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An Academic Election

claud_alexander's picture

Below the break is something I copied out the other day, from Hugh Trevor-Roper's letters, for a mentor of mine who recently lost an election in a State where one'd think a very soft social science shouldn't risk putting safe nonentities in leadership positions.

Since the cost of reproducing my labor in this regard is zero, I copy-paste it case any academic types find it funny.

Meanwhile you asked for learned news from Oxford. You should know that at present all research, learning, teaching, writing, lecturing, administration, is utterly and indefinitely suspended owing to one of those important and all-absorbing saturnalia in English life, –an election. It is the election to the Chair of Poetry. For there are in this university two chairs (and only two) to which the incumbent is elected not by a narrow and statutorily predetermined junto of elderly office-holders but by popular academic suffrage: the Lady Margaret Chair of Divinity (the last election to which, in 1945, was accompanied by heroic controversies and gigantic scandals) and the chair of Poetry,–a distinguished and comfortable chair founded in the first instance to accommodate the fastidious bottom of Matthew Arnold, but since, by the notorious tendency to decay of human institutions, become–with brief intervals–a pocket-borough of Magdalen College. But in order fully to explain the complex politics involved in this election, I must first give a short historical résumé.

Magdalen’s long monopoly of this chair began in 1911 with that most famous academic snob, the late Sir Herbert Warren, President, for some forty years, of Magdalen College,–the man who put Magdalen on the social map by nabbing, as an undergraduate–during the temporary social eclipse of Christ Church–the afterwards ungrateful (see his Memoirs) Prince of Wales. Only in 1938, however, was a serious attempt made to break the Magdalen monopoly.
This seemed at the time to be at last possible because (1) owing to Warren’s policy of peopling the college exclusively with illiterate lords, who always left before competing for degrees, the necessity of literacy among Magdalen dons had disappeared and not one of them had written a line in either prose or verse and (2) the chair, as I have said, is elective, the electors being all such MAs of the University who, on the day of election, choose (or can be persuaded, to vote in person. In these propitious circumstances two distinguished candidates were proposed, neither of them from Magdalen: Sir E.K. Chambers, the great Panjandrum of Shakespearean scholarship, and the arbiter elegantiarum of the modern literary world, Lord David Cecil. The English Faculty could be relied upon to march solid to the poll in support of Chambers; David Cecil of course commanded the united votes of Christ Church and New College (his own colleges); and the university duly prepared to choose between them.

But was Magdalen College prepared thus tamely to resign its monopoly? Not at all. They determined to find among their number a third candidate and vote solid behind him. The difficulty of course was to find a candidate who could command any other support, but after some research they discovered, as the likeliest figure, their own chaplain, the Revd Adam Fox. Fox was a wordly clergyman of epicurean tastes, lavish hospitality, and (in consequence of this hospitality) many friends. As a pastor of souls he may indeed have been somewhat defective,–indeed, my colleague Robert Blake, who was then an undergraduate of Magdalen college, tells me that the religious undergraduates of the college held a special prayer-meeting in the cloisters to pray for the conversion of their chaplain to Christianity,–but as a vote-catcher he had certain undoubted possibilities, and these possibilities his colleagues determined to exploit. First, to qualify for the post it was thought that the chaplain ought perhaps to write either some poetry or some literary criticism. As the latter alternative seemed to entail the preliminary fatigue of reading, he chose the former, and sitting up late one with a sequence of bottles he dashed of several pages of barbarous doggerel which were immediately printed in a slim volume with the title Old King Cole. Having thus qualified for the race, he was duly entered. But how were the Fellows of Magdalen to secure backers for this somewhat ridiculous outsider whom they had so strangely entered against one tried and regular gold-cup-winner (aged indeed, but of enormous staying power) and one fancied thoroughbred from an aristocratic stable? After all, having defeated King James II in 1688, they have never ceased to pique themselves on their political acumen; and they now prepared a masterly manoeuvre.

Magdalen College is the lay-patron of some thirty livings in twelve counties. All these livings are naturally held by old Magdalen men who, being MAs of Oxford University, would of course be entitled to vote, provided –and only provided,– that they happened to be in Oxford on the day of election. But how can country clergymen be persuaded to abandon their cosy rural vicarages in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, Warwickshire and Wiltshire, and make the tedious journey to Oxford,–which, being known as a place of learning, naturally has singularly little attraction for them? On such a question the Fellows naturally addressed themselves to their chaplain, now–since his nomination–doubly interested in the success of the college policy; and he as naturally, from his own experience, assured them that only two temptations were strong enough to overcome the habitual sloth of his order, cash and food. Thereupon the fellows sent for the bursar, and finding that cash was plentiful in the coffers of the college (it is the richest college in Oxford and even then had a gross annual revenue of well over £100,000) they decided to declare a dividend to be paid to all the incumbents of college livings–provided that the said incumbents attended in person to draw it on the day of issue: which day was conveniently fixed to be the day of election to the chair of Poetry. As a gesture of civility the clergymen were of course informed that they could rely on lavish entertainment in the college during this remunerative visit.

What need of further words? On the appointed day all roads leading to Magdalen College were black with travel-stained clergymen converging on their dividends. Arrived at the college, they ate, they drank, they voted. It is even maintained by some that they voted unawares, signing the voting papers for the Revd Adam Fox in the mistaken belief that they were signing receipts for their dividends. And meanwhile from Radley School, for miles out of Oxford, –a school of which Adam Fox had formerly been Warden– specially chartered buses brought the loyal undermasters to the polling booth. This sudden mass-invasion of the Magdalen interest turned the scales: the devotees of literature found their votes divided between the other candidates; and the Revd Adam Fox, as Professor of Poetry in Oxford, saved the Magdalen monopoly for another five years. He did not, of course, write a any more poetry: Old King Cole remains his only achievement in that line.

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