Neglected discontents: what did Oxford’s most famous students really experience?

The University has a longstanding tradition of exalting its most famous alumni, but the truth of their time here may not be as pleasant as history remembers.

The University's memorial for Percy Shelley, one of its most celebrated alumni.

It should come as no surprise that the depiction of Oxford in literature and film is more fiction than fact. An impression of Oxford informed by what I’d read and watched prior to Fresher’s week would have led me to believe that if I was unlucky enough to have a ground-floor room nocturnal vomiters would be an inevitability (a misconception which would have been blamed on Brideshead Revisited to blame), and that there was a higher-than-average proportion of good cheekbones amongst the undergraduate population (for this The Riot Club takes responsibility). 

But while these might be misleading, the novelistic and cinematic forms do not purport to be anything other that fictive. A fallacy of greater import is the claim Oxford lays to a rich catalogue of alumni, from which a substantial part of its prestigious reputation and unerringly impressive history of excellence is derived. At a glance these former students are handful of familiar names, in particular those of eminent figures in the literary world, which intimate that the University itself plays a pivotal role in the formation and cultivation of artistic genius. But this linking of the individual with the institution is at its best simplistic and at its worst an injustice; in several cases, the retrospective tribute Oxford pays to its bygone pupils interests itself in only the name and the fame, amounting to an astounding truncation and disregard for their actual experience and opinions.

Percy Shelley is one of Oxford’s better-known discontents. Nonetheless, the Shelley Memorial in University College exemplifies this tendentious habit of exalting those whose relationship with the University was strained, to say the least. Here Shelley appears in his most quintessentially Romantic guise: strikingly feminine, nude, a classical ideal in white marble beneath a semi-celestial dome. But this celebration of him as the archetypal poet of a revolutionary literary movement is fraught with irony. The issue is not only that the adolescent Shelley was naturally adverse to the pompous and stagnant customs of such an institution and the publication of The Necessity of Atheism resulted in his expulsion less than a year after he’d matriculated. The monument itself was initially treated with hostility; originally commissioned by Shelley’s daughter-in-law for the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, the college only reluctantly accepted the oversized statue when it was promised that the costs of its installation would be fully covered. Shelley desired freedom and found the regimented teaching he encountered at Oxford stifling. Oxford, in turn, did not want its tradition disturbed and was only too glad to be rid of the controversial young man. It would not be unreasonable to say Shelley loathed the University and the authorities of the University loathed Shelley – yet now that his name has found a comfortable resting place in the literary canon it delights in honouring his memory.

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Over a century later, a similar contempt was to be displayed by W.H. Auden. This distaste is evident from his poetic rendering of Oxford, which condemns the circular, self-perpetuating paradigm upon which the activities of the university are predicated. The extent of this disillusionment is exposed by examination of his own time at the university. Despite a pre-established conviction that he was going to be a poet, Auden’s academic career is marked by dramatic changes of subject. Arriving at Christ Church on a Natural Sciences scholarship in 1925, he switched first to PPE, before settling with what many would imagine was the obvious course for him – English. This triad of toyed-with degrees suggests not a youthful capriciousness, but, rather, disinterest; Stephen Spender recalls that his friend treated Oxford “as a convenient hotel”. Another of Spender’s memories reveals that Auden’s favourite walk was along the canal. Such a route is situated beyond that part of the city dominated by the University; arguably this preference constitutes a form of ambulatory retreat from the buildings and activities he was so disdainful of. 

It would, of course, be similarly reductive and erroneous to insist that these figures and the multiple others attached to Oxford did not benefit at all from their time there. It is not implausible to speculate that Shelley’s prodigious literary production during his brief period as a student was facilitated by the scholarly environment. Had he not been at Oxford it’s doubtful whether Auden would have encountered the other innovative young poets (Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day Lewis), without whom his talent and ideas might never have developed. But it’s all too easy for the criticism and the dissatisfaction to be forgotten, and the truth fragmented. To simply acknowledge the association between college and alumnus is to neglect the whole story. Not only does it fail to recognise their potential – it also fails to recognise what Oxford might actually have done for them.