Edward Carpenter's Autobiography
The Edward Carpenter Archive
by Simon Dawson

Chapter 3 - CAMBRIDGE | Comment and Feedback

Forward to Chapter 4 - University Extension and Northern Towns

BETWEEN school and College days I went to Germany for some months. I was already nineteen when I left school, full old enough to go to College, but it did not seem to be decided what was to become of me. I inclined to go into Orders. Possibly my father, dreading this, thought Heidelberg would be an antidote! At any rate I could learn German there. So off I went, lodged with a professor and his Frau for five months, wandered through the woods and over the hills of Heidelberg, heard Bunsen and Kirchhoff lecture on Physics and Chemistry, attended the English church on Sundays, and ate sausages with the Professor and his friends on weekdays. An odd secluded life, seeing but little of the Germans and less of the English, what I chiefly remember of it is those long moony rambles through the woods - not very clearly thinking about anything that I can make out, but wondering, and just waiting - and every now and then chancing in some secluded glade or gorgeous sunset scene upon something that caught my breath and held me still. Indeed on one occasion I perpetrated some rhymes in German about the Neckar - the first verses that I ever wrote. The Professor and his wife chaffed me about my odd ways. I even wore a tall hat to the English church on Sundays! He argued with me about the Bible and about the idiotic habits of my countrymen and women. I resisted his arguments, but secretly they touched me. Ultimately I gave up attending the church, and became so disgusted with my tall hat that when I returned to England I placed it in my carpet-bag! So I learned something besides German at Heidelberg

Then came Cambridge. When my father after some hesitation consented to let me go to Cambridge, and asked me which College I would prefer, I said "Trinity Hall," and for my reason that it was a gentlemanly college. My father laughed, as he certainly was justified in doing - and I can only wonder now what sort of animal I was then. At any rate the answer shows that not withstanding all my sufferings at Brighton I had not yet realized what was the true cause of them. There were however other reasons for my choice. One was that Romer, the last Senior Wrangler, was a "Hall" man; the other was that the same College was now Head of the River. Both events had brought Trinity Hall into notice.

So thither I went, and found myself immediately in the thick of a boating set. The whole College was given up to boating. Not to row or help in the rowing in some way or other was rank apostasy. A few might read besides, and a few - a dozen or two at most - did so. I boated and talked boating slang; was made stroke of the second boat, and it went down several places; became Secretary of the Boat Club; and for two years wore out the seat of my breeches and the cuticle beneath with incessant aquatic service. At the end of that time I got sadly bored with the business, and gave it up. Indeed I was obliged to give it up; for reading pretty hard for my degree, as I was later on, the two strains together were too much, and my health was breaking down. But so far perhaps boating had not been a bad thing. It was healthy exercise, and brought me in with healthy muscular companions who bothered their heads about no abstruse problems, and for the most part rarely read a book. Fives and rackets too occupied some of my time; but in athletic sports I was not so successful as I had been at school. At Brighton I had been a good high-jumper, having cleared 5 ft. 3 or 4, a good height in those days - but at Cambridge, probably owing to the relaxing quality of the air, I failed to make any mark. Thus, with games and wine parties and boat suppers, life slid easily onward.

Certainly nothing could be more unlike what I had expected. I had imagined a university where folk would talk Latin naturally and where I, lamely taught at school and late coming from loafing in Germany, would be an outcast and an object of contumely. I found myself at the end of the first term easily head of my year in the College examinations. Myself and another. He, Yate, was the son of a country doctor - keen on boating, but a fellow of some originality and thought as well and of singular gentleness and candour. A friendship sprang up between us; and for the next year or two we were always together. In examination honours (such as they were) we were quits, and it was sincerely I believe a matter of indifference to both of us which might win the prize. Then he fell ill of rheumatic fever, and ultimately died without taking his degree - my first experience of loss of this kind.

Other friends of this period were Ernest Gray - a very dear and affectionate creature who afterwards became the Vicar and very fatherly pastor of a country parish; Harry Spedding, son of Anthony Spedding of Bassenthwaite, and nephew of James Spedding of Baconian fame; and Francis Hyett of Painswick, who afterwards became my brother-in-law. Harry Spedding was one of those extraordinary beings who though quite unable to row himself cherished an immense enthusiasm for boating. Long and thin and weak-chested, hard work in the boats would probably have been fatal to him, but on the banks, running beside the boats and cheering the crews in the races, his pluck and lively humour never failed. Hyett did not take to the river, but kept to racquets and his law-studies, and was really one of the few undergraduates who took any interest in political affairs. In later years he has done much administrative and literary work: in connection with his own county.

In coming up to Cambridge it had never occurred to me at the outset to go in for an honour degree; my opinion of the university was too high for that. But after a term or two, the tutor to my surprise seriously recommended me to read for the mathematical tripos. I was of course frightfully behind-hand in my subjects, but I took a private 'coach,' went through the routine of cram, and ultimately obtained a fellowship.

Mathematics interested me and I read them with a good deal of pleasure - but I have sometimes regretted that three years of my life should have been - as far as study was concerned - nearly entirely absorbed by so special and on the whole so un-fruitful a subject. I think every boy (and girl) ought to learn some Geometry and Mechanics; without these the mind lacks form and definiteness, and its grip on the external world is not as strong as it should be; but the higher mathematics (certainly as they are read at Cambridge) are for the most part a mere gymnastic exercise unapplied to actual life and facts, and easily liable to become unhealthy, as all such exercises are.

