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C. S. Lewis and the Ceremonies at Oxford University (1917-1925)

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 79, Winter 1999 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

by John Bremer
P.O. Box 518, Ludlow, VT 05149 USA

Most Christians believe that they will “stand at the Latter Day” and be subject to God’s justice and, they hope, His mercy. Lewis, after his conversion, certainly believed that he would be accountable at the Last Judgment and saw his life sub specie aeternitatis.

A more modest judgment sub specie temporis would require a consideration of the circumstances in which a human life has been lived and the direction in which it is heading; the purpose of this essay is to set forth some of the ceremonial circumstances which surrounded Lewis at Oxford University until his election to a Fellowship at Magdalen College in 1925.

Some knowledge of these circumstances will undoubtedly affect the judgments about Lewis that anyone cares to make. Lewis himself makes judgments in the extracts that appear below, many of them quite brutal and uncharitable. He was a snob (often complaining that some one was “not a gentleman”) and condescending (demeaning the efforts — and existence — of others and, without much justification, proclaiming them inferior).

Oxford University, in Lewis’s time and since, is not the best place to learn Christian humility, and it is easy to use the customs and ceremonies of an eight hundred year old institution to belittle others while aggrandizing oneself. Lewis himself seems to have been ambivalent about the ancient usages of his University, deriding them on occasion, but feeling ennobled when he participated in them. There is no doubt that he was ambitious and wanted to succeed in the worldly terms that Oxford provided through its ceremonies.

Oxford shows unmistakable signs of its origins as an ecclesiastical institution, tied to the church — whether it be the one medieval Church or the Anglican Church after the Reformation of 1534. It was High Tory and this involved a curious paradox, for on the one hand it approved established authority (especially its own), but at the same time could allow for variations, individuality, divergence within its own ranks, and there were ways for getting round some regulations. But there were limits: in 1811, Shelley (a student of the same College as Lewis) was “sent down” — that is, banished from the University — for his “contumacy” in refusing to answer questions about atheism and his book The Necessity of Atheism.

In Oxford in the History of England, A. L. Rowse develops the theme of the historical and growing contrast between Oxford and Cambridge. Cambridge was easterly, Puritan, latitudinarian, and Whiggish, and more devoted to mathematics and science, while Oxford was westerly, more traditional, Anglican and Royalist (i.e., High Tory), with a bias towards law, public affairs, and what we would call the social sciences. The differences are now blurred but they still crop up in unexpected places.

The following essay attempts to set out some of the ancient, inherited circumstances that surrounded Lewis during his early years at Oxford — the use of Latin as the ceremonial language, the academic robes (derived from clerical and monkish garb), the required religious services, the curriculum, the methods of teaching, and, above all perhaps, the names of things and their origins.

To begin with, there are three terms in the Oxford University year, and the
dates for a typical year would be something like the following:

  1. Michaelmas Term, which begins on 1 October and ends on 17 December.
  2. Hilary Term, which begins on 10 January and ends on the day before Palm Sunday.
  3. Trinity Term, which begins on the Wednesday after Easter Day and ends on the Saturday after the first Sunday in July.

The names of the terms are all of ecclesiastical origin. Michaelmas Term takes its name from St Michael and All Angels (29 September), Hilary Term from the feast of St Hilary (14 January), and Trinity Term from Trinity Sunday. The last is more complicated because it is a movable feast: Trinity Sunday is the next Sunday after Whitsunday, which, in turn, is the seventh Sunday after Easter, which, in its turn, is the Sunday following the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox (21 March). The last shows the dependence of the Christian Calendar on the moon, on the astronomical calendar of the Jews and the determination of Passover. Paganism casts a long shadow over all of this, however, for the English are one of only two peoples that use the name of a pagan goddess, Eostre, to signify one of the two greatest events of the Christian year, and Whitsunday is the co-optation by the Christian church of the ancient moon-goddess worship, the White Goddess ceremony, of Whit Moonday or Monday. It was moved back one day so that it could be initiated by a Christian Sabbath ceremony in church.

