not explain away the exception I have taken to his verse. Had that been destined to exhibit the humanity which we seek, some promise of it would surely be discoverable; for he was a full-grown man at the time of that unhappy tumble on the ice. But there is none. It is all sheer wit, impish as a fairy changeling’s, and always barren of feeling. Mr. Birrell has not supplied the explanatory epithet, so I will try to do so. It is “donnish.” Cambridge, fondly imagining that she was showing right appreciation of Calverley thereby, gave him a Fellowship. Mr. Walter Besant, another gentleman from Calverley’s college, complained, the other day, that literary distinction was never marked with a peerage. It is the same sort of error. And now Cambridge, having made Calverley a don, claims him as a Cambridge poet; and the claim is just, if the epithet be intended to mark the limitations imposed by that University on his achievement.