Phantasmagoria and Other Poems/The Elections to the Hebdomadal Council

For other versions of this work, see The Elections to the Hebdomadal Council.



[In the year 1866, a Letter with the above title was published in Oxford, addressed by Mr. Goldwin Smith to the Senior Censor of Christ Church, with the twofold object of revealing to the University a vast political misfortune which it had unwittingly encountered, and of suggesting a remedy which should at once alleviate the bitterness of the calamity and secure the sufferers from its recurrence. The misfortune thus revealed was no less than the fact that, at a recent election of Members to the Hebdomadal Council, two Conservatives had been chosen, thus giving a Conservative majority in the Council; and the remedy suggested was a sufficiently sweeping one, embracing, as it did, the following details:—

1. 'The exclusion' (from Congregation) 'of the non-academical elements which form a main part of the strength of this party domination.' These 'elements' are afterwards enumerated as 'the parish clergy and the professional men of the city, and chaplains who are without any academical occupation.'

2. The abolition of the Hebdomadal Council.

3. The abolition of the legislative functions of Convocation.

These are all the main features of this remarkable scheme of Reform, unless it be necessary to add

4. 'To preside over a Congregation with full legislative powers, the Vice-Chancellor ought no doubt to be a man of real capacity.'

But it would be invidious to suppose that there was any intention of suggesting this as a novelty.

The following rhythmical version of the Letter developes its principles to an extent which possibly the writer had never contemplated.]

Now is the Winter of our discontent[1].'

'Heard ye the arrow hurtle in the sky?
Heard ye the dragon-monster's deathful cry?'—
Excuse this sudden burst of the Heroic;
The present state of things would vex a Stoic!
And just as Sairey Gamp, for pains within,
Administered a modicum of gin,
So does my mind, when vexed and ill at ease,
Console itself with soothing similes.
The 'dragon-monster' (pestilential schism!)
I need not tell you is Conservatism;
The 'hurtling arrow' (till we find a better)
Is represented by the present Letter.

'Twas, I remember, but the other day,
Dear Senior Censor, that you chanced to say
You thought these party-combinations would
Be found, "though needful, no unmingled good."
Unmingled good? They are unmingled ill[2]!
I never took to them, and never will[3]
What am I saying? Heed it not, my friend:
On the next page I mean to recommend
The very dodges that I now condemn
In the Conservatives! Don't hint to them
A word of this! (In confidence. Ahem!)

Need I rehearse the history of Jowett?
I need not, Senior Censor, for you know it[4].
That was the Board Hebdomadal, and oh!
Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow!

Let each that wears a beard, and each that shaves,
Join in the cry 'We never will be slaves!'
"But can the University afford
To be a slave to any kind of board?
A slave?" you shuddering ask. "Think you it can, Sir?"
"Not at the present moment." is my answer[5].
I've thought the matter o'er and o'er again,
And given to it all my powers of brain;
I've thought it out, and this is what I make it,
(And I don't care a Tory how you take it:)
It may be right to go ahead, I guess:
It may be right to stop, I do confess:
Also, it may be right to retrogress[6].

So says the oracle, and, for myself, I
Must say it beats to fits the one at Delphi!
To save beloved Oxford from the yoke,
(For this majority's beyond a joke,)

We must combine[7], aye! hold a caucus-meeting[8],
Unless we want to get another beating.
That they should 'bottle' us is nothing new—
But shall they bottle us and caucus too?
See the 'fell unity of purpose' now
With which Obstructives plunge into the row[9]!
'Factious Minorities,' we used to sigh—
'Factious Majorities!' is now the cry.
'Votes—ninety-two'—no combination here:
'Votes—ninety-three'—conspiracy, 'tis clear[10]!
You urge "'Tis but a unit." I reply
That in that unit lurks their 'unity.'
Our voters often bolt, and often baulk us,
But then they never, never go to caucus!

Our voters can't forget the maxim famous
'Semel electum semper eligamus;'
They never can be worked into a ferment
By visionary promise of preferment,
Nor taught, by hints of 'Paradise[11]' beguiled,
To whisper 'C for Chairman' like a child[12]!
And thus the friends that we have tempted down
Oft take the two-o'clock Express for town[13].
This is our danger: this the secret foe
That aims at Oxford such a deadly blow.
What champion can we find to save the State,
To crush the plot? We darkly whisper 'Wait[14]!'