However, the complicated nature of this academic calendar is compounded by the fact that these terms are NOT the periods in which lectures are given, tutorials held, and undergraduates are required to be in residence. These periods, known as Full Terms, last for only eight weeks and begin on a day determined by University governance. They are usually as follows In Michaelmas Term, Full Term begins on the second Sunday in October. In Hilary Term, Full Term begins on the first Sunday after 14 January. In Trinity Term, Full Term begins on either the last or the next to last Sunday in April (depending on whether Easter falls early or late). They all fall within the dates of the other terms listed above (which is confusing because those terms are fuller that is, longer — than the Full Terms).

Requirements at Oxford usually involved “the keeping of terms,” that is, residence in an approved lodging (either in a College or an approved place within 3 miles of Carfax, the center of Oxford city; Carfax is a corruption of Quatervoys, four ways, a crossroads; cf. French carrefour).

Lewis was in residence, in statu pupillari, that is, as a student (and Scholar of University College), as follows, with his area of study as indicated:

Academic Year 1916-17
Trinity Term 1917 (Responsions)
(War service June 1917—December 1918)

Academic Year 1918-19
Hilary Term 1919 (Hon. Mods)

Academic Year 1919-20
Michaelmas Term 1919 (Hon.Mods)
Hilary Term 1920 (Hon.Mods)
Trinity Term 1920 (Hon.Mods. – exam. First Class Honours.)

Academic Year 1920-21
Michaelmas Term 1920 (Greats)
Hilary Term 1921 (Greats)
Trinity Term 1921 (Greats)

Academic Year 1921-22
Michaelmas Term 1921 (Greats)
Hilary Term 1922 (Greats)
Trinity Term 1922 (Greats – exam. First Class Honours. B.A.)

Academic Year 1922-23
Michaelmas Term 1922 (English)
Hilary Term 1923 (English)
Trinity Term 1923 (English – exam. First Class Honours. B.A.)

The early history of Lewis at Oxford in relation to University ceremonies is as follows:

  • 4 December 1916 Lewis to Oxford for the college scholarship examination.
  • 14 December 1916 Letter of acceptance received by Lewis; The Times lists successful candidates, with Lewis as a Scholar of University College (known as Univ.).
  • 28 January 1917 Lewis travels to Oxford from Bookham (Kirkpatrick). Interview with Master of Univ., Reginald Walter Macan (1848-1941).
  • 20 March 1917 To Oxford for Responsions.
  • 26 April 1917 Allowed to enter Univ. for the Trinity Term (even though he had failed the mathematics part of Responsions).`
  • 28 April 1917 Matriculated.
  • 7 June 1917 Term ends. Lewis transferred to a battalion of the Cadet Corps which happened to be stationed in Keble College, Oxford. He moves, reluctantly, from Univ. to Keble.
  • 25 September 1917 Gazetted to Third Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry; goes on a month’s After his war service, including recuperation from wounds, Lewis returns to Oxford.
  • January 1919 Return to Univ.
  • March 1921 Takes Hon.Mods exam.
  • 4 April 1921 Reports to his father, AL, that he got a First Class Honours in Hon. Mods.
  • 24 May 1921 Lewis wins Chancellor’s English Essay Prize.
  • 22 June 1921 Lewis participates in Encaenia.
  • June 1922 Greats examinations, lasting six days.
  • 28 July 1922 Viva voce, that is, Lewis’s oral examination.
  • 4 August 1922 Results of Greats announced. Lewis achieves First Class Honours.
  • 5 August 1922 Graduation: B.A. (Honours).
  • 13 October 1922 Lewis begins study in the Honours School of English Language and Literature.
  • 14-19 June 1923 English School examinations.
  • 10 July 1923 Lewis has a viva voce.
  • 16 July 1923 Lewis is listed as First Class Honours in the Honours School of English Language and Literature, along with Neville Coghill and four others.
  • 5 May 1924 Offered a one-year position at Univ. to replace E.F. Carritt, the philosophy tutor, who was going on leave.
  • 14 October 1924 Lewis gave first lecture in philosophy.
  • 20 May 1925 Lewis elected to Magdalen College Fellowship in English Language and Literature.
  • 25 June 1925 Assumes his Magdalen Fellowship.

