The Chancellor’s Prize Essay, 1921 [Mythcon]

Short paper for the conference C.S.Lewis: A Centenary Celebration, incorporating Mythcon XXIX, July 15-20, 1998 at Wheaton College, Illinois.


by John Bremer

It is only because Lewis became such a good and great man that we celebrate the centenary of his birth in 1898. But his goodness and his greatness had to be achieved; they were not gifts, with him from birth, and in the middle period of his life –perhaps from about 1917 to his conversion in 1931–there were many unpleasant aspects to his character and conduct of which he was later heartily ashamed.

The purpose of this short paper is to make as clear as possible how Jack (as we shall call him) was controlled by the still medieval Oxford University Statutes, by the prizes Oxford had to offer, the ambitions they generated in him, and how he responded. The picture is not a particularly flattering one in itself but my intent is not to denigrate or disgrace Jack, but to report, as accurately as I can, one episode which he had to transcend. It is because he did transcend it that the story is worth the telling.

Let us start with Oxford University. It is difficult for anyone–particularly Americans–to realize the incredible stranglehold that Oxford and my own university, Cambridge, had on

the political establishment of England for a period of about six hundred years. Until the founding of the University of London in the early nineteenth century, the two ancient universities provided, with one exception, all the higher education fitting people for high political and ecclesiastical office. The exception was the legal and administrative training offered in the politically powerful center near the royal Court in London by the Inns of Court. But those ambitious for political advancement often attended University first, and then proceeded to the Inns of Court.

Although by Jack’s time there were a number of other universities, founded by municipalities and nonconformists because they were excluded from Oxford and Cambridge, the pre-eminence of the two ancient foundations was still well-founded.

The popular but unreliable historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote the following “purple passage” around 1850:

The power of these bodies [i.e. the universities of Oxford and Cambridge] has during many ages been great; but it was at the height during the latter part of the seventeenth century. None of the neighbouring countries could boast of such splendid and opulent seats of learning. The schools of Edinburgh and Glasgow, of Leyden and Utrecht, of Louvain and Gottingen, of Padua and Bologna, seemed mean to scholars who had been educated in the magnificent foundations of Wykeham and Wolsey, of Henry the Sixth and Henry the Eighth. Literature and science were, in the academical system of England, surrounded with pomp, armed with magistracy, and closely allied with all the most august institutions of the state. To be the chancellor of a university was a distinction eagerly sought by the magnates of the realm. To represent a university in parliament was a favourite object of the ambition of statesmen. Nobles and even princes were proud to receive from a university the privilege of wearing the doctoral scarlet. The curious were attracted to the universities by ancient buildings rich with the tracery of the middle ages, by modern buildings which exhibited the highest skill of Jones and Wren, by noble halls and chapels, by museums, by botanical gardens, and by the only great public libraries which the kingdom then contained. The state which Oxford especially displayed on solemn occasions rivalled that of sovereign princes. When her chancellor, the venerable Duke of Ormond, [the Chancellor of Oxford University in 1669] sate in his embroidered mantle on his throne under the painted ceiling of the Sheldonian theatre, surrounded by hundreds of graduates robed according to their rank, while the noblest youths of England were solemnly presented to him as candidates for academical honours, he made an appearance scarcely less regal that that which his master made in the banqueting-house of Whitehall. At the universities had been formed the minds of almost all the eminent clergymen, lawyers, physicians, wits, poets, and orators of the land, and of a large proportion of the nobility and of the opulent gentry.

It was not simply a question of prestige–although there was plenty of that attached, in Jack’s case, to Oxford–it was a question of power. Between 1300 and 1900, Oxford and Cambridge provided the greater part of the leadership for England. And not just statesmen, for England long ago abolished the mythical separation of Church and State, and from the time of Henry VIII the monarch was head of both the Church of England and the political State.

With the amount of monopolistic power that the old universities had, there was little pressure or incentive to change anything, and when in 1917 Jack became an undergraduate at Oxford, the Vice-Chancellor (the resident administrative head of the University) gave him a book and said:

Scito te in Matriculam Universitatis hodie relatum esse, et ad observandum omnia Statuta hoc libro comprehensa, quantum ad te spectent, teneri.

[Know that you have been today entered in the Register of the University, and are bound to observe all the Statutes contained in this book, as far as they concern you.]

All official, public events were conducted in Latin although it was possible to ask for a remission; a speaker could always ask of the Vice-Chancellor Licetne Anglicae loqui? [Is it permitted to speak English?] and hope to receive the reply Licet [It is permitted]. But there was no guarantee. Clearly, the use of the old ceremonial forms and of the Latin language were impediments to change.

Jack tells us that in 1922 he entered the Honours School of English (at the same time as Neville Coghill) and that it had just been established. English was finally recognized as a subject worthy of study. The antiquity of the curriculum at Oxford is almost unbelievable. To give some indication of the antiquity of the whole institution consider

that it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that College Fellows could be elected without taking Holy Orders, that is, until then all Fellows were ordained in the Church of England. In 1877, Fellows were permitted to marry. Compulsory Greek was abolished in 1920, and Compulsory Latin in 1960. Women were admitted to full membership of the University only in 1920.

