Miscellany — Summer 2015
Corresponding Oxonians: 1634-1833
Electronic Enlightenment Project, Bodleian Library
Over the centuries many and various have been the members of that remarkable group: Alumni Oxonienses. Many of those who spent time here made assiduous use of contemporary social media, and the Bodleian Library’s Electronic Enlightenment project has nearly 8,000 alumni letters in its constantly growing collection of letters from the 17th through to the 20th centuries.
This is a vast collection of “enlightening” conversations covering every topic imaginable: from early computational systems to vulcanology, from poetic decorum to Shandean nonsense. Here are a selection of those thousands of letters, from across nearly 200 years, to amuse, confuse and fan the flames of affection for our dear alma mater.
Here are 22 assorted letters, from across nearly 200 years, showing that some concerns, like contributions to the library, care for college fabric, the welfare of students and dons have a long and continuous history.
Of masques and Galileo . . .
Thomas Hobbes (45), at this time tutor to the 17 year old William Cavendish (future 3rd earl of Devonshire), as he had been to his father the 2nd earl, here writes to his charge’s polymath great-uncle, the 1st duke of Newcastle (also a William Cavendish). Hobbes and his young charge would soon set off on a two-year Grand Tour of the continent, as Hobbes had done (again) a decade earlier with the young man’s father. Newcastle was mightily engaged becoming a famous Maecenas — Augustan patron of Virgil and Horace — for his colossally expensive entertainments for Charles I: including masques by Ben Jonson, one of which was played this same year at the duke’s imposing Bolsover castle in Derbyshire. At the heart of the letter is Hobbes’ apology for not being able to acquire “Galileos dialogues; . . . for it is not possible to get it for mony”. (The Dialogo dove si discorre sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo had been published two years before in Florence.)
Blue sweat, diuretic tobacco & a curious flame . . .
Richard Lower was an extraordinary experimental scientist: an early expert on cerebrospinal fluid and the disease hydrocephalus, he is most famous for his ground-breaking research on the heart and cardiopulmonary system. He traced the circulation of blood through the lungs and was the first to observe the difference between arterial and venous blood; in 1667 he carried out the first intravenous transfusion of blood (from a sheep to a man). Writing from Christ Church, to his colleague Robert Boyle, he recounts three curious reports.
Extracting money from scholars . . .
John Locke writes to Boyle on chemical matters (not the kind of exchange most would expect perhaps); but he decides that there is a new and harder science: “a new sort of chemistry, i.e. extracting money out of the scholars pockets”.
Travelling to Saint Helena . . .
Here the Honourable East India Company, on the recommendation of Charles II (“His Matie.” = His Majesty), instructs their Governor of Saint Helena to accept, accommodate and “use . . . with all respect & kindenes” the Oxford student Edmond Halley (and friend) on their visit to Saint Helena for the purposes of celestial observations.
Claret and oysters . . .
Here an 18 year old Richard Steele, future journalistic partner of Joseph Addison in The Spectator, writes to his guardian two weeks after coming up to Oxford, balancing the perennial student need for money with a hint at the kind of culinary habits expected of one. He also asks for Gascoigne’s solicitation on his behalf for preferment when collegiate, financial awards are next considered.
Books for the Bodleian . . .
The historian and political author James Tyrrell (matriculated Queens College 1657; MA 1663), here stands in loco parentis for the Bodleian Library — perhaps more significantly for Dr John Hudson (also Queens College), who was at this time Bodley's Librarian and a busy bookdealer. Do we see these two interests masked in Tyrrell’s suggestion that if Locke wants to be listed in the “Book of Benefacters” then he needs to give more books. Dr Hudson will judge if the Bodley already has a copy or a better one so that Locke can give more valuable books to be eligible for Benefaction status. What, one wonders, happened to the books judged superfluous to needs?
Long hot summer at St John’s . . .
A brief but interesting note to Alexander Pope. However, the summer of 1719 was claimed to be one of the hottest for some time: so much so that Evans is left “monstrously lazy”.
Confined to my elbow-chair . . .
A cluster of letters from Adam Smith to his mother, Margaret Smith (née Douglas) and to his cousin and guardian William Smith, together illustrative of student life at Balliol for the young Scot: the need for money lurks in the background, but there is little call for study so laziness overcomes one, unless ill, when fashionable tar water is called for.
Showing promise at an early age . . .
If Smith’s cool demeanour impresses, what does one say of young Jeremy Bentham writing to his father, weeks after coming up to Oxford: aged 12! Already he knows numerous figures and is receiving lectures on “Theoprastus's Characters and Grotius de veritate Christianæ Relligionis”.
An 18th-century makeover . . .
Taking “Pleasure [in] the prevailing Spirit of Improvement [in Oxford]”, Thomas Warton, Fellow of Trinity College, Professor of Poetry, Poet Laureate (1785) makes his views known on ways to improve Oxford’s appearance. How different would colleges, Schools and the Library look if he had had his way?! What of Divinity School? According to Warton:
“Gothic Connoisseurs, Mr jackson, are apt to view the Roof of Duke Humphry’s Divinity-School with Rapture and Admiration: But surely we should shew our Taste by substituting, in the place of those present unmeaning and barbarous Groupes of fantastic Sculpture, a Stuccoed Cieling by the Hand of the ingenious Mr Roberts.”
On Sir Joshua’s window . . .
If few of Warton’s 18th-century “improvements” to Oxford were realized, he was able to celebrate Sir Joshua Reynolds’ great west window in New College chapel with a “charming little poem”.