After my degree, though retaining a certain general interest in the subject, I never again opened a mathematical book with the intention of seriously pursuing its study. I worked however at one time on "Taylor's theorem" in the Differential Calculus, with the object of finding a simpler and more direct proof than Homersham Cox's (the one usually adopted). But not being able to complete the proof, I handed it over to my friend Robert Muirhead, who has adopted and worked it to its conclusion in a contribution to the Proceedings of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society (Vol. 12, Session 1893-4). It was just about this time of my degree (and curiously late) that my attention began to be turned towards literary production. I had won as an undergraduate - and to my surprise - two College prizes for English Essays (one, by the way, on Civilization); and shortly after my degree, in 1870, I was awarded a university prize (the Burney ), 100, for an essay on "The Religious Influence of Art." Meanwhile I kept scribbling, just for my own satisfaction, quantities of verse, very formless and incoherent - but which formed an outlet for my own feelings in the absence of any more tangible way of expressing them.

How well I remember going down, as I so frequently did, alone to the riverside at night, amid the hushed reserve and quiet grace of the old College gardens, and pouring my little soul out to the silent trees and clouds and waters! I don't know what kind of longing it was - something partly sexual, partly religious, and both, owing to my strangely slow-growing temperament, still very obscure and undefined; but anyhow it was something that brooded about and enveloped my life, and makes those hours still stand out for me as the most pregnant of my then existence. Here are some verses (written in '68) which I give as a specimen of the kind of thought and the half-formed emotional atmosphere in which I brooded, as well as of their juvenile style.

O pale and wan with watching, starless night!
Far, far beyond thy cloudy banks
Pass and repass in serried ranks
The flaming watchfires of the infinite-
Gliding and streaming through the realm of space
In breathless adoration round
The burning throne whose base profound
Knoweth no resting-place.

To thy deep silence through the moving years
Cometh no cry of misery,
No sound of all the things that be,
Upborne from this dark field of feverish tears;
But all the myriad worlds thou dost enfold
Move on before their Monarch hushed,
And, looking forth, my soul is crushed
Beneath a weight untold.

O great Humanity, that liest spread
Beneath the gaze of the sleepless night,
Who is there who will dare to fight
To raise the tresses of thy drooping head?
Who cares through the immensity of suns?
Which of the angels shall arise?
Oh I heavy and dark the burden lies
On all thy noblest ones.

Far off the morning stars may shout and sing,
For there is Love and Joy and Peace,
And Life - true life that cannot cease-
But here the ghastly shuddering of Death's wing.
And here faint whispers only come to die
Upon the threshold of our hearts,
Voices at which the sad soul starts
With a half-uttered sigh.

O hanging cloud, O scarcely stirring trees,
O velvet waters moved to sound
By the gliding fishes' bound,
O Willow, whispering to the fitful breeze,
O gentle touch of the sweet summer air,
O solitary owl, alone,
Nursing thy joy in low weird tone
Within thy leafy lair!

O one and all, unveil! and let us see
The flaming soul of world-wide Love
Burning behind you, far above,
Beneath, deep-fountained life, strange mystery!
Unveil! O night that washest Earth's dark shore,
O suns, through space that ever roll,
O Love, clasping us body and soul
For evermore!

Curiously enough, as it happened, I was practically offered a Fellowship before I took my degree. The College was in want of an assistant Lecturer. There were three clerical Fellowships (the others being connected with the Bar as a profession), and one of these clerical Fellowships had lately become vacant by Leslie Stephen, who held it, relinquishing his Orders. It was understood that I was going into the Church; it seemed probable that I should take a fair degree; and for the rest, who could be found so suitable-so mild, so docile, so decently mannered and generally unaggressive-as the young man in question! Accordingly one day the tutor {Henry Latham) sounded me on the subject. I conveyed to him that I had not changed my intention of being ordained, and that I rather liked the prospect of staying on at Cambridge in connection with the College; and it became practically understood that if things turned out favorably that should be my destiny.

And things turned out accordingly. In the Mathematical Tripos of 1868 I came out tenth wrangler, which was a sufficiently high degree to justify a Fellowship at a small College; and in the autumn of that year I came into residence at Trinity Hall as a Lecturer; shortly afterwards I was elected to clerical Fellowship; and in June '69 I was ordained Deacon by the Bishop of Ely.

The story of my connection with the Church may soon told. Brought up in the philosophical Broad Churchism of my father, with an ever-expanding horizon, my mind had at no time undergone any revulsion of feeling such as could be called a religious crisis; no sense of antagonism to the Church and its teachings had been developed. Though quite aware that my opinions were vastly different from those of the ordinary Churchman, I perhaps hardly appreciated how far I had drifted; and with an easy faith in progress, such as I had, it seemed to me that anyhow in a few years the Church, widening and growing from within, would become adapted to the times, and be a perfectly habitable and a useful institution.

As soon as I was ordained I had services in the College Chapel to read, and sermons to preach - with the usual accompaniment of winks and grins from the fellow-students, shufflings of hassocks, racings half-dressed through the prayers on winter mornings, with clicks of watches timing the performance, and all the gaping signs of unconcealed boredom; but I thought I would like to see something more satisfactory and more definite in the way of Church work than that, and accordingly took a curacy at St. Edward's under a dry evangelical of the steel-knife and lemon-juice type, named Pearson.

If I had nursed in my mind any sentiment of romance in connection with ecclesiastical affairs, it was soon expelled by these experiences. A peep behind the scenes was enough. The, deadly Philistinism of a little provincial congregation; the trades-men and shopkeepers in their sleek Sunday best; the petty vulgarities and hypocrisies; the discordant music of the choir; the ignoble scenes in the vestry and the resumed saintly expression on returning into the church; the hollow ring and the sour edge of the incumbent's voice; and the fatuous faces up-turned to receive the communion at the altar steps - all these were worse, considerably worse, than the undisguised heathenism of the chapel performance.