Jack, prompted obviously by his father, Albert, and by William Kirkpatrick, The Great Knock, wanted to enter Oxford as a preliminary to a career in letters–either as a scholar, about which he says little or nothing, or as a poet, which was his own image of himself. In spite of failing the mathematics paper in his entrance examination to the University (called Responsions), Jack was admitted and immediately began thinking about how to shine within it.

After his war service, he returned to Oxford in 1919 and reviewed his situation. He was very frank with his tutor, Arthur Poynton, about his ambition to become a fellow of an Oxford College and was advised accordingly. But there were other accolades to be garnered, in addition to the inevitably needed First Class Honours degree. There were six highly prestigious prizes awarded annually by the University through open competition; they went under the titles Stanhope Essay, Latin Prose, Gladstone Essay, Latin Verse, English Essay, and the Newdigate for Verse. Jack set his sights on the Chancellor’s English Essay Prize.

The Essay had regulations: a maximum length of about 12,500 words, a deadline of 31 March, on the prescribed subject: in 1921 it was “Optimism.”

In a letter to his father postmarked 8 December 1920, Lewis writes:

I have however been recommended to try for the Vice Chancellor’s Essay Prize next April. The subject is “Optimism” under which heading one could include almost anything one wanted to write about. My point of view will be mainly metaphysical and rather dry. It would be a splendid advertisement if I could pull it off, but of course competition is very

keen . . .

This is Jack’s first mention of the Prize Essay. It is significant that he does not report who made the recommendation. If it had been his tutor or the Master of his College, Univ., he would surely have reported it to his father for it would have increased his stature. The absence of a name suggests very strongly that it was a self-recommendation, which makes his ambition and arrogance all the more striking.

The accounts that Jack gives of his involvement with the Chancellor’s English Prize Essay are often disingenuous. To enter the competition was not something that undergraduates clamoured to do; the number of entries was comparatively small and Jack made a very deliberate and conscious decision to enter, evidently for the sake of the glory. He was ambitious and wanted the kudos.

Although he pretends not to know the regulations and procedure, he must have studied them very carefully before embarking on the actual writing of his essay. He affects a rather off-hand knowledge of them, as if it were un-gentlemanly to be too precise, or as if it would betray his high ambition if he seems to have taken the whole affair too seriously.

Early in 1921, Jack began to write his essay on the assigned topic, “Optimism.” He records that he had felt almost inspired while writing it:

I have almost lived with my pen to the paper. It has been one of those rare periods . . . when everything becomes clear and we see the way before us.

It was completed and handed into the University Registrar just before the deadline, it seems, since Jack, in the letter below, indicates that on 28 March it has not been “launched into the Registrar’s box.”

In a letter to Albert Lewis dated 28 March 1921, Jack writes:

. . . .You ask whether I am satisfied with my Optimism, and I am afraid I hardly know. For one thing I almost know it by heart, and consequently can least of all judge it impartially . . . At any rate, it has given me, in parts, as much trouble as anything I have ever done and I shall be glad to have it launched into the registrar’s box for good and all and to leave the rest on the knees of the gods. Only don’t expect any results. You see I am afraid I have rather fallen between two stools: it has to aim at being both literary and philosophical, and, in the effort to accomplish the double object, I have made it too literary for the philosophers and too metaphysical for the dons of English Literature. These are the pitfalls with which the walks of Academe are digged. Such things are written for a tiny public of appointed judges, and you never know what their particular point of view is going to be: they are only human beings and must have tastes and tempers of their own, but one can’t find these out. It must be difficult to be quite fair to an essay which expresses some view that you have been denouncing to a submissive Senior Common Room for the last half century, however good it may be . . .

That the Prize Competition was important to Jack is evidenced by the anxiety in his

letter to his father, dated 9 May 1921:

There is still no news of Optimism, and by now little optimism among those who await the news. I should have thought that they could have decided on the productions before this: an unsettled possibility like that becomes in the end a nuisance at the back of one’s mind.

But on 24 May it was announced that Jack had won the Prize: of course, he told his father (by wire, to which Albert replied). Jack wrote a few days later, on 29 May 1921:

Thank you very much for your wire and the letter: I am very glad to have been able to send you good news. I had almost lost heart about the thing, it dragged on so long. Everyone has been very nice about it, particularly the Mugger [the Master of Univ.] who is delighted, and this ought to be of use to me later on. Some of my congratulations indeed have made me feel rather ashamed, coming from people I have been used to class generically as ‘louts.’ By louts I denote great beefy people unknown to me by name, men with too much money and athletic honour, who stand blocking up passages. If looks could kill I’m afraid they would often have been in danger as I shouldered my way through them. Now they have weighed in with polite remarks and gratified my vanity with the grand-paternal “No. Does HE know ME?” I suppose the explanation is that in their view we have done so badly on the river that any success–even in so unimportant a field as letters–should be encouraged.