My scheme is this: remove the votes of all
The residents that are not Liberal[15]
Leave the young Tutors uncontrolled and free,
And Oxford then shall see—what it shall see.
What next? Why then, I say, let Convocation
Be shorn of all her powers of legislation[16].
But why stop there? Let us go boldly on—
Sweep everything beginning with a 'Con'
Into oblivion! Convocation first,
Conservatism next, and, last and worst,
'Concilium Hebdomadale' must,
Consumed and conquered, be consigned to dust[17]!
And here I must relate a little fable
I heard last Saturday at our high table:—

The cats, it seems, were masters of the house,
And held their own against the rat and mouse:
Of course the others couldn't stand it long,
So held a caucus, (not, in their case, wrong:)
And, when they were assembled to a man,
Uprose an aged rat, and thus began:—
'Brothers in bondage! Shall we bear to be
For ever left in a minority?
With what "fell unity of purpose" cats
Oppress the trusting innocence of rats!
So unsuspicious are we of disguise,
Their machinations take us by surprise[18]
Insulting and tyrannical absurdities[19]!
It is too bad by half—upon my word it is!

For, now that these Con——, cats, I should say, (frizzle 'em!)
Are masters, they exterminate like Islam[20]!
How shall we deal with them? I'll tell you how:—
Let none but kittens be allowed to miaow!
The Liberal kittens seize us but in play,
And, while they frolic, we can run away:
But older cats are not so generous,
Their claws are too Conservative for us!
Then let them keep the stable and the oats,
While kittens, rats, and mice have all the votes.
'Yes; banish cats! The kittens would not use
Their powers for blind obstruction[21], nor refuse
To let us sip the cream and gnaw the cheese—
How glorious then would be our destinies[22]!

Kittens and rats would occupy the throne,
And rule the larder for itself alone[23]!'
So rhymed my friend, and asked me what I thought of it.
I told him that so much as I had caught of it
Appeared to me (as I need hardly mention)
Entirely undeserving of attention.
But now, to guide the Congregation, when
It numbers none but really 'able' men,
A 'Vice-Cancellarius' will be needed
Of every kind of human weakness weeded!
Is such the president that we have got?
He ought no doubt to be; why should he not[24]?
I do not hint that Liberals should dare
To oust the present holder of the chair—

But surely he would not object to be
Gently examined by a Board of three?
Their duty being just to ascertain
That he's 'all there' (I mean, of course, in brain),
And that his mind, from 'petty details' clear,
Is fitted for the duties of his sphere.
All this is merely moonshine, till we get
The seal of Parliament upon it set.
A word then, Senior Censor, in your ear:
The Government is in a state of fear—
Like some old gentleman, abroad at night,
Seized with a sudden shiver of affright,
Who offers money, on his bended knees,
To the first skulking vagabond he sees—
Now is the lucky moment for our task;
They daren't refuse us anything we ask[25]!

And then our Fellowships shall open be
To Intellect, no meaner quality!
No moral excellence, no social fitness
Shall ever be admissible as witness.
'Avaunt, dull Virtue!' is Oxonia's cry:
'Come to my arms, ingenious Villainy!'
For Classic Fellowships, an honour high,
Simonides and Co. will then apply—
Our Mathematics will to Oxford bring
The 'cutest members of the betting-ring—
Law Fellowships will start upon their journeys
A myriad of unscrupulous attorneys—
While poisoners, doomed till now to toil unknown,
Shall mount the Physical Professor's throne!
To what a varied feast of learning then
Should we invite our intellectual men!
Professor Caseley should instruct our flock
To analyse the mysteries of Locke—
Barnum should lecture them on Rhetoric—
The Davenports upon the cupboard-trick—

Robson and Redpath, Strahan and Paul and Bates
Should store the minds of undergraduates—
From Fagin's lecture-room a class should come
Versed in all arts of finger and of thumb,
To illustrate in practice (though by stealth)
The transitory character of wealth.
And thus would Oxford educate, indeed,
Men far beyond a merely local need—
With no career before them, I may say[26],
Unless they're wise enough to go away,
And seek, far West, or in the distant East,
Another flock of pigeons to be fleeced.
I might go on, and trace the destiny
Of Oxford in an age which, though it be
Thus breaking with tradition, owns a new
Allegiance to the intellectual few—
(I mean, of course, the—pshaw! no matter who!)