It was not long before I began to have serious misgivings about the step I had taken. Still I did not torment myself; and when in the following June (1870) the time arrived for my ordination as a priest, I prepared myself quite philosophically to go through the ceremony.

But here an interesting hitch occurred. In the Bishop's examination preparatory to the ordination, the candidates had among other things to write a Life of Abraham; and such was my optimistic confidence in the breadth of the episcopal mind that I quite candidly and without any particular misgiving committed to paper the view which I had picked up, I think from Bunsen the historian, and which is also adopted by Dean Stanley in his Jewish Church - that Abraham's intended immolation of Isaac was a relic of Moloch-worship, and of the old practice of human sacrifices, and that the "voice of God" which bade him substitute the ram did indeed figure the evolution of the human conscience to a higher ideal of worship than that in vogue among savage nations. This paper, containing so dreadful a heresy, I sent up without a qualm! But on arriving myself some days later at the Palace at Ely, the Bishop (Harold Browne) soon after the first greetings called me into his study and confronted me with the offending passage. At first I had some difficulty in understanding what the trouble was, but when the Bishop in grave tones began to remind me that the sacrifice of Isaac was a type - a type and a prefigurement of that greater sacrifice of Jesus, and that the whole Biblical scheme of salvation rested four-square upon this incident (not forgetting the ram), I immediately saw that the fat was in the fire, and that there was now no escaping a solemn discussion on the Atonement.

And to that it came. Our conversation, interrupted by dinner, was resumed again late in the evening; and when all the other clerics and candidates had gone to bed the reverend Father-in-God and I sat up till past twelve discussing all the main and side issues of Theology! On the latter he was easy enough. I told him plainly that I did not believe in the historical accuracy of the Old Testament; and he admitted that there were gaps! Even the Thirty-nine Articles were to be swallowed in the lump, and not in detail, so to speak. But on the Atonement the discussion narrowed. Here was a vital point. My views were woolly in outline, sadly blurred by the Broad Church mysticism of F. D. Maurice, and I confess I had some difficulty in formulating them. The Bishop merely shook his head, asked me to "say that again," and declared that he could not under-stand. It ended by his requesting me to write out my doctrine; and going to bed himself he left me sitting up for a couple of hours more for this purpose! In the morning I handed him, before breakfast, my mystic script. After breakfast he once more called me into his study, said he had read the paper, that it was thoughtful and all that, but that he could not say that he really followed it, and that he was sure it was not the doctrine of the Church of England.

We were then within a few minutes of the commencement of the service. I took for granted that he would not ordain me; but after a pause he said "I cannot refuse to ordain you; but I do not think your views are those of the Church." I think he hoped that I should then retire of my own accord. However I said nothing but took it all as settled in my favour, and in less than an hour the apostolic hands were on my head.

After luncheon the good old man, not without a certain anxiety and epanchement, put his arm in mine and walked with me round the garden. I remember there was a chaffinch hopping about, and a longish discourse followed on creation and suffering and vicarious sacrifice, which I listened to with due deference; but it did not seem to me to lead to any conclusion; and soon the time came for us to leave the palace, and I saw him no more.

It may be imagined that I did not find my profession any more satisfactory after being made priest than before. He of the sour knife-edge, my superincumbent, left St. Edward's, being translated into a canon of Carlisle, and was succeeded, curiously enough, by Maurice himself. That was I think early in 1871.

Of this transaction, by which F. D. Maurice became incumbent of St. Edward's, it may be worth while to say a few words. Maurice had lately come to Cambridge as Professor of Moral Philosophy. As far as his moral worth was concerned, the choice was a good one. There was an ineffable personal charm about him of moral earnestness and deep feeling, connecting itself somehow with his lofty venerable head and extraordinary modesty. But of his philosophy perhaps the less said the better. He saw facts which doubtless it is impossible adequately to translate into language. Certainly it was impossible for him. To see him struggling with the root-ideas which he was always trying, and vainly, to express, to see him perspiring with effort, tapping his forehead with his fingers, shutting his eyes, and still only framing broken sentences, was really touching. The net result among the students was, as I have hinted, one of personal devotion to him, but of utter bafflement as to his teaching. It is said that one student hearing that the great man was giving a course of lectures on the "I" (as he was), made his way down to the Physiological schools and after many inquiries finding that no lectures were being given on the Eye, came back again with the conclusion that the whole affair was a myth!

Well, Maurice having expressed a wish to take some practical "duty" in Cambridge, and the living of St. Edward's falling vacant at that time, a movement was got up in the College to offer the living to him. The living was in the gift of the Fellows of Trinity Hall, and most of the Fellows were favorable to the proposal. But an unexpected difficulty arose in the person of the Master (Dr. Geldart). Not that the Master himself (who was an old sporting man, more than anything else) cared a button about the matter, but because his wife, Mrs. Geldart, was accustomed to attend St. Edward's and fuss round the parson there, and she strongly disapproved of anyone so heretical as Maurice occupying the pulpit!

I was a Fellow of the College at the time, and the scenes round- the table as we discussed the knotty question were most amusing. The obvious embarrassment of the old Master when the question arose as to why he thought Maurice so dangerous; his mysterious references to the opinions of other people (his wife) and his candid disavowal of any knowledge on these subjects himself; the guffaws of Henry Fawcett (then Professor of Political Economy and afterwards Postmaster-General) as he called for his chop and settled himself down to enjoy a scene to which his blindness was little drawback; the quips of H. D. Warr, one of the Fellows; the muttered blasphemies of our Dean (Hopkins), who couldn't think why we wasted time "over such blasted nonsense", the ingenious surmises of the barrister fellows generally as to what Maurice's opinions might conceivably be; and the politic expediencies of the Tutor (Latham) who at last silenced the Master and his Missus by producing a letter from the Bishop of Carlisle (Goodwin) endorsing Maurice with a friendly pat on the back: all this was as good as a play.