I have also had a letter from Blackwell offering to see me about publishing it, and have, as a formality, written to Heinemann’s. In any case I am not sure what to do about that: I shall certainly not spend any money (nor allow you to, tho’ I know you gladly would) on forcing it into print if publishers won’t take the risk. I have always thought that a bad thing to do. Perhaps publication in some periodical might provide a compromise: it would remind people that I exist and yet it would not give too permanent a form to any opinion or argument that I may outgrow later on. At worst, if any one would like it, it would mean a five pound note and enable you and everyone else to read it decently printed instead of in type. If all these plans fall through, or if they are likely to take a long time, I will get another copy done and send it to you. You must not expect too much: the trains of argument are rather dull and I am afraid this effect is not neutralized by anything more than adequacy in the form. No purple patches–hardly a faint blue. But I must drop the annoying habit of anticipating your judgement . . . .

I haven’t heard anything about the prize–I think it is in money–not very much– and there are some books from College. . . .

The inquiry from Blackwell (the well-known Oxford bookseller and publisher) was almost certainly routine, in the sense that it was a possible business opportunity. Prize Essays were not usually best-sellers and would probably require subsidizing (as Jack well knows).

Writing to Heinemann’s was “a formality” because this firm published Jack’s cycle of lyrics, Spirits in Bondage, in 1919 and, by the terms of their contract, had a first refusal on anything that Lewis wrote. The Prize Essay was not the kind of writing that they were interested in, which is why it is “a formality.”

Jack lies when he says that he does not know the amount of the Prize money, as is witnessed by the following letter to Arthur Greeves, dated June 1921:

So many things have happened since we last met that it is no use to attempt chronology: I may as well begin with what is, I must admit, uppermost in my mind –this Chancellor’s prize, that you ask about. It is set every year for the whole university and decided by seven judges chosen in rotation. The subject this year was ‘Optimism.’ Suitable to my family, as you probably guessed! The actual prize is 20 pounds in money (that is in strict secrecy–I don’t want the fact disclosed at home until it has to be) but of course it is much more valuable as a means of self advertisement and may help me towards a job one of these days: it serves a little to mark you out from the crowd. I liked the subject and took a lot of trouble and am consequently very pleased. The essay may possibly be published–I don’t know yet: in any case, I don’t think anyone at home will care much for it–its rather dull and metaphysical.

No copy of the Prize Essay has survived, unless there is one hidden in the University archives somewhere. When Warren Lewis prepared the Lewis Papers, he wrote:

Albert’s copy of the ‘Essay on Optimism’ survives with, written on it in the top left hand corner, ‘A.J.L. with love from J. July 1921.’ I do not however propose to reproduce the whole or any part of the essay, for it is, as Clive has prophesied it would be, ‘rather dry and metaphysical,’ being in fact a purely philosophical discussion of the matter. (L.P., vol. VI, p.321., by permission of the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Illinois)

By implication, Warren’s copy does not survive either–that is, he clearly felt that he did not need to preserve it. Thus, it seems fairly certain that we shall never know the content of Jack’s “Optimism.”

We can surmise some things about it. First, it must have been about 12,000 words; second, it was in two distinct parts; the first and shorter part dealt with the relation of the existence or non-existence of God to optimism, concluding that whether God existed or not made no difference to the philosophical basis of optimism; the second and major part, was a metaphysical disquisition on the prescribed topic, although not without its “insolent” parts.

There was another requirement attached to winning the prize. The successful competitor had to read a short passage at the Encaenia, the University of Oxford’s annual Commemoration of Founders and Benefactors; it begins at 12 noon on the Wednesday in the ninth week from the beginning of Trinity Full Term. In 1921, this fell on 22 June. The Encaenia is the most elaborate of all Oxford ceremonies, and is particularly noted for welcoming distinguished guests and for awarding honorary degrees.

The name comes from the Greek, by way of Latin. The noun  meant a feast at the dedication, for example, of a temple, and this comes from the verb meaning to innovate, renew or renovate. The last meaning gives the clue to the words derivation from + with + new.

In Latin, encaenia meant simply a festival

Strictly, the c should be hard, that is, = k (pronounced en-kay-nee-ah) but in practice the c is soft as in ceiling, so that the accepted pronunciation is en-see-nee-ah. The word as the title for a ceremony is peculiar to Oxford. At Cambridge, the word for the corresponding ceremony is Commencement, which suggests related but not identical meanings to American ears.

The Encaenia was the ceremonial high-point of what is known in Oxford as Commem.–that is, Commemoration Week, a week of academic, ceremonial, and social festivity.

From early medieval times until 1669 there was an annual university celebration called the Act, preceded by Vespers, all in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Gradually, the ceremony degenerated and became, to say the least, secular. The vulgarity and grossness was carried to intolerable lengths particularly by one character in the celebration, the Terrae Filius (or Son of the Earth). The occasion for this was the “commendation” of the degree recipients by their master, but this insensibly became an opportunity for ribaldry. For example, in 1420, a certain Dobbys of Merton College was thus commended:

Mr Dobbys’s name denotes duplicity and fickleness, because firstly D stands for Duplex; secondly, his name has two syllables; thirdly, it has a double B in the middle; and fourthly bis at the very end. Mr Dobbys has a large head, a very low forehead, beetling eyebrows, black staring eyes, a monstrous mouth, a large nose, a protruding upper lip, and big ears; features which prove him undisciplined, choleric, unsteady, impetuous, proud, feeble, fatuous, unvirtuous, greedy, wicked, rough, quarrelsome, abusive, foolish, and ignorant. (Bodl.Quarterly Record, vi.107-8)

Finally, the conscience of the University was aroused and it became necessary, first, to move out of St. Mary the Virgin’s Church, and, second, to find a more appropriate place. This was done by the munificence of Gilbert Sheldon, the Archbishop of Canterbury (and former Warden of All Souls’ College, Oxford), who had built what came to be called the Sheldonian Theatre as a place for academical exercises. It was designed, specifically for the Act or Encaenia, by Christopher Wren (whose first work had been the Chapel for Pembroke College, Cambridge, and who was later known for the new St Paul’s Cathedral in London after the Great Fire of 1666).