The remainder of this essay is an explication of the dates and events in the above timetable. Each date/event will be listed individually in bold face, followed by an explanation of whatever is unclear, and some details of the history and meaning of the event. There will also be extracts from Lewis himself and from others that relate to the events. Sometimes these quotations will themselves require explanation, and this will be provided under the heading of NOTES at the end of the section.

A final preliminary explanation must be given of the dignitaries of the University during the time Lewis was in residence.

First in order of precedence was the Chancellor. In Lewis’s time, he was a distinguished Oxonian, elected by Convocation originally for life. Not normally resident in Oxford, the Chancellor is a largely titular (and completely honorary) figure. The current Chancellor at Oxford is Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, while at Cambridge the office is filled by the Duke of Edinburgh.

The Vice-Chancellor is the administrative head of the University. He was appointed annually by the Chancellor from among the heads of colleges, although in practice, before World War II, the heads held the office in rotation, according to seniority as heads, and for two years. This procedure has been changed since and is currently under review again.

There are two Proctors (Senior and Junior, determined by seniority in degree). They are elected by the colleges in a strict rotation for one year. Their functions are threefold. First, they sit on every University Committee; second, they accompany the Vice-Chancellor and sit with him at degree ceremonies and administer all necessary oaths; third, they oversee the general discipline of the University students, with the power to approve University magazines and University clubs, and they patrol the streets with their University Police (wearing bowler-hats and known as “bullers”).

In addition, there are four bedels, not dignitaries themselves, but they accompany the dignitaries on ceremonial occasions as ushers or mace-bearers. Their “maces” (often referred to as pokers) are now staves about three feet long, with a point at one end (a remnant of the ancient business end, no doubt) and blunted at the other. Sometimes the staves are carried reversed, that is, with the blunt end down, and sometimes not. It is not necessary to go into the intricate details of the protocol, any more than it is necessary to rehearse the ornate ceremonies and Latin formulae for the installation of the dignitaries.

4-9 December 1916 Lewis in Oxford for the college scholarship examination.

It is only possible to become a student of the University of Oxford by recommendation of one of the constituent Societies or Colleges. This entails being accepted by a College, which will then make the necessary application to the University. In practice, no student recommended by a College is denied admission.

The first task, then, for a candidate is to be accepted by a College. This can be done by submission of an application in the form appropriate to the desired College, involving educational history, background, academic aspirations, letters of recommendations, and interviews, in a manner not unfamiliar in other universities. Such candidates are usually interviewed, evaluated competitively and the numbers required by the College are approved. They are called Commoners, to distinguish them from Scholars, who achieve membership in another manner.

This other manner is effected by sitting for an open Scholarship examination. This, too, is competitive, highly competitive, but it is a distinct honour to be successful and it includes not only prestige but also perquisites provided by the College, mainly in the provision of free rooms, the remission of fees, and financial grants.

Albert Lewis and Kirkpatrick had obviously discussed the future of Lewis with each other, but the firm opinion of Kirkpatrick was that he should go to university with the idea of achieving, in due course, a Fellowship. Kirkpatrick, because of his professional work as head of Lurgan College, was familiar with how to set about the fulfillment of this plan, and presumably he gave advice on how to proceed. He also suggested Oxford and the attempt at a scholarship.

Albert Lewis wrote: 

Clive has decided to serve in the War, but he also wishes to try his fortunes at Oxford. 

Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves (4 July 1916):

I hear from my father that the fact of my being educated in England will not bring me under the new [Conscription] act. I am therefore going to remain as I am until December when my Oxford exam comes off. After that, I shall of course join the army: but in what exact way, I don’t at present know any more than you do. So there you have the whole yarn. Notice the “of course.”

Lewis, at the age of 18 years, sat for such a scholarship, although it was an examination set by a small number of Colleges acting jointly. New College (his first choice) passed Lewis over, but he was accepted by University College (his second choice), and so became a Scholar of that College.