Maurice was installed in the living early in 1871, and thenceforth read the services and prayed and preached, with that profundity of earnest innocence which was so characteristic of him, and which contrasted strangely with the manner of his election, and more strangely still with the cheap commercialism of his congregation.

Maurice had no great ear for music. The organist and choir of flat-singing shop-girls revelled in florid hymns about the "blood-of-the-Lamb." Maurice besought me to alter this and induce them to sing again those fine old hymns like the "Old Hundredth." A nice task for an amiable curate!

It was curious that after having been brought up in and adopted Maurice's views, I should now, having become his curate, feel so uncomfortable as I did. But so it was. I had had experience in the short space of a year and a half, of three spiritual superiors - each in a sense more favorable than the last; and yet my sense of aggravation continually increased. I saw a good deal of Maurice. He was kindness itself. I opened out my difficulties to him; and he was I think troubled to find I could not reconcile myself to the position which he occupied apparently without difficulty. But to me his attitude was a growing wonder. I could quite understand his historical-philosophical view of the Creeds and the Old Testament, and that he could read into them a deep and necessary meaning, satisfactory to his own mind; I had in fact been already, long before, initiated into this Broad Church attitude by my father. But when it came to standing up oneself in church and reciting these documents to a congregation who (as one knew perfectly well) did not understand a word of them, and practically received them in their grossest sense and in a spirit of mere superstition, then I felt it was necessary to draw the line somewhere! It was not that I then, or at any time, made a trouble of the conformity of my own views with those of the Church; for I thought and I think now, that if a man feels he can do useful work, and congenial to himself, in that connection, he had better remain where he is until he is kicked out; and that seeing the variety of interpretations that Church doctrines are capable of, it is rather for the Church to decide whether his interpretations are within its pale, or not, than for him to do so. But the trouble to me was a practical one - namely the insuperable feeling of falsity and dislocation which I experienced, and which accompanied all my professional work: from the reading of the services to the visiting of old women in their almshouses - who were, one could see, goaded on to hypocrisy by the position in which they were placed - and who would hastily shuffle a Bible or prayer-book on to the table, when they saw the parson coming. This sense of falsity grew on me more and more till I felt the situation to be intolerable.

It is remarkable - certainly I have found it so in my own life - how little its greater changes are one's own choice, and in a sense, how much they are forced upon one by necessity - sometimes by an out- ward necessity, sometimes by, an inner and necessary, though perhaps unconscious evolution of one's own nature. No doubt I thought about this matter a great deal, argued to myself the question of my conformity to the Church, and the pros and cons of remaining in it - worried myself, passed sleepless nights - and felt generally unhinged over it; but all this conscious argument brought me no nearer to a decision. Deep below I felt that some sort of sheer necessity was driving me on. Sometimes when I was occupied with, and thinking about, quite other things, a kind of shiver would run down my back: "You've got to go, you've got to go," and I felt as if I was being pushed to the edge of a steep place.

For it was not altogether easy to face the situation. I was doing very well, in a pecuniary sense, at Cambridge, making with my Fellowship and small offices as lecturer, librarian, etc., 500 or 600 a year, and prospects good for the future; The abandonment of my Orders would probably mean the loss of my Fellowship, and possibly also that I should have to leave Cambridge altogether. And it did not seem quite reasonable to risk all this for what might after all be only a Quixotic fancy.

But blessed is Necessity which cuts all arguments short! By the middle of May 1871 I felt so ill and wretched that I could not stay on even a few weeks to the end of the term. I begged off my lectures, left Maurice to find another curate, and ran away!

Meanwhile other threads and clues of life were developing. Up to my degree (January '68 ) I had lived singularly apart from any intellectual or literary circles. As an undergraduate my companions had mostly been boating men. After my degree however I came naturally into a more literary society, consisting partly of the younger Fellows of Colleges and partly of the more go-ahead students who had not yet taken their degrees. One or two of the more thoughtful undergrads of my own College also leaned toward me. I belonged to one or two little societies which used to meet and discuss literary or other topics. To one of these, which W. K. Clifford organized, I used, after I became a curate, to rush round on Sunday evenings after church - in time to take part in the reading of Mazzini's Duty of Man; illustrated by a plentiful accompaniment of claret-cup and smoke! Clifford was a kind of Socratic presiding genius at these meetings - with his Satyr-like face, tender heart, wonderfully suggestive, paradoxical manner of conversation, and blasphemous treatment of the existing gods. He invented just at that time a kind of inverted Doxology which ran:-

O Father, Son and Holy Ghost-
We wonder which we hate the most.
Be Hell, which they prepared before,
Their dwelling now and evermore!

and his influence, combined with that of Mazzini, was certainly part of my education at that period. If it had by any chance come to the Bishop's ears that I attended these meetings there is little wonder about his hesitation to ordain me!

There was another Cambridge heretic with whom I frequently consorted - B. Fossett Lock of King's - who certainly by his attainments and ability ought to have been made a Fellow of his College, but his views and the audacity with which he ventilated them proved a fatal obstacle. Having to write a College prize-poem he sat up all the preceding night to do it, worked himself up into a kind of prophetic frenzy and managed under cover of a forecast of republican utopianism to introduce the lines:-

Since they traded in holy things, and treated the people like beasts,
The priests shall be slain and the kings shall be drowned in the blood of the priests.

I don't feel so certain of the exact words of the first line as I do of the second, but I hope the author of both (who is now by the by a County Court Judge) will forgive my quotation of them. It is hardly to be wondered at that in those days he was not made a Fellow!