The dedication (encaenia) of the Sheldonian in 1669 was observed every year thereafter. Attempts were made to continue the Act, but disorder persisted, and in 1713 restrictions were imposed on what might be said and done; in 1733 the full Act was revived for the last time and was made memorable by a series of organ concerts by Handel:

One Handel, a forreigner (who, they say, was born at Hanover) being desired to come to Oxford, to perform in Musick this Act, in which he hath great skill, is come down, the Vice-Chancellour (Dr Holmes) having requested him to do so, and as an encouragement, to allow him the Benefit of the Theatre both before the Act begins and after it. Accordingly he hath published Papers for a performance today at 5 s[hillings] a Ticket. This performance began a little after 5 o’clock in the evening. This is an innovation. (from Hearne, Collections, xi.224)

Shortly before the time of the Encaenia, the ‘Noblemen, Heads of Houses, Doctors, Proctors, and gentlemen who partake of Lord Crewe’s benefaction’ (so runs the old formula) meet the Chancellor (or, in his absence, the Vice-Chancellor) in the hall of the Vice-Chancellor’s college. They then enjoy ‘Lord Crewe’s benefaction,’ a collation which traditionally includes peaches (or, some say, strawberries) and champagne.

Nathaniel Crewe (1633-1721) was bishop of Oxford and, later, of Durham. He was a benefactor of Oxford University and of Lincoln College. His name has become a symbol of all other benefactions, and in the Creweian Oration (see below) the benefactors of the preceding year are acknowledged. All the benefactors are commemorated, by name, in a University Sermon on the first day of Full Term and on the Sunday before the Encaenia.

Statutum est, quod in concione ante meridien in die Domino praecedente Encaenia, per quemcumque concionaturum expressa et grata fiat Commemoratio publicorum Universitatis Oxoniensis Benefactorum.

It takes more than ten minutes for the preacher to read through the list.

A procession is then formed, with an escort, consisting of

The University Marshal, carrying a silver wand, followed by

Six bedels (two more than the usual number).

Then comes the Chancellor (if he is presiding), in full robes, with a scholar in evening dress as train-bearer,

Next the Vice-Chancellor

the doctors in order of their Faculties (Theology, Medicine, Law, and Music), if they are members of Convocation,

the Proctors

the Heads of Houses who are not doctors.

Then come the new honorary doctors, in robes, and in order of Faculties,

and finally, the Public Orator and

the University Registrar.

The procession comes into the Sheldonian Theatre by the south door, having entered the Bodleian quadrangle by the gate of the Schools, opposite Hertford College, (it is only opened on ceremonial occasions), and gone through the Pro-scholium into the Divinity School (where those to be award honorary degreess remain).

Inside the Theatre, all members of the University wear full academical dress. Doctors sit in the semicircle, heads of Houses who are not doctors sit immediately in front of the semicircle, Masters in the area or open space in the center. The lower and other galleries are allotted to strangers, but members of the University (other than doctors or masters) have a right to the upper gallery.

The meeting is really of what is called Convocation, an assembly made up of all masters of arts and those holding higher degrees who have kept up their membership of the University by paying the necessary fees. It has certain powers, quite limited, and the real governing body of the University is called Congregation, made up of those members of Convocation who are also teachers or administrators in the University.

This meeting of Convocation, the Encaenia, is witnessed by those who are not members, but they merely witness. While they await the procession, they are entertained with an organ recital.

When the Chancellor enters the Theatre at the head of the procession, all rise and, after some appropriate music while places are found, the National Anthem is played.

All being seated, the Chancellor touches his cap with his forefinger (he never removes it, except when greeting those awarded honorary degrees), and then says:

Causa huius Convocationis est ut iuxta institutionem Honoratissimi et Reverendi admodum Nathaniel, Baronis Crewe, Episcopi Dunelmensis, grata celebretur piorum Benefactorum et Fundatorum Commemoratio; ut, si vobis placuerit, gradus in . . . .in Viros Illustrissimos conferantur honoris causa; ut exercitationes variae Domini Cancellarii aliorumque praemiis donatae publice coram vobis recitentur; necnon ut alia peragantur, quae ad Venerabilem hanc domum spectant.

That is:

The pupose of this convocation is that according to the foundation of the most Honourable and Reverend Nathaniel, Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham, thankful commemoration be made of pious benefactors and founders: that, if it shall please you, honorary degrees in . . . . be conferred on most eminent men; that various exercises which have received the prizes of the Chancellor and of others be publicly recited; and that other business of this Venerable House be transacted.

The Chancellor then puts the honorary degrees to the vote, each in turn, touching his cap to the House, to the Doctors, and to the Masters; the Proctors raise their caps whenever the Chancellor touches his.