The examination conditions were not ideal. In a letter to Albert Lewis from 1 Mansfield Road, Oxford, 7 December 1916, Lewis wrote:

This is Thursday and our last papers are on Saturday morning: so I will cross on Monday night if you will kindly make the arrangements. We have so far had General Paper, Latin Prose, Greek and Latin unseen, and English essay. The subject for the latter was Johnson’s “People confound liberty of thinking with liberty of talking” — rather suggestive, tho’ to judge by faces, some did not find it so. I don’t know exactly how I am doing, because my most dangerous things — the two proses — are things you can’t judge for yourself. . . . The place has surpassed my wildest dreams: I never saw anything so beautiful, especially on these frosty moonlight nights: tho’ in the Hall of Oriel where we do our papers it is fearfully cold at about four o’clock on these afternoons. We have most of us tried with varying success to write in gloves. I will see you then on Tuesday morning.

NOTE: The Johnson quote is from Boswell’s Life, 7 May 1773:

Every man has a right to liberty of conscience, and with that the magistrate cannot interfere. People confound liberty of thinking with liberty of talking; nay, with liberty of preaching. Every man has a physical right to think as he pleases; for it cannot be discovered how he thinks. He has not a moral right, for he ought to inform himself, and think justly. But, Sir, no member of a society has a right to teach any doctrine contrary to what the society hold to be true. The magistrate, I say, may be wrong in what he thinks; but while he thinks himself right, he may and ought to enforce what he thinks.

It should also be noted that on the entrance form, Lewis had given his place of education as Malvern College — a place where he had spent but one year. It was a lie and he knew it.

14 December 1916 Letter of acceptance received by Lewis; The Times lists successful candidates, with Lewis as a Scholar of University College (known as Univ.).

The letter read:

This College elects you to a Scholarship (New College having passed you over.) Univ. had expected to award three scholarships in Classics, and Lewis was awarded the second one.

28 January 1917 Lewis travels to Oxford from Bookham (Kirkpatrick).

Interview with Master of Univ., Reginald Walter Macan (1848-1941), nicknamed ‘the Mugger’.

Lewis reported to his father that the Master was a clean-shaven, white-haired, jolly old man, and was very nice indeed. He treated me to about half an hour’s “Oxford manner” and then came gradually round to my own business. Since writing last, he has made enquiries, and it seems that if I pass responsions in March I could “come up” in the following term and join the O.T.C. . . . I am very pleased with my ogre after all . . .

NOTE: O.T.C. is the Officer Training Corps.

NOTE: Responsions was the name of the University (as opposed to College) entrance examination.

NOTE: The meaning of “Mugger” is elusive, as is its appropriateness for the Master of Univ. “To mug up” was to study intensively some subject, and “a mugger” was a person who did that; apart from these academically related meanings, the word meant an unpleasant or undesirable person or thing — clearly, from Lewis’s description of the Master, not appropriate in this case. Some nicknames defy explanation. The story is told of the Mugger that he once remarked to a parent, “I am sorry that we cannot admit your son to the College. He would do very well, we feel, at a different-sized College — either a smaller or a larger College.”

20 March 1917 At Oxford for Responsions, two days of examination.

According to his letter to Arthur Greeves (20 February), Lewis “cast me to be home before the following Monday,” that is before 26 March.

Responsions (colloquially known as ‘Smalls’) was the University entrance examination. His College could not present Lewis for University admission until it had been passed. It was not a particularly difficult examination and passing was generally assumed to be automatic for any student bright enough to win a scholarship. That did not take account of Lewis for he failed the mathematics paper (and there is the suggestion that it was algebra that doomed him). His achievement was good otherwise, but he had been and always was notorious for his ineptitude at mathematics. It seems that one necessary subject was Divinity, but Lewis says nothing about it; presumably he passed this portion of the examination, even though he considered himself an atheist, and it warrants nothing but a single word mention in his letters.

His College, rather surprisingly, said that Lewis could be admitted for Trinity Term (that is, in April 1917), provided that he undertook Responsions again later and passed in all subjects. It is not clear whether he took the examination again, although if he did, it is certain that he failed again because when Lewis returned to Oxford after his war service he took advantage of the provision that had been made for ex-servicemen with six months service and was excused Responsions altogether. He remarks, in Surprised by Joy, that if it had not been for that provision his academic career would have been cut short before it really began.