Verses on Sir Joshua Reynolds’s
Painted Window, at New College, Oxford.
. . . .
Reynolds, ’tis thine, from the broad window’s height,
To add new lustre to religious light:
Not of its pomp to strip this ancient shrine,
But bid that pomp with purer radiance shine:
With arts unknown before, to reconcile
The willing Graces to the Gothic pile.
Dangers of poetic sensibility . . .
Writing in the Analytical Review, the poet William Cowper warns of the dangers of poetic sensibilities on the young — at least the effect he detects in one unnamed young author, suggesting perhaps not entirely facetiously that he be put on suicide watch.
College roofs and old oaks and cabbages . . .
Our poet laureate at Trinity continues much concerned with the fabric of Oxford's buildings and “an odd story about Cabbages sold from the Warden’s Garden”.
Competing for Professor of Poetry . . .
Cowper again, this time on the competition for the election of a new professor of poetry.
The adventures of Gilblass Mohçagungk de Manhattan . . .
Although Burr was not an Oxford man his correspondent was, while the singular character and interest of the letter, with its Twitter-like passages (including Burr’s visit to Oxford), makes it worthy of our attention. Burr, 3rd Vice-President of the United States (4 March 1801 – 4 March 1805), had killed his political rival Alexander Hamilton in a famous duel 4 years earlier (1804 — while still in office). His political career ruined, he went west with plans to lead a band of armed planters, politicians and army officers in occupying land originally acquired for the US through the Louisiana Purchase as well as parts of the Southwest then belonging to Mexico. His “western schemes” (which included secret dealings with British and Spanish officials) led President Jefferson, the year before this letter, to accuse him of treason for attempting to create an independent country. Though acquitted through lack of evidence, Burr had largely exhausted his American friends and resources, and he fled to Europe. However, as this letter suggests, he had lost none of his bluster, here casting himself in the hybrid role of the picaresque hero Gil Blas (Alain René Le Sage, The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, first published in English, 1749), and an American native we can’t help but read as the last of the Mohicans!
More motherly concerns . . .
Hester Piozzi writes affectionately to her step-son, then adopted son, John (16 at this time), revealing something of the concerns for educational and moral reforms that occupied parts of the University as it entered the 19th century.
Honorary degrees and social marplots . . .
Honorary degrees and social marplots: does science trump eccentricity? An outstanding Oxonian, Charles Giles Bridle Daubeny, Magdalen College (matriculated 1810, fellow 1820), earned a string of prestigious positions, including Aldrichian professor of chemistry (1822); Fellow of the Royal Society (1827); founding member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831); founding member of the Chemical Society (1841) & its president (1853). Daubeny authored various botanical, geological and other scientific works, he is best known for his Description of active and extinct volcanoes (1826). He was an key figure in the reform of the Oxford University curriculum, doing much to promote the sciences; he played a major role in founding the University Museum and the School of natural science. Here he writes to Charles Babbage, mathematician & computer pioneer, at this time a trustee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science concerning Jame Ivory (1765–1842), Scottish mathematician and mill manager.
Analogizing religion and science . . .
The outstanding geologist and early palaeontologist William Buckland writes to his scientifically minded colleague (and member of the local nobility) on his outrage over the recent Bampton lecture given by the Reverend Frederick Nolan. Here we are near the last days of religion’s attempt to accommodate the increasingly influential and naturally disruptive development of the natural sciences, without compromizing religious dogma. Nolan had matriculated (19 November 1803) gentleman commoner of Exeter College, Oxford (B.C.L., 1805; D.C.L., 1828), ordained (August 1806), and elected Fellow of the Royal Society (1832) — for what? He became the first clergyman to deliver three significant Oxford lectures:
- Boyle lecture (1814): An Inquiry into the integrity of the Greek Vulgate, or received text of the New Testament: in which the Greek manuscripts are newly classed, the integrity of the authorised text vindicated, and the various readings traced to their origin. Rev. Frederick Nolan. London: printed for F. C. and J. Rivington, no. 62, St. Paul’s church-yard; by R. & R. Gilbert, St. john’s Square, Clerkenwell. 1815.
- Bampton lecture (1833): The Analogy of revelation and science established in a series of lectures delivered before the University of Oxford, in the year MDCCCXXXIII. On the foundation of the late Rev. John Bampton, M.A. Canon of Salisbury. By Frederick Nolan, LL.D. F.R.S. Vical of Prittlewell, Essex, and formerly student of Exeter College, Oxford. Oxford: printed by Samuel Collingwood, printer to the University, for the author. . . . .
- Warburtonian lecture (1833–1836): The Chronological prophecies as constituting a connected System, in which the principal events of the Divine Dispensations are determined by the precise revelation of their dates. Demonstrated in a Series of Lectures. By Frederick Nolan, LL.D. London, 1837.
The unacclaimed scientist . . .
It is worth adding to this list the name of Mary Morland, who became William Buckland’s wife (1825). Brought up partly by the regius professor of anatomy at Oxford, Sir Christopher Pegge (1765–1822), and in a later day Mary would likely have become a recognized scientist in her own right. As well as being mother to nine children, including the naturalist Francis Trevelyan Buckland (1826–1880), she worked closely with her husband, correcting his writing, mending his fossils and drawing illustrations for his Reliquiæ diluvianæ (1823) and Geology and mineralogy (1836).
For more information on William and Mary Buckland and their connection to the University read this guide written by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
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— Robert V. McNamee
Director, Electronic Enlightenment Project
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