Victoria Bentata follows in the footsteps of the famous Oxford drop-out.
Walking, fashionable among the educated elite of the nineteenth century, had clearly long been a favourite pursuit of Oxford scholars. In Matthew Arnold’s 1853 poem The Scholar-Gipsy, the poet is lying on an attractive piece of meadow reading an ‘oft-read tale’, published two centuries earlier (in 1661) by Oxford philosopher Joseph Glanvill. The Vanity of Dogmatizing was a reaction to scholasticism, the rigid analytical methodology then in vogue in universities across Europe, and it features a poverty-stricken scholar, in Matthew Arnold’s words, ‘Who, tired of knocking at preferment’s door / One summer-morn forsook / His friends, and went to learn the gipsy-lore’, which Glanvill clearly regarded as superior to the drudgery of academe.
A few years later a couple of the scholar gipsy’s former peers meet him in a lane and enquire after his way of life. His somewhat evasive response is that ‘the gipsy-crew / His mates, had arts to rule as they desired / The workings of men’s brains / And they can bind them to what thoughts they will.’ The only catch is that the acquisition of these supernatural abilities requires ‘Heaven-sent moments’, which have not yet arrived. He then disappears and this is the last that is heard from him, though sightings abound.
Following in the footsteps of Arnold and The Scholar-Gipsy he appropriated is not straightforward. For one thing, the erstwhile Professor of Poetry was not in the business of writing guidebooks and provides neither maps nor descriptions of routes. In fact, he appears to be remembering any number of languorous afternoons with his friend and fellow poet Arthur Clough, so he can be forgiven for being hazy on the details, including the misidentification of his famous tree, the ‘signal elm’ – as Sir Francis Wylie comments in his Scholar-Gipsy Country, ‘this tree is, uncompromisingly, an oak’. Secondly, his scholar gipsy seems to pop up all over the place like some latter day Scarlet Pimpernel, so Arnold’s elegiac descriptions of the countryside are combined with a list of reported sightings of this aloof, romantic character which is rather reminiscent of a (stylistically unusual) police report.
Probably most remarkable in any revisiting of the landscape south-west of Oxford made famous by this poem is how little most of it has changed and how recognisable most of it is, even to the arboreally challenged elm. Thanks to the Oxford Preservation Trust (OPT), ‘Matthew Arnold Field’ has been saved for posterity and is inhabited appropriately, given Arnold’s preoccupation with isolation, by a solitary, though not unhappy, horse. It is a splendid field, though the views are now limited by woodland and the ‘distant cries of reapers’ have been replaced by the drone of the A34.
Down the track is Sir Arthur Evans’ Jarn Mound, inspired by the poem and put up in 1930 as a viewing point but, what with subsidence and growth of trees around it, has been rendered unfit for purpose. Boar’s Hill, as it has been renamed, is a singularly nice place for a walk, even if the gipsies have long ago been pushed out by the millionaires, who pitch their tents here in great numbers.
The OPT has also bought Arnold’s view for everyone to enjoy. Plain to see are the ‘dreaming spires’ which have brought Oxford such fame and which Arnold celebrates so memorably in his sequel to The Scholar-Gipsy, Thyrsis (in which incidentally he, as well as this writer, has difficulty re-finding his tree: ‘That single elm bright / Against the west / I miss it! Is it a goner?’). The ‘festal light’ of Christ Church hall doesn’t leap out at one, though it is best viewed on a clear winter’s evening rather than through the torrential rain of an English summer. Certainly, the spires have been added to by the rather nondescript tower of Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, but they are still essentially there unchanged and as Arnold would have seen them.
Unfortunately, having made it as far as Bablock Hythe, the walker is marooned on the bank of a Thames for which the description ‘stripling’ is glaringly inappropriate. The ferry (‘punt’) is beached forlornly on the opposite bank having been ejected from the river by floodwater in 2007, the £9,000 needed to restore it not having so far been forthcoming. The nearest bridge is at Eynsham, five miles away, reflecting the importance of the 1,000-year-old hythe (or crossing-place), and the only gipsy resonance is in the caravans of Bablock Hythe Caravan Park behind the Ferryman Inn.
Bagley Wood is fortunately owned by St John’s College, not known for its penury, so it presumably has a bright future as well as a blessed past. Probably best known today by the wider public for the corpses discovered there by Inspectors Morse and Lewis, it is as beautiful as ever, its paths dappled with the evening sunlight which is the unexpected climax to the remorseless downpour of the day. It would be a peaceful place from which to be exhumed.
Less peaceful is today’s Cumnor Hill, the ‘lone homestead’ having spawned numerous others, now fronted by marketing suites and advertising boards. Nearby Cumnor Hurst is being restored to its previous tranquillity by a combination of a Site of Special Scientific Interest designation (on the wooded ridge) and a charitable trust, who have returned it to community woodland. Its unlikely claim to fame post-Scholar-Gipsy was that a brick pit was dug there, unearthing, in 1879, the most complete Camptosaurus dinosaur in Europe, now found in the University’s Natural History Museum.
Not many scholars today decide to abandon university life to find fulfilment; indeed, the University’s Information Office reliably informs me that only 1.6 per cent of students leave without a degree. Today’s student loans do of course allow for the postponement of poverty until after graduation, an option presumably not open to the scholar gipsy, though gainful employment also seems to have eluded him. He watches others work with ‘dark vague eyes, and soft abstracted air’ and waits for ‘the spark from Heaven’, the appearance and timing of which cannot be relied upon. Arnold solves the problem by suggesting a Peter Pan-like immortality, gained by refusing to grow up and engage with the ‘repeated shocks’ of real life.
Today’s scholar gipsy, however, has to eat and has no time for such romantic notions. I have to report that she is a female Womble with a Cambridge degree in Philosophy. Her name is Katharine Hibbert, and her book Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society I can heartily recommend. Made redundant, she retires from society, much like the scholar gipsy, but stays in town subsisting on the things that the everyday folk leave behind, her days filled with freeganism (eating food thrown away by supermarkets), skipping (recycling stuff found in skips) and squatting. Arnold’s scholar gipsy by contrast seems rather lackadaisical.
Victoria Bentata Azaz (Lady Margaret Hall, 1985) is a freelance writer, editor and Oxford tour guide and her book City Walks: Oxford is out now from Crimson Publishing.
Forlorn Ferry at BH
Matthew Arnold Field
Matthew Arnold Field
Matthew Arnold field, horse, inscription
Thames at Bablock Hythe