Much later we learn in a letter from now Cadet Lewis to Albert Lewis, postmarked 8 June 1917 from Keble College:

. . . As to Responsions, I may or may not be able to persuade them to give me three days’ leave to do it in: if they do, I should not think that under the circumstances my chances of passing would be very bright. At any rate, six months’ service with the colours will exempt me from it. . . .

There is no mention in any of the extant letters from Lewis that he took Responsions again between April and June 1917. This letter suggests that he is not going to be able to do so and pass, and that he is quite well aware that if he serves in the army (“with the colours”) then he will be excused. George Sayer, in Jack (p.118), claims that he did take Responsions again but failed again; I do not know the evidence for this assertion.

26 April 1917 Allowed to enter Univ. for the Trinity Term (even though he had failed the mathematics part of Responsions).

The reason for Univ. allowing Lewis to enter had to do with his entry into the O.T.C. (also referred to as the Cadet Corps, although, strictly speaking, the latter name was reserved for units NOT specifically designed to train officers). It was thought that it would improve his chances of getting a commission. It must be remembered that Lewis was Irish, not English, and was, therefore, not obliged to undertake military service. He chose to do so; it was not compulsory. He entered the O.T.C. as a University man; had he not been a University man it is doubtful that he would have been accepted.

Academically, Lewis was supposed to be studying for Responsions and his dean found him a mathematics tutor, J. E. Campbell of Hertford College, but there is no evidence of improvement. His Dean refused to give Lewis an academic program on the grounds that his work for Responsions together with his O.T.C work was enough.

28 April 1917 Matriculated: entered Oxford University

Lewis notebook entry, April 28 1917 (per Jack, p.118): Matriculated. College Library. Entered name in Coll. books.

The ceremony of matriculation was always conducted within two weeks of the student arriving in College (in the case of Lewis, it was within two days). In academic dress, with a white tie, the student is presented by his dean, wearing the gown and hood of his degree, to the Vice-Chancellor. Before presentation, the student pays his matriculation fee and signs his name in the register; but before that, the student must have been accepted by a Society (that is, a College) and passed Responsions or its equivalent.

There is some difficulty here, for although Lewis clearly states that he had entered the College (by having his name in the “Coll. books”), he has NOT passed Responsions and is not, therefore, entitled to matriculate, which, again, he clearly states he has done. There is no evidence that he had passed “an equivalent,” which is highly unlikely anyway since after the war he claims exemption from Responsions because of his war service; this would not have been necessary if he had passed “an equivalent.”

Again, Lewis claims that the ceremony (although a University ceremony) took place in the Univ. College Library, whereas the customary place was in the Divinity School (when numbers were large) or in the Clarendon Building (when they were small). Perhaps the exigencies of war-time Oxford allowed some minor adaptations of the ceremonial site. The absence of success in Responsions is not, however, minor.

Granting the exactness of Lewis’s account (and he had no reason to misrepresent what happened), the Vice-Chancellor would have handed Lewis two books: one, Excerpta e Statutis, (that is, Excerpts from the [University] Statutes) published every year, contained the regulations about terms, examinations, fees, graduation, university scholarships and prizes. The other was Memorandum on the Conduct and Discipline of Junior Members of the University, prepared by the Proctors; this provided the rules for conduct.

The Vice-Chancellor would then have said (if there was only one candidate): Scito te in Matriculam Universitatis hodie relatum esse, et ad observandum omnia Statuta hoc libro comprehensa, quantum ad te spectent, teneri. [Know that you have been today entered in the Register of the University, and are bound to observe all the Statutes contained in this book, as far as they concern you.]

The candidate would then be given a matriculation certificate, signed by the Vice-Chancellor.

7 June 1917 Term ends. Lewis transferred to a battalion of the Cadet Corps which happened to be stationed in Keble College, Oxford. He moves, reluctantly, from Univ. to Keble.