But, were I to pursue the boundless theme,
I fear that I should seem to you to dream[27].
This to fulfil, or even—humbler far—
To shun Conservatism's noxious star
And all the evils that it brings behind,
These pestilential coils must be untwined—
These party-coils, that clog the march of Mind—

Choked in whose meshes Oxford, slowly wise,
Has lain for three disastrous centuries[28].
Away with them! (It is for this I yearn.)
Each twist untwist, each Turner overturn!
Disfranchise each Conservative, and cancel
The votes of Michell, Liddon, Wall, and Mansel!
Then, then shall Oxford be herself again,
Neglect the heart, and cultivate the brain—

Then this shall be the burden of our song,
'All change is good—whatever is, is wrong'—
Then Intellect's proud flag shall be unfurled,
And Brain, and Brain alone, shall rule the world!

  1. Dr. Wynter, President of St. John's, one of the recently elected Conservative members of Council.
  2. 'In a letter on a point connected with the late elections to the Hebdomadal Council you incidentally remarked to me that our combinations for these elections, "though necessary, were not an unmixed good." They are an unmixed evil.'
  3. 'I never go to a caucus without reluctance: I never write a canvassing letter without a feeling of repugnance to my task.'
  4. 'I need not rehearse the history of the Regius Professor of Greek.'
  5. 'The University cannot afford at the present moment to be delivered over as a slave to any non-academical interest whatever.'
  6. 'It may be right to go on, it may be right to stand still, or it may be right to go back.'
  7. 'To save the University from going completely under the yoke .... we shall still be obliged to combine.'
  8. 'Caucus-holding and wire-pulling would still be almost inevitably carried on to some extent.'
  9. 'But what are we to do? Here is a great political and theological party .... labouring under perfect discipline and with fell unity of purpose, to hold the University in subjection, and fill her government with its nominees.'
  10. At a recent election to Council, the Liberals mustered ninety-two votes, and the Conservatives ninety-three; whereupon the latter were charged with having obtained their victory by a conspiracy.
  11. 'Not to mention that, as we cannot promise Paradise to our supporters, they are very apt to take the train for London just before the election.'
  12. It is not known to what the word 'Paradise' was intended to allude, and therefore the hint, here thrown out, that the writer meant to recall the case of the late Chairman of Mr. Gathorne Hardy's committee, who had been recently collated to the See of Chester, is wholly wanton and gratuitous.
  13. A case of this kind had actually occurred on the occasion of the division just alluded to.
  14. Mr. Wayte, now President of Trinity, then put forward as the Liberal candidate for election to Council.
  15. 'You and others suggest, as the only effective remedy, that the Constituency should be reformed, by the exclusion of the non-academical elements which form a main part of the strength of this party domination.'
  16. 'I confess that, having included all the really academical elements in Congregation, I would go boldly on, and put an end to the legislative functions of Convocation.'
  17. 'This conviction, that while we have Elections to Council we shall not entirely get rid of party organization and its evils, leads me to venture a step further, and to raise the question whether it is really necessary that we should have an Elective Council for legislative purposes at all.'
  18. Sometimes, indeed, not being informed that the wires are at work, we are completely taken by surprise.'
  19. 'We are without protection against this most insulting and tyrannical absurdity.'
  20. 'It is as exterminating as Islam.'
  21. 'Their powers would scarcely be exercised for the purposes of fanaticism, or in a spirit of blind obstruction.'
  22. 'These narrow local bounds, within which our thoughts and schemes have hitherto been pent, will begin to disappear, and a far wider sphere of action will open on the view.'
  23. 'Those councils must be freely opened to all who can serve her well and who will serve her for herself.'
  24. 'To preside over a Congregation with full legislative powers, the Vice-Chancellor ought no doubt to be a man of real capacity; but why should he not? His mind ought also, for this as well as for his other high functions, to be clear of petty details, and devoted to the great matters of University business; but why should not this condition also be fulfilled?'
  25. 'If you apply now to Parliament for this or any other University reform, you will find the House of Commons in a propitious mood .... Even the Conservative Government, as it looks for the support of moderate Liberals on the one great subject, is very unwilling to present itself in such an aspect that these men may not be able decently to give it their support.'
  26. 'With open Fellowships, Oxford will soon produce a supply of men fit for the work of high education far beyond her own local demands, and in fact with no career before them unless a career can be opened elsewhere.'
  27. 'I should seem to you to dream if I were to say what I think the destiny of the University may be in an age which, though it is breaking with tradition, is, from the same causes, owning a new allegiance to intellectual authority.'
  28. 'But to fulfil this, or even a far humbler destiny—to escape the opposite lot—the pestilential coils of party, in which the University has lain for three disastrous centuries choked, must be untwined.'