One of the undergraduates of my own College with whom I made friends at this time was Edward Brown, let us call him. He came up to Cambridge, a poor student from the country district of Castle Rising in Norfolk, on the shores of the Wash - he also with his head full of rhymes and verses, which he had written since he was a boy of eight or ten, to the wonderment and delight of his widower father, who prophesied in no uncertain tone, a nook in Westminster Abbey for his poet son. Brown was a bright, capable fellow, with a slight stoop, and a stammer, and a good-humoured way of laughing at his own oddities. He took the University by surprise by carrying off, in his first year, the prize poem on Dante - having been fain, it is said, to work up the subject by reading Cary's translation (which he could not afford to buy) on the bookstalls. Then he wrote another prize poem on Runnymede, which delighted him chiefly I think on account of a misprint which occurred in the printed copy. There was an eloquent passage in the poem, describing the sunrise of freedom in England, and something about the clouds heralding the approach of morning:-

Streaks rosy-tinted vanward of the sun-

which the printer, in a materialistic mood, altered into:-

Steaks rosy-tinted vanward of the sun.

These rosy-tinted steaks gave Brown, I believe, as much pleasure as he got from all the kudos of his poetic success. He worked away at Classics, took a good first-class, and ultimately became a fellow and tutor of the College. But his vein of poetic feeling and romance, possibly too soon ripe, ran itself out, and he never carried on this line of production or published anything. His mind, perhaps from the same cause, took on a slightly cynical cant; he lapsed into the ordinary channels of lecturing and coaching, then married and had a large family, and so gave himself up to the work-a-day routine of College life.

At the time I mention he and I chummed together a good deal - indeed there was a touch of romance in our attachment - we compared literary notes, went abroad together once or twice, and after he was made a Fellow, had rooms adjoining each other, and spent many and many an evening in common. He became a favorite in the general society of the younger dons and B. A. 's, on account of his brightness, naturalness and frankly avowed enjoyment of the good things of life.

As for myself, for a couple of years or so after my degree I entered with great zest into this academically intellectual existence - these chit-chat societies, these little supper parties, these lingerings over the wine in combination-room after dinner - where every subject in Heaven and Earth was discussed, with the university man's perfect freedom of thought and utterance, but also with his perfect absence of practical knowledge or of intention to apply his theories to any practical issue. It was helpful no doubt especially as a solvent of old ideas and prejudices; but after a time it began to pall upon me and bore me. There was a vein of what might be called painful earnestness in my character. These talking machines were, many of them, very obnoxious to me. And then of what avail was the brain, when the heart demanded so much, and demanding was still unsatisfied?

Looking back, I think with regard to this last-mentioned matter, that the fault was probably a good deal on my own side. Strong as had been two or three attachments of this and my earlier undergraduate period, and deeply as they had moved me (to a degree indeed which I should be almost ashamed to confess); yet for the most part, owing to my reserved habits, and the self-repressive education I had received - combined with the fatuities of public opinion - I consumed my own smoke, and did not give myself the utterance I ought to have given. By concealing myself I was unfair to my friends, and at the same time suffered torments which I need not have suffered.

As I have already said, during the time shortly after my degree I scribbled a great deal in verse form merely as an outlet to my own feelings, and without much attention to conventionalities of style and rhythms - though of course along the ordinary lines of versification. But now came my introduction to the poet who was destined so deeply to influence my life. It was in the summer of '68, I believe (though it may have been '69), that one day H. D. Warr - one of the Fellows of Trinity Hall, and a very brilliant and amusing man - came into my room with a blue-covered book in his hands (William Rossetti's edition of Whitman's poems ) only lately published, and said:-

"Carpenter, what do you think of this?"

I took it from him, looked at it, was puzzled, and asked him what he thought of it.

"Well," he said, "I thought a good deal of it at first, but I don't think I can stand any more of it."

With those words he left me; and I remember lying down then and there on the floor and for half an hour poring, pausing, wondering. I could not make the book out, but I knew at the end of that time that I intended to go on reading it. In a short time I bought a copy for myself, then I got Democratic Vistas, and later on (after three or four years) Leaves of Grass complete.

From that time forward a profound change set in within me. I remember the long and beautiful summer nights, sometimes in the College garden by the riverside, sometimes sitting at my own window which itself overlooked a little old-fashioned garden enclosed by grey and crumbling walls; sometimes watching the silent and untroubled dawn; and feeling all the time that my life deep down was flowing out and away from the surroundings and traditions amid which I lived - a current of sympathy carrying it westward, across the Atlantic. I wrote to Whitman, obtained his books from him, and occasional postcardial responses. But outwardly, and on the surface, my life went on as usual.

What made me cling to the little blue book from the beginning was largely the poems which celebrate comradeship. That thought, so near and personal to me, I had never before seen or heard fairly expressed; even in Plato and the Greek authors there had been something wanting (so I thought): If there had only been those few poems they would have been sufficient to hold me; but there were other pieces: there was "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," "Out of the Rocked Cradle," "President Lincoln's Funeral Hymn," and the prose Preface [Footnote 1] - and then afterwards Democratic Vistas.

On the whole at that time I thought most, I believe, of the prose writings. Democratic Vistas was a mine of new thought. Both this and the little blue book I read over and over again, and still they were new. I had read a great deal of Wordsworth about the time of my degree; then Shelley captivated and held me for a long time; portions of Plato and of Shakespear I had read repeatedly; but never had I found anything approaching these writings of Whitman's for their inexhaustible quality and power of making one return to them.

Yet all this time, or for three or four years, I believe my interest in them was mainly intellectual - that is, they were producing an intellectual ferment in me, but I had not distinctly come into touch with the dominant individuality behind them, nor felt that they were re-shaping my moral and artistic ideals. This is partly shown by the fact that I continued all these years, and up to '74 or so, writing verse along the usual lines and upon the usual subjects. Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" and Shelley's "Adonais" and "Prometheus" still ruled my artistic and emotional conceptions - and withal, living as I was in an atmosphere of literary criticism and finesse, mere academic technique seemed to me a great matter, and I made great struggles to attain to it.