Lewis was thinking of himself as a poet, and wrote to Arthur Greeves on 10 June:

I am in a strangely productive mood at present and spend my few moments of spare time in scribbling verse. When my four months course in the cadet battalion is at an end, I shall, supposing I get a commission all right, have four weeks leave before joining my regiment. During it I propose to get together all the stuff I have perpetrated and see if any kind publisher would like to take it. After that, if the fates decide to kill me at the front, I shall enjoy a nine days immortality while friends who know nothing about poetry imagine that I must have been a genius — what usually happens in such cases. In the meantime my address is —

No.738 Cadet C. S. Lewis, “E” Company, Keble College, Oxford. This is an adumbration of Spirits in Bondage.

NOTE: “Nine days immortality” is an oblique reference to the well-known phrase “nine day wonder,” that is, a marvel of splendid but limited duration; it dates from at least 1374. The usage is ironical because Lewis did not believe in personal immortality at the time, and he is, in the Homeric manner, pretending that he will live on in the fame of his poetry — but only for a short time. Another twist to the phrase is that it was applied to the swiftly trained lieutenants (of whom Lewis expects to be one) of the Great War, who were usually given what was considered a three month course; thus they were referred to as ninety day wonders. Since the historic phrase was more powerful than the arithmetic, they often became “nine day wonders.”

25 September 1917 Gazetted to Third Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry; goes on a month’s leave.

The dates are somewhat suspect, but it appears that Lewis was commissioned in September 1917, gazetted (that is, his appointment was published in an accepted or official journal, in this case The London Gazette) on 25 September, and he began a month’s leave on 29 September. Instead of going to Belfast to see his father, Lewis went to Bristol to be with Mrs Moore, and did not reach Belfast until 12 October. This deeply offended Albert Lewis. And the anticipated collecting and editing of the poems did not take place, apparently; it was finally accomplished while Lewis was recuperating from his wounds, June-August 1918, and the “cycle of lyrics” was subsequently published as Spirits in Bondage in March 1919 by Heinemann.

January 1919 Return to Univ.

Demobilized or, colloquially, “demobbed”, that is, released from the army, Lewis returns unexpectedly to Belfast on 27 December 1918, finds Warren there, and after a short stay resumes his career at Oxford in January 1919. Lewis was quite frank with his tutor, Arthur Poynton, about his ambition to become a fellow of an Oxford college, and he was urged to study for Honour Mods. first, rather than to proceed directly to Literae Humaniores or ‘Greats,’ as it is familiarly called. He could, by reason of his war service, have been excused from Hon. Mods., but by taking his time he could expect to get better examination results. The one handicap he suffered was that he had read only thirty books of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey with Kirkpatrick, leaving him eighteen “to the bad.”

NOTE: Arthur Blackburne Poynton (1876-1944) was a classicist who later became Master of Univ. (1935-37).

A candidate for the degree of Bachelor of Arts at Oxford must, first, pass Responsions or its equivalent or be excused (as Lewis was on account of his war service) and, second, after being admitted to the University, pass two sets of examinations and “keep” a set number of terms. The various Schools (differentiated by what might loosely be called subject-matter) usually awarded Honours degrees to their successful students. In addition to passing the examinations, most of them required the student to “keep” nine terms, with the exception of Literae Humaniores or Greats (and some other Schools), which required twelve terms.

Three academic years (or nine terms) for a bachelor’s degree is the norm at English universities, and it was and is possible to complete Greats in that length of time by taking a special two-term Preliminary Examination instead of Honour Moderations in Classics (which requires five terms). Most candidates elect for the four year course as Lewis did. It should be pointed out that during the two years prior to admission to University, an English student would have been concentrating at school on only two or three subjects related to his chosen field. The depth of study is probably equivalent to the first two years of an American college, but it lacks their breadth. Specialization began — and still begins — early.

The five-term course of study for Honour Moderations in Classics demands a competence in reading both Greek and Latin and an extensive knowledge of the two literatures. There are three components:

  1. Translation and composition (verse is optional);
  2. Wide reading, especially in Homer and Virgil;
  3. An intensive study of special books (including textual problems) and of special subjects, such as the history of Greek tragedy or comparative philology.