Placetne Venerabili Convocationi ut in Virum . . . gradus Doctoris in . . . conferatur honoris causa? Placetne vobis, Domini Doctores? Placetne vobis, Magistri?


Does it please the Venerable Convocation that the Degree of Doctor in . . . be conferred on . . . honoris causa? Does it please you, Doctors? Does it please you, Masters?

The bedels are then sent to escort the new doctors; they have been signing their names in the University records in the Divinity School. Each is then admitted, in turn, by a very complicated procedure, and is greeted by the Chancellor, who stands for the occasion. After admission, they are seated, alternately, on either side of the Chancellor.

When finished, the Chancellor touches his cap to the rostrum on his left (that is, over the east door); this is a sign to the Public Orator (or the Professor of Poetry, for they alternate years) to deliver the Creweian Oration. This is in Latin, and recounts the events of the past academic year–much being taken up with obituary notices and benefactors of the past year. When the Oration is completed, the Chancellor touches his cap, this time to the rostrum on the right and then to the one on the left. This is the sign that extracts shall now be read from the various prize compositions, and in the following order, but read alternately from the two rostra:

Stanhope Essay (east)

Latin Prose (west)

Gladstone Essay (east)

Latin Verse (west)

English Essay (east)

Newdigate Poem (west)

On the occasion of Jack’s reading a section of his prize essay, he entangled himself with the Professor of Poetry (W.P. Ker) who had not vacated the rostrum after delivering his Oration from the east.

After the Newdigate Poem extract, the Chancellor and Proctors rise; the Chancellor touches his cap and says:

Dissolvimus hanc Convocationem.


We dissolve this Convocation.

The Chancellor, escorted by the bedels, then leaves the Theatre, and everybody else follows as best they can.

The Encaenia is the only public event on this day, but there are many formal lunches and garden parties later; at these events full academic dress is worn–robes for doctors, gowns and hoods for other degrees. But the Chancellor, if he is present at any of these events, wears the robes of his degree and not his Chancellor’s robes.

In a letter to Albert Lewis dated 27 June 1921, Jack wrote:

The event of last week was one of unforseen consequences of my winning ‘Optimism.’ I had almost forgotten, if I had ever known, that ‘prizemen’ have to read portions of their compositions at our ceremony of Encaenia. Being of the troglodytic nature I have never before exerted myself so far as to assist at this show; but having now been compelled, I am glad.

It is a most curious business. We unhappy performers attend (tho’ it is at noon) in caps, gowns, and full evening dress. It was held in the Sheldonian Theatre: I think Macaulay has a purple passage about “the painted roof of the Sheldonian” under which Charles held his last parliament. During the long wait while people trickled in, an organ (much too large for the building) gave a recital. The undergraduates and their guests sit round in the galleries; the ‘floor’ is occupied by the graduates en masse, standing at barriers in all their war-paint. At noon the Vice-Chancellor enters with his procession of ‘Heads of Colleges, Doctors, Proctors, and Noblemen’–a very strange show they make, half splendid and half grotesque, for few Don’s faces are fit to bear up against the scarlet and blue and silver of their robes.

Then some backchat from the Vice-Chancellor’s throne and the Public Orator led in the persons who were to receive honorary degrees; with the exception of Clemenceau and Keyes (the Zeebruggeman) they were not well known to the world at large. Keyes was a very honest-looking fellow and Clemenceau the tough, burly, ‘people’s man’ whom one expected; but what was beyond all was the canon of Notre Dame; a great theologian apparently, with some name like Raffitol [Batiffol]. Such a picture of a great priest with all the pale dignity that one has imagined, I never saw. If the words “love at first sight” were not tied down to one kind of feeling only, I would almost use them to express the way this man attracted me. He would have appealed to you immensely.

After the honorary degrees the Professor of Poetry made an “oration” in Latin, chiefly about colleagues who had died during the last year; this was my first experience of spoken Latin and I was pleased to find that I could follow and enjoy it.

The performance of us prizemen was of course very small beer after all this. We had been instructed to read for about two minutes each; I had some difficulty in finding a short passage which would be intelligible by itself. I was, of course, nervous: I am told that I was the first of our little band whom Clemenceau looked at: but as I do not know WITH WHAT EXPRESSION he looked, nor whether he speaks English, we must remain in doubt whether this was a compliment or not.

I have had a good lesson in modesty from seeing my fellow-prizemen. I was hardly prepared for such a collection of scrubby, beetle-like, bespectacled oddities: only one of them appeared to be a gentleman. Any I spoke to sounded very like fools, perhaps like Goldsmith, they “writ like an angel and talked like poor Poll.” It brings home to one how little I know of Oxford; I am apt to regard my own set, which consists mainly of literary gents, with a smattering of political, musical and philosophical–as being central, normal, representative. But step out of it, into the athletes on one side or the pale pot-hunters on the other, and it is a strange planet . . . .

The first paragraph of this letter continues the disingenuous affectation that Jack knew little about the Prize Essay competition, for it is impossible that he did not know of the reading at Encaenia.