Though I was not particularly successful in these efforts towards the conventional in literature, yet I have no doubt they were very helpful in giving me some sort of training in the power of handling words and rhythmical forms - and it was a true instinct which led me through this instead of urging me to leap at once into the ocean of metrical freedom, so difficult to navigate with success. Anyhow so it was that while (in other things as well as in literature) my inner scarcely conscious nature was setting outwards in a swift current from the shores of conventionality, under the influence of its new genius, into deeps it little divined, my external self was still busy in a kind of backwater, and working hard if by any means it might attain to a creditable or even a possible existence in these channels!

But by '71 and '72 I began to feel that continued existence in my surroundings was becoming impossible to me. The tension and dislocation of my life was increasing, and I became aware that a crisis was approaching. In May of the former year I had taken a holiday and got away from Cambridge. In October I returned to my lecturing and College work, but not to the church duties; and all '72 I continued on, going through the daily round - but in a torpid, perfunctory manner - feeling probably that I ought to throw it all up, yet without the pluck to do so till I was fairly forced. By the end of '72 I was obviously ill and incapacitated, and when I asked for leave of absence for a couple of terms it was readily granted - my own object in asking (so I put it to myself) being to get quite away and for long enough to be able to estimate my position and future action fairly and deliberately.

The year '73 was an important one for me. Feeling shattered and exhausted, and with a big holiday before me, I determined to go to Italy. It was a new life and I may almost say inspiration. I spent two months in Rome, a month in the Bay of Naples, and a month at Florence. I was alone, still alone; but the healing influences of the air and the sunshine were upon me. Amid the bright external life of the day, and the rich records and suggestions of the past, all the questions which had been tormenting me faded away. I thought about them no more; but new elements came into my life which decided them for me.

The Greek sculpture had a deep effect. The other things, pictures, architecture, etc., interested me much from an historical or aesthetic point of view; but this had something more, a germinative influence on my mind, which adding itself to and corroborating the effect of Whitman's poetry, left with me as it were the seed of new conceptions of life. The marvellous beauty and cleanliness of the human body as presented by the Greek mind, the way in which the noblest passions of the soul - the tender pitying love of Diana for Endymion, the haughty inspiration of Juno, the heroic endurance of the fallen warrior, the childlike gladness of the faun - were united and blended with the corporeal form - or rather scarcely conceived of as separated from it; the emotional atmosphere which went with this, the Greek ideal of the free and gracious life of man at one with nature and the cosmos - so remote from the current ideals of commercialism and Christianity! - to become aware of all this in the midst of that "delicate air" and delightful landscape and climate of Italy, was indeed a new departure for me.

There are magnificent fragments of Greek sculpture in the British Museum, not forgetting the priceless frieze of the Parthenon - things which to a skilled artistic eye are as suggestive as any that can be found - but to me the great range and completeness of the Italian galleries, the almost perfect Cupids, fauns, Venuses, athletes, warriors, youths, maidens, sages, gods, in unending, procession under that southern sky, gave a poetic impulse which I could not, at any rate at that time, have surmised from a broken marble seen in a London fog!

Nor must I omit, as part of the Greek impression, a visit to the Temples of Paestum - which helped to give a habitation in the mind's eye to those strings of sculptured figures, exiles in alien Rome, and to intensify the sense of harmonious life and divine proportion which they had excited.

I stayed in Italy long enough to see, at Florence, the fireflies skim and flicker over the blossoming wheat-fields of May and June, and then returned home, to find that without worrying about it a change had taken place in my mental attitude which would make my return to the Cambridge life impossible.

And here I must not omit to mention another influence which played a large part in the shaping of my life at this time. Most men own a deep debt to women's influence in the ordering and guidance of their lives. I cannot say that I have felt this. With the exception of my mother and one other person, I cannot remember a single case in which a woman came to me as a strong motive-force or inspiration, or as a help or a guide in doubt or difficulty. Perhaps on the emotional side women did not supply what I needed; while on the intellectual side a woman with decisive, originative, authentic mind is certainly not often to be met with. Such a woman, however, of the latter type, was the person to whom I allude, and whom I may call Olivia (which indeed was one of her Christian names).

She was a connection by marriage with one of my sisters, a woman about fifty, still retaining traces of an exceedingly handsome youth. Married, but separated from her husband; artistic to the finger-tips; brought up in Italy, and loving the South; hating everything British and Philistine and commercial; detesting the Bible and religion; she had fought her way through social odium and disability, and then through severe illness and suffering, till she was but the wreck (she used to say) of her former self. Nevertheless a remarkable fire and enthusiasm still survived in her, and though one of these natures who see everything rather violently black or white, yet the decisive artistic quality of her mind was most refreshing and inspiring. I have given some general account founded on her life and character in a separate sketch [Footnote 2]. Sufficient to say here that her conversations on literature and art, her criticisms of art work (and of my own efforts), her views on marriage, on religion - though we disagreed a thousand times and often saw things from opposite points - were most helpful to me. They served to liberate my mind, corrected in many respects the native vagueness of my thought, and certainly helped me greatly on the road to choose my own way in life. I find a scrap of a letter from her, written during this period of my suffering and doubt as to my continuance at Cambridge and in the Church:

"I ought not to write this morning, caro mio, I am too depressed. It is terrible to me to know how you suffer. Your letter last night made me cold to the finger-ends. One thing is clear any-how, your present life is intolerable, change it you must. . . . . When you get away from the depressing influence of your present life with all its worries you will breathe and clap your hands and thank God!"

