Lewis and the Chancellor’s Prize Essay 1921

A paper read at the C.S.Lewis Centenary Conference, Belfast, August 1998


by John Bremer

The purpose of this short paper is to indicate how, in one of many instances, 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 his own responses. The picture is not a particularly flattering one in itself but my intent is not to denigrate 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 to realize the incredible stranglehold that Oxford and 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 political and ecclesiastical office. The exception was the legal and administrative training offered by the Inns of Court in London. 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, established 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:

None of the neighbouring countries could boast of such splendid and

opulent seats of learning (as Oxford and Cambridge). . . 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. . . 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, 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 and administrators, 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 of England.

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 in Latin:

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, obviously prompted 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.

After his war service, he returned to Oxford in 1919 and reviewed his situation. He was very frank 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 Prize for Verse. Jack set his sights on the Chancellor’s English Essay Prize.

The Essay competition 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, Jack 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.

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 very small and Jack made a deliberate and conscious decision to enter, evidently for the sake of the glory.

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. And he might fail.

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.

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. . . 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.

That the Prize Competition was important to Jack is further 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 wired his father. Jack wrote a few days later, on 29 May 1921:

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

Jack lies when he says that he does not know the amount of the Prize money. In a letter to Arthur Greeves, dated June 1921, he writes:

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.”

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.

For the Encaenia, a procession is formed, with the Chancellor and an escort at the head, and it enters the Sheldonian Theatre. Inside, 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.

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 in Latin:

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.

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 six prize compositions, alternately from the two rostra:

After this, 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 the spectators follow as best they can.

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.

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 during the time of his last Parliament.

The ceiling which King Charles admired was, in fact, in the Divinity School, built between 1423 and 1483. It is not painted, but richly carved, an exceptionally fine Perpendicular Gothic fan-vaulted roof. It is recorded that Charles in March 1682 spent “some time in viewing the roofe thereof, so much admired by forreigners for its great varietie of exquisite sculpture.”

The Divinity School is now surmounted by an upper storey (added later) 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.

Two of the three named recipients of honorary degrees were heroes from the Great War. Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) was the Prime Minster and Minister for War of France, 1917-1920, and nicknamed “The Tiger.” His motto was simple: “Je fais la guerre.”

Sir Roger Keyes (1872-1945) became a national hero when 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 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.

Marie Stopes (1880-1958) was a palaeobotanist and the first woman science lecturer at Manchester University. 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, sexually suggestive. 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, 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 the 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?”

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.

Into the medieval institution of Oxford University 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.

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. Honesty was important, but that was only in the 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).”)