Macaulay is Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), who, after a brilliant career at Cambridge devoted his energies to literature, writing both poetry and essays, and politics. He was an incomparable debater, entered Parliament in 1830, and by 1845 had begun his History of England from the Accession of James II. This was never completed for it ends with the death of William III, but it is still readily available. Its five volumes makes good and entertaining reading but they are inaccurate, untruthful, and full of bias. Lewis read the History in 1917, and mentions it in his letters to Arthur Greeves; of Vol.II he says “an admirable book, tho’ of course the writer is too much of a Whig and puritan for my taste: the old cavaliers were at any rate gentlemen.” Earlier he had remarked, “What a nice man James [brother of Charles II and later King James II] must have been.” In 1923, his views have changed somewhat:

This is the first time I have looked into Macaulay for many years: I hope it will be many years before I read him again. It’s not the style (in the narrower sense) that’s the trouble–it’s a very good style within its own limits. But the man is a humbug– a vulgar, shallow, self-satisfied mind, absolutely inaccessible to the complexities and delicacies of the real world. He has the journalist’s air of being a specialist in everything, of taking in all points of view and being always on the side of the angels: he merely annoys a reader who has the least experience of knowing things, of what knowing is like. There is not two pence worth of real thought or real nobility in him. But he isn’t dull.”

The Sheldonian was begun in 1664 and dedicated in 1669; it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, then aged 31 and Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, after the plan of the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome (B.C.E.23-13). Its beautifully painted ceiling was executed by Robert Streeter or Streater, the Serjeant Painter to the King, who died in 1680. It represents an allegorical scene, designed to give the illusion of an awning held up by ropes (thus imitating the protection of ancient theaters). The subject is Truth descending upon the Arts and Sciences; a detailed explanation of the elaborate imagery can be found in Dr Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire. Macaulay certainly mentions the painted ceiling, but he does not describe it in purple or any other color prose; it is merely mentioned. The ceiling, while very impressive, hides one of Wren’s greatest engineering achievements. The Sheldonian is more than seventy feet across and, in the absence of interior columns (which would spoil the sense of a Roman theater), special roof trusses had to be designed to span this large distance. Wren did this, and gained great credit in both scientific and architectural circles.

King Charles II held his fourth and last Parliament in 1681. It was summoned to meet at Oxford.

The University buildings had been made ready for the use of Parliament. The Commons sat in Convocation House, and the Lords in the Geometry School; the rest of the Schools were given up to the various Parliamentary Committees . . . On the eighth day of the session the King appeared suddenly in the House of Lords . . . in the robes of State. In those Robes alone could he dissolve Parliament. He spoke the fateful words and left the room . . .” (G.M. Trevelyan, England Under the Stuarts.)

It was 28 March 1681. There is no mention of the Sheldonian Theatre.

The constitutional aspect of this last Parliament was that, since Charles could not control it, he decided to rule without it–which he did for the last five years of his reign.

The Oxford Divinity School (1423-1483), the entrance of which is in the courtyard of the Sheldonian, is also noted for its ceiling, not painted but richly carved. It has an exceptionally fine Perpendicular Gothic fan-vaulted roof, dating from 1445-1480, and it is recorded of Charles II that, in March 1681, he spent “some time in viewing the roofe thereof, so much admired by forreigners for its great varietie of exquisite sculpture.” After the Divinity School, Charles entered the quadrangle of Bodley and “beheld on the top of the tower thereof the exact effigies of his grandfather [King James I] . . .the statue of Alma Mater Academiae, and that of Fame . . .” (Wood, Life and Times). The Divinity School adjoins the Convocation House (which dates only from 1634).

The Sheldonian Theatre certainly has a “painted roof,” and it is certainly worth a “purple passage,” even though it did not get one from Macaulay. There is no evidence that the Sheldonian was used (as other Oxford buildings certainly were) by Charles II’s last Parliament. Lewis does not make any explicit statement attributing praise of the ceiling to Charles, but there seems to be some vague connection in his mind and a dim and incoherent recollection of Charles praising a ceiling [in fact, the Divinity School fan-vaulting] during the time of his last Parliament.

The Divinity School is now surmounted by an upper storey (added in 1444) which houses Duke Humphrey’s Library where Lewis did much of the reading and research for his volume in the Oxford History of English Literature.

Lewis’s comment about the organ being “much too large for the building” is well taken. The present organ, designed by Sir Thomas Jackson, was installed in 1876.

During the Great War (or WWI, as it is now usually called), Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) was the Prime Minster and Minister for War of France, 1917-1920. He was the leader of the extreme left in the French National Assembly and earned himself the title of “destroyer of ministries.” He was, indeed, a tough and resilient fighter, symbolized by his other nickname, “The Tiger,” and he had never withheld outspoken criticism, although this brought him into conflict with the French war-time censorship. He had the simple motto “Je fais la guerre.” Among his many achievements must be his leadership in and sustainer of French morale and the nation’s resolve to fight.

Vice-Admiral Sir Roger Keyes (1872-1945) became a national hero when, as Commodore Sir Roger Keyes, he led the raid on Zeebrugge on the Belgian coast in 1918. Zeebrugge was only 62 miles from Dover and served as a most convenient base for German submarines and destroyers intent on harrassing British shipping in the English Channel. The newspaper accounts of the attacks to block the harbors of both Zeebrugge and Ostend were glowing, citing individual acts of heroism most appropriate for the day of the assault, 23 April, for it is the day of the Patron Saint of England, St George. The effect on English morale was significant, not least because there were daily reports of German land victories in Flanders and the French channel ports of Calais and Boulogne were in jeopardy. After the 1914-18 War, Keyes was promoted and became commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean (1925-29), commander Portsmouth (1929-31), and, after retirement, Member of Parliament for Portsmouth. He was recalled to duty in 1940 and served as director of combined operations, the commandos (1940-41).