It is needless to say that my move to Italy and my preparations for abandoning Orders were things truly after her own heart. And now for the first time I seriously entertained the idea of taking to literature as a profession. I saw that my Cambridge career was at an end, and that I must do something else; and for a time (though only for a short time) it appeared to me that I might make a living by writing.

I believe I felt that I really had something to write, that I must write, though certainly my mind and purpose was only vague as yet; and as to the professional side of the question, though I realized, I only partly realized, how difficult it would be to make writing of any kind 'pay'. There were plenty of 'candid friends' however to impress that upon me, and I well remember the derisive chorus of the other Fellows which greeted (at some College meeting or other) the announcement of my intention! I stayed at home, at Brighton, during the summer and autumn and gathered my verses - those more careful and academic productions which I had perpetrated in the late years - together in a volume for publication. Of course no publisher would take the volume at his risk, and I was content, after a few efforts, to pay the piper myself for the pleasure of seeing the work in print, and on the chance of its leaping to a world-wide success! The book, under the title Narcissus, and other Poems, was published in November 1873, and needless to say fell practically dead - a few notices, mostly depreciatory, in the papers, a few copies bought by friends, and then it ceased to stir.

Nor was there any reason why it should stir. There was nothing of any moment in the book; only a vague sentiment of Nature and humanity running through, not definite enough at any point to carry weight; and really not, so much of the author's own self in it, as of his effort to reach a certain literary standard. Perhaps one of the best of the pieces, both in form and intention, was "The Artist to his Lady" which I remember expressed in its indefinite way the dominant feeling which I had those last years of being drawn away from my surroundings by another ideal than that which I could realize at Cambridge. Of the other pieces, "The Carpenter and the King" - an extract from an unfinished revolutionary drama of which the scene was laid in Austria and Italy in 1848 - indicates a certain advance in political ideas and the gem of future developments; while "The Angel of Death and Life" contains in embryo some of the dominant conceptions of Towards Democracy.


It so happened that at the time of publication of Narcissus, in November '73, I was at Cannes, in the South of France, whither I had gone with my sister Lizzie (to whom I was much attached) on account of her illness. I stayed two or three weeks, and then it became necessary for me to return home, in order to make preparations for and be present at our College Fellows' meeting at Christmas. It had of course become quite imperative that I should make some distinct announcement of my intentions with regard to the future; and for my part I had now quite decided that I would relinquish my Orders, and go through the legal formalities of unfrocking myself. Sincerely I hoped that this would lead to my disappearance from Cambridge. If, before, I had recoiled from such a thought, the torpor and misery I had experienced since then had quite altered my point of view.

And in all this matter it was not by any means only the clerical difficulty that troubled me. As I have hinted before I had come to feel that the so-called intellectual life of the University was (to me at any rate) a fraud and a weariness. These ever-lasting discussions of theories which never came any-where near actual life, this cheap philosophizing and ornamental cleverness, this endless book-learning, and the queer cynicism and boredom underlying - all impressed me with a sense of utter emptiness. The prospect of spending the rest of my, life in that atmosphere terrified me; and as I had seemed to see already the vacuity and falsity of society life at Brighton, so in another form I seemed to see the same thing here.

And now it dawned upon me that my abandonment of Orders, instead of being a thing to be dreaded, would be my veritable deliverance, and would provide just that valid excuse for breaking with my old life, which otherwise might prove hard to find. When friends, relations, Fellows of the College, and others, were all urging upon me the folly of committing professional suicide, I felt that the argument of conscience - though not really to myself the final and convincing thing (since that was Necessity) - was one which I could make use of, and which I should have to make use of, since everyone, whether I liked it or not, would credit me with it!

I therefore, to avoid all possible lapses or failures that might ensue, if I left the matter over to a personal explanation at the College meeting, wrote beforehand to the Master of Trinity Hall, explaining that I had entirely made up my mind to formally relinquish my Orders, and placing my Fellowship in his hands, in accordance with what I supposed would be necessary under the circumstances. Then two or three weeks afterwards I followed in person to join in the Christmas festivities.

At that time, every year at the Christmas season, not only did all the Fellows assemble for the transaction of College business at our meetings, but there was a week of dinner-parties, with often fifty or sixty guests each evening (no women) and very serious junketings! This was, of course, in Commemoration of the Founder of the College - and with money partly left for the purpose. We sat down to dinner, a most extensive one, at six o'clock, which lasted, with the passing of the loving-cup and the serving of wine and dessert, till about eight; then we adjourned to the combination-room to take coffee and to chat for an hour; after which the elder men generally resolved themselves in to whist parties, while the younger would retire in batches to college rooms in order to smoke and drink brandies and soda. Soon after ten supper was served; and returning to the combination-room one found a table spread with the traditional boar's head, supplemented by oysters, game-pie, and other little delicacies. In order to stimulate the exhausted powers, bottled stout was found useful at this period. Some of the old hands did no scant justice to the supper; others remained at the whist tables. Finally and as the coup de grace, about 11.30 hot milk punch and roast apples appeared!

It was generally the duty of the younger Fellows to look after the ceremonies a little, to arrange the whist parties, invite the guests to supper, and ply them with meat and drink. I remember one evening, somewhat past midnight, finding the Mayor of Cambridge (who had been invited) by himself in a remote comer discussing a roast apple. I went and got a good big glass of milk-punch, and brought it him, saying, "Now, Mr. Mayor, I'm sure this will do you good"-but he waived it away, with a comical gesture, replying: "No, no more - I can't drink any more, thank you; but this apple is delicious!" Shortly afterwards, leaning on my arm, he was to be seen carefully descending the stairs to his carriage.