After Hon. Mods., the seven-term course in Greats consists of philosophy and ancient history, each carrying the same weight. For the latter, there are set periods in both Greek and Roman history, and the candidate chooses one from each, plus a paper on ancient history and historiography. All periods require reference to original sources, such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, but emphasis is on the ability to handle historical questions and the critical assessment of evidence.

In philosophy, in Lewis’s day, it was mainly ancient philosophy, including prescribed texts of Plato and Aristotle; there were two further papers in Logic and in Moral/Political Philosophy. Logic is not merely formal logic, but includes problems about perception, the analysis and elucidation of such fundamental concepts as meaning, necessity, causation, probability and truth, and so forth.

The written examinations for both Hon. Mods. and for Greats were marked (i.e. graded) and, as a result, candidates were provisionally assigned to one of four classes, namely, First, Second, Third, and Fourth Class Honours. These provisional assignations were confirmed by the examiners at a viva voce or oral examination (see below). If the examiners did not think a candidate worthy of being placed in one of the four classes, they could award what was called a Pass. Some Schools offered only a Pass degree. If a student was considered totally unworthy he could be “ploughed,” that is, failed. It used to be quite common for a student to enter for a Pass degree rather than an Honours degree, but this has almost disappeared.

The only other designation for a degree was an Aegrotat, awarded if the candidate was unable to take all or part of the final examinations because of illness. If his college work was considered worthy, he could be awarded a degree. The most memorable example of this award was to Walter Carruther Sellar who claimed it on the title page of the 1930 classic 1066 and All That, co-authored with Robert Julian Yeatman who lists his academic credentials as Failed M.A, Etc: Oxon. Both credentials are correct (Sellar was sick, and Yeatman could not pay the necessary fees for his M.A.); both authors were contemporaries of Lewis at Oxford, and, like him, had been wounded while serving in the war. There is no evidence that they ever met.

In a letter to his father postmarked 8 December 1920, Lewis writes:

I have however been recommended to try for the Vice Chancellor’s Essay Prize next April. The subject is “Optimism” under which heading one could include almost anything one wanted to write about. My point of view will be mainly metaphysical and rather dry. It would be a splendid advertisement if I could pull it off, but of course competition is very keen . . .

This is the first mention of the Prize Essay. It is significant that Lewis does not report who made the recommendation. If it had been his tutor or the Master of Univ. he would surely have reported it to his father for it would have increased his stature. The absence of a name suggests very strongly that it was a self-recommendation, which makes the ambition and arrogance of Lewis all the more striking.

March 1921 Takes Hon.Mods exam.

4 April 1921 Reports to AL that he got a First in Hon. Mods.

The announcement of the examination results were posted as follows:

Nomina Candidatorum
qui termino_____A.D.______
a Moderatoribus
In schola Literarum Graecarum et Latinarum
honore digni sunt habiti, in unaquaque classe
secundum seriem literarum disposita
Classis I Classis II
A.B. e Coll. A.B. ex Aul.
C.D. ex Aul. C.D. e Soc.
E.F. e Soc. E.F. e Coll.

Classis III Classis IV
A .B e Soc. A.B. e Coll.
C.D. e Coll. C.D. e Soc.
E.F. ex Aul. E.F. ex Aul.

A.B., C.D., E.F., G.H., I.K., Moderatores

Obviously, the initials stand for names, although it should in no way be imagined that the numbers in the four classes were equal. Firsts were rare and highly prized. Soc., Coll., and Aul., are abbreviations for the Latin words for Society, College, and Hall, names by which what we think of generically as colleges variously call themselves.

24 May 1921 Lewis wins Chancellor’s English Essay Prize .

The accounts that Lewis gives of his involvement with the Chancellor’s English Prize Essay are often disingenuous. To enter the competition was not something that undergraduates clamoured to do; the number of entries was comparatively small and Lewis made a very deliberate and conscious decision to enter, evidently for the sake of the glory. He was ambitious and wanted the accolade.