The Canon of Notre-Dame de Paris was the Rt. Rev. Monseigneur Pierre Batiffol (1861-1929), a distinguished Church historian noted for his contributions to patristic studies and the history of the early church.

“Writ like an angel and talked like poor Poll” is part of an impromptu epitaph by the actor David Garrick on Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774). The complete and exact quotation is:

Here lies Nolly Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll,

Who wrote like an angel, but talk’d like poor Poll.

Jack letter to his brother,Warren, 1 July 1921.

The great event of MY term was of course “Optimism.” I must thank you for your congratulations before going on: THEY were provoked by the event, but the consequences of it will move your ribaldry. “Prizemen,” the Statutes say, “will read at the Encaenia portions of their exercises (I like that word)–their exercises chosen by the Professor of Poetry and the Public Orator.” Sounds dam’ fine, doesn’t it? But the Statutes omit to mention the very cream of the whole situation

–namely that the prizemen will appear in full evening dress. Fancy me entering the Sheldonian at 11.30 a.m. on a fine June morning in a cap, gown, boiled shirt, pumps, white tie and tails. Of course it was a “broiling” day as the P’daytabird [i.e., Albert Lewis] would say, and of course, for mere decency I had to wear an overcoat.

However, I managed to make myself audible, I am told, and beyond nearly falling as I entered the rostrum, I escaped with success. (They DO actually call it a rostrum, so that I was delighted: for the whole gallery of the Damerfesk seemed to gaze at me, and the jarring ghosts of Big, Polonius and Arabudda to lend me countenance.) This was really the fault of one not unlike our Arabudda–old Ker the professor of poetry, who, having earlier in the proceeding delivered his Latin oration, decided to remain sitting in the rostrum instead of going back to his own stall. This (in the language of Marie Stopes) “made entry difficult if not impossible” for us prizemen: in my anxiety to avoid the burly professor, I stumbled over a raised step and nearly fell backwards. This must have appeared curiously enough to those who were on a level with, or higher than the rostrum: but the best effect of all was from the floor, from which, owing to the height of the front barrier and the big velvet cushion on it, I appeared simply to sink through a trap and rise again like a jack-in-the-box. However, I rallied my sang froid and bawled defiant remarks on the universe for two minutes. It is a good thing that the P’daytabird was not present or he would have been sorely put to it–especially if you had been beside him, giddy with laughter. (You can imagine his asking me afterwards “Did you do it to annoy me?”)

I will send you a copy of my essay, since you ask for it, though I do not think it will be much in your line. Some of the insolent passages may amuse you: I hope you will like the way I dealt with with the difficulty of “God or no God.” To admit that person’s existence would have upset my whole applecart: to deny it seemed inadvisable, on the off chance of there being a Christian among the examiners. I therefore adopted the more Kirkian alternative of proving–at any rate to my own satisfaction–that “it really made no difference whatever” whether there was such a person or no. The second part of my essay you may use as a mild test whether you are ever likely to come to metaphysics or not. I look forward with some trepidation to discussing it at home: for his “reading of the thing” will doubtless differ vastly from my writing of it . . . .

Lord Big, an elder statesman, was a frog, Polonius Greeen a villainous parrot, and Sir Charles Arabudda a smooth-talking fish; all are characters from the world of Animal-land which Jack and Warren created as boys; and the Damerfesk was the assembly of citizens. They can be found in Boxen: The Imaginary World of the Young C.S.Lewis.

They are also discussed in Chapter V. ‘Renaissance’, of Surpised by Joy.

Marie Stopes (1880-1958) was a palaeobotanist and the first woman science lecturer at Manchester University. She also lectured in Tokyo, Japan and collaborated on a book about Japanese No plays (1913). Her marriage was annulled in 1916 and her attention turned to unhappiness in marriage caused by the ignorance of sex and contraception, and she began to disseminate information about them. Her book Married Love (1916) was considered scandalous by many and was banned in the U.S. In 1918 she opened the first British birth control clinic. The reference to her writings here is unidentified by the present writer, although it does not appear in Married Love; it is, however, obviously sexually suggestive. What seems to be evident is that since Jack is writing to Warren, his brother, who would have been no more interested in marrriage and birth control than Jack himself, he is sharing an “in” joke based upon their reading of a “dirty” book or article, or, rather, upon a book read for salacious purposes.

The trepidation that Jack feels about discussing his essay “at home,” that is, with Albert, refers to his father’s inability to hear or to read what was before him. This characteristic was vividly portrayed in Surpised by Joy (p.120 et seq.):

Far more often he retained something, but something very unlike what you had said. His mind so bubbled over with humor, sentiment, and indignation that, long before he had understood or even listened to your words, some accidental hint had set his imagination to work, he had produced his own version of the facts, and believed that he was getting it from you. As he invariably got proper names wrong (no name seemed to him less probable than another) his textus receptus was often almost unrecognizable. Tell him that a boy called Churchwood had caught a field mouse and kept it as a pet, and a year, or even ten years later, he would ask you “Did you ever hear what became of poor Chickweed who was so afraid of the rats?” For his own version, once adopted, was indelible, and attempts to correct it only produced an incredulous “Hm! Well, that’s not the story you used to tell.”