My feelings at this particular Christmas were of rather a mixed kind. As to the Fellows they were berating me of one accord for my madness in writing to the Master and practically resigning my Fellowship before it was proved needful to do so; also for my supposed Quixotism in troubling about my Orders. As to the Dean, being of course in Orders himself he made short work of the difficulty: "It is all such tomfoolery," he said, "that it doesn't matter whether you say you believe in it, or whether you say you don't. Look at my sermons in chapel now - are they not models of unaffected piety! You let the matter drop, and it will all blow over."

Among the Fellows and members of my own and other colleges with whom at that time I was often in contact were Henry Fawcett (afterwards Post-master-General), Henry Latham (Tutor of Trinity Hall), Charles Wentworth Dilke, W. K. Clifford, George Darwin, Robert Romer (afterwards Lord justice), Lumley Smith, Henry Fielding Dickens, Augustine Birrell, Edward Beck (present Master of Trinity Hall), and others of course, Most of these - though not all - did their best from their different points of view to dissuade me from the course I had embarked on; but I was not going to be dissuaded. It was obvious to me that half-measures would be no good, and that if I wanted to make my escape from Cambridge I must throw the whole thing overboard; so underneath all the unpleasantness there was the secret satisfaction of feeling that unknown to everybody I was really going to gain a point instead of lose one!

What kind of debates they had in College meeting over my case I don't know, for of course I was not present, but it was conveyed to me that though there was a general wish that I should stay on as before, yet if I persisted in relinquishing my Orders, it would be doubtful if I could be asked to remain in the College - owing to the scandal of the thing! As to the question whether my relinquishment of Orders should involve the loss of my fellowship, that was adjourned for the present.

So again next term I did not rejoin; but remained at home, at Brighton, occupied with another important literary project! Moses: a drama. Early one morning I had woken from sleep in the midst of a heavy thunderstorm, with an extraordinarily vivid conception (I don't know how it came to be there) of Moses on the top of Sinai. Then and there I wrote out a long soliloquy (Act II. Sc. I), which now insisted on expanding itself into a considerable poem in dramatic form - the ruling idea being to take the Bible story, treat it in a rationalistic way, as an obscure tradition of an actual event, and to show Moses as a noble but entirely human reformer, embarrassed in his great enterprise more by the apathy, stupidity and superstition of the people he desired to save than by anything else! [Footnote 3]

Meanwhile through solicitors I set the ecclesiastical law in operation with a view to my unfrockment. The process takes six months for its completion. It was not necessary for me to see my Bishop again; but I had one or two gravely regretful letters from him. I spent the 'Long' at Cambridge - July and August - the last 'Long' that I spent there; and during that time received the legal document which rendered me once again a layman.

These summer vacations spent at Cambridge were the part of my university life that - even from my undergraduate days - I had most enjoyed. Chapels and lectures were in abeyance, the monotonous tyranny of boating-practice and training was unknown; a few students only were up, perhaps twenty or so at our College - but these would be the more intelligent and congenial spirits. During the long morning from nine to two one got through a lot of reading unhindered by lectures and other interruptions; then came afternoons canoeing up the river, two or three together, in the dreamy sheen of the water and the overhanging willows, or through beds of iris; or bathing; or playing fives or rackets; or walking the country lanes, or sitting long on some turfy bank with a friend. Sometimes we would make quite a party and go, a fleet of canoes, with provisions, far up the river and not return till dark. Then as a rule there were two or three hours more work in the evening, though sometimes this was broken through by some little entertainment.

What a curious romance ran through all that life - and yet on the whole, with few exceptions, how strangely unspoken it was and unexpressed! This succession of athletic and even beautiful faces and figures, what a strange magnetism they had for me, and yet all the while how insurmountable for the most part was the barrier between! It was as if a magic flame dwelt within one, burning, burning, which one could not put out, and yet whose existence one might on no account reveal.[Footnote 4] How the walks under the avenues of trees at night, and by the riversides, were haunted full of visionary foms for which in the actual daylight world there seemed no place!

Yet as time went on I think it must have become clearer to me that Cambridge never would afford in this direction the actual that I wanted. Expectation grew dry at the fount, and torpor and distress in the last year or two took the plcace of the romance of the years before. Somehow I think I must have dimly understood that the trouble arose partly from a deep want of sympathy between myself and the whole mental attitude, mode of life, and ideals of the university, and of the gilded or silvered youth who lived and moved within it; for I remember that on the memorable journey from Cannes homewards, when I was revolving the whole situation - the abandonment of my Orders and Fellowship, the failure (as it already appeared) of my first literary venture, and the doubt of what I should or could do in the future, it suddenly flashed upon me, with a vibration through my whole body, that I would and must somehow go and make my life with the mass of the people and the manual workers.

It was in pursuance of this last idea that shortly after the eventful College meeting above mentioned I went to see James Stuart at Trinity, who was just then organizing the first outlines of the University Extension Lecturing Scheme, and asked him if he could find me a place on it. He agreed to do so; and suggested that I should take the subject of Astronomy. I consented, and shortly after was appointed to begin a course of Lectures (in October 1874) at Leeds, Halifax and Skipton.


  1. It is curious how aesthetic in style this Preface is, though written in 1855, rather before the English aesthetic movement, and how, perhaps on account of its slight affectation of manner, it was abandoned by Whitman afterwards.[Return to main text].
  2. "Francesca," in Sketches from Life.[Return to main text]
  3. The drama is now [1911] republished under the title The Promised Land, and the soliloquy in question is given in the first part of Act II. Sc. I. As a reflection of the thoughts which were, I suppose, occupying my mind at that time, it may have some slight interest.[Return to main text]
  4. This of course would all be very different now [1915][Return to main text]

Forward to Chapter 4 | Return to Top of Page