Jack in a letter to Albert Lewis from Oxford Union Society, postmark 30 November 1921, wrote:

I am afraid that my weakness in yielding to the Colonel’s [i.e., Warren’s] request for a copy of “Optimism” had reduced the poor man to permanent silence. I must try to get some sort of letter off to him, before Christmas …

But a letter from Warren (serving with the army in Sierra Leone) was on its way; dated 22 November 1921, it had clearly not arrived prior to the preceding letter:

I have by the way read your essay twice, but as on neither occasion could I make the slightest glimmer of meaning out of it, I have put it away in despair for perusal in the cold tang of a saner climate . . . .”

Warren was to remember, years later, lending “Optimism” to a fellow officer in Sierra Leone who, after reading it, said “Tell me, Lewis, strictly between ourselves, does your brother drink?”

Wilson, in his life of Lewis, is incorrect in saying that Lewis declaimed his prize-winning essay before the “assembled University grandees,” on the occasion of the Encaenia. Only a passage lasting about two minutes was read. And Sayer (Jack, p.158) shares the same error, and is also inaccurate in referring to the Vice-Chancellor’s Prize; it was the Chancellor’s English Essay Prize.

Green and Hooper ( p.67) report:

With his great mental ability and his developing powers of concentration, Lewis was just able to take a Double First in Literae Humaniores–Mods–in March 1920 and Greats in June 1922. He also competed for the Chancellor’s English Essay Prize, the subject set being “Optimism”, and won it triumphantly on 24 May 1921.

What evidence is there for asserting that “Lewis was just able to take a Double First”? It makes it sound as if he merely scraped through, which is not to be believed. It also contrasts strangely with winning the Essay Prize “triumphantly.” That the win was a triumph is obvious, but “triumphantly” seems to suggest that Lewis publicly crowed over his victory; which is not to be believed either.

The purpose of this short paper has been to set forth one instance of ceremonial aspects of Oxford University life that Jack encountered and to try to see how he understood them, responded to them, and used them. First, it is apparent that in ceremonial form Oxford could scarcely be considered to have entered the modern world. The University was an ancient and venerable institution, which had such a view of its own worth that it saw little necessity for change, and lacked any viable procedure to effect it, even if it had been thought desirable. The nineteenth century had been an age of some reform and improvement for both Oxford and Cambridge, but it was very hard to separate out the three components of intellectual ability and accomplishment, social stratification and solidarity, and the controlling influence of the needs of the Church of England Establishment.

Into this medieval institution came Clive Staples Lewis, initially, at the age of 18 years 4 months. He was not a gentle soul. His sense of his own worth was very high, although not so self-assured that he did not need to belittle others, to reassure himself presumably. But he was also aggressive and highly ambitious, having set his sights on an academic career, preferably as an Oxford don. He was also a snob (the social counterpart of his intellectual superiority), and he frequently found it necessary to point out that somebody was not a gentleman; he obviously thought that he was, although his father, as a solicitor, could scarcely claim to be anything other than middle-class. And his table manners were not known for their delicacy and self-restraint.

Oxford, with all its riches and power, could not be anything but accepted by the ambitious Jack. It was through the University that he would rise, he thought, to any greatness that he would achieve, and it never seems to have crossed his mind that he could or should rebel. He seems, for the most part, to have taken for granted the limitations of the circumstances of medieval/nineteenth century Oxford as things to be accepted and endured, much as he accepted and endured his domestic treatment at the hands of Mrs. Moore.

Although he was ambitious academically and also very effective academically, he says little about being a scholar. He sees himself as a poet. It would be interesting to speculate about whether he would have bloomed as a poet, if he had not been constrained by his university commitments. It is certainly true that the demands of Hon.Mods., Greats, and the English School left him little time to work on his poetry. Add Mrs Moore and it is a wonder that he did anything.

It may well be that what Jack needed most were firm, all-encompassing structures, that did not, because of their power and prizes, permit any challenge to their authority. Oxford University certainly provided one such structure, Mrs Moore another. Albert Lewis did not, and in the period examined, he is manipulated and lied to, deceived and misled.

It was, perhaps, Jack’s intellectual honesty that saved him. He sometimes tempered his views, even temporized, but ultimately Oxford supported his right to his opinions and accepted the forceful and dogmatic ways in which he expressed them. Honesty, when he met it, was greeted joyfully and even respectfully, but he made no allowance for the weaknesses or vapidity of others; truth was to be held passionately or not at all.

But that was only in the academic or intellectual realm. It was incumbent on us to declare the truth–having carefully considered the evidence–and to stand up for our opinions in the public, scholarly arena. Privately, however, it was not necessary to be truthful to one’s father.

(Some of this paper, in an expanded form, will be published along with much other material in a forthcoming article in The Lewis Legacy with the title “C.S.Lewis and the Ceremonies of Oxford University (1917-1925).”)