Although he pretends not to know the regulations and procedure, he must have studied them very carefully before embarking on the actual writing of his essay. He affects a rather off-hand knowledge of them, as if it were un-gentlemanly to be too precise, or as if it would betray his high ambition if he seems to have taken the whole affair too seriously.

The following extracts are from the 1932 edition of Excerpta e Statutis, pp. 407-8. While the subjects proposed are different from those of Lewis’s year of 1921, the regulations are the same:

II. Prizes

Chancellor’s and Newdigate Prizes.

I. Chancellor’s

The following subjects are proposed for the Chancellor’s Prizes for the year 1933:

For Latin Verse: hmei toi paterwn meg’ ameinons eucomeq’ einai. z
For Latin Prose: J. Milton, Areopagitica, pp.44-50, Clarendon Press (Hales) 1928 reprint, ‘Lords and Commons . . . . above all liberties.’
For an English Essay: ‘The Coffee-houses of the Eighteenth Century.’

These prizes are open to all members of the University of either sex who on 31 March, 1933, will not have exceeded four years from their matriculation.

The length of the English Essay should not exceed 30-35 printed pages, allowing about 360 words to each printed page. The Latin verse should not exceed 250 lines. Candidates are not restricted to the use of hexameters, but are at liberty to use any metre which they think suitable to their subject.

2. Sir Roger Newdigate’s.

For the best composition in English Verse by any undergraduate who has not
exceeded four years from his or her matriculation.

The subject proposed for 1933 is ‘Ovid among the Goths.’

The length of the poem is not to exceed 300 lines. The metre is not restricted to heroic couplets; but dramatic form of composition is not allowed.


In every case the time is computed by calendar, not academical years, and strictly from the day of matriculation to 31 March, 1933, without reference to any intervening circumstances whatever.

No person who has already obtained a prize will be entitled to a second prize of the same description.

The exercises must be sent to the Registrar of the University, at the University Registry, before 5 p.m. on 31 March, 1933.

No entry can be accepted which does not comply with the following special regulations:

1. Three typed copies of the exercise must be sent, and the words ‘Three typed copies enclosed’ must appear on the envelope.
2. Each composition must be distinguished by a motto, and the author is required to conceal his name.
3. In a separate sealed envelope, with the same motto inscribed upon it, the name and date of matriculation must be enclosed.

Manuscript corrections, if any such are necessary, should not be in the candidate’s handwriting.

Such portions of the successful compositions will be recited in the Theatre upon the Commemoration Day as the Public Orator and the Professor of Poetry shall appoint.

In practice, the appointed “portions” were chosen, it seems, by the successful prize-winner (not by the Public Orator and/or the Professor of Poetry) and were limited to a duration of two minutes. For obscure reasons, the Public Orator and the Professor of Poetry took the responsibility for participating in the ceremony in alternate years.

Early in 1921, Lewis had begun to write his essay on the assigned topic, “Optimism.” He records that he had felt almost inspired while writing it:

I have almost lived with my pen to the paper. It has been one of those rare periods . . . when everything becomes clear and we see the way before us.

It was completed and handed into the University Registrar just before the deadline, it seems, since Lewis, in the letter below, indicates that on 28 March it has not been “launched into the Registrar’s box.”

In a letter to Albert Lewis dated 28 March 1921, Lewis writes:

. . . .You ask whether I am satisfied with my Optimism, and I am afraid I hardly know. For one thing I almost know it by heart, and consequently can least of all judge it impartially . . . At any rate, it has given me, in parts, as much trouble as anything I have ever done and I shall be glad to have it launched into the registrar’s box for good and all and to leave the rest on the knees of the gods. Only don’t expect any results. You see I am afraid I have rather fallen between two stools: it has to aim at being both literary and philosophical, and, in the effort to accomplish the double object, I have made it too literary for the philosophers and too metaphysical for the dons of English Literature. These are the pitfalls with which the walks of Academe are digged. Such things are written for a tiny public of appointed judges, and you never know what their particular point of view is going to be: they are only human beings and must have tastes and tempers of their own, but one can’t find these out. It must be difficult to be quite fair to an essay which expresses some view that you have been denouncing to a submissive Senior Common Room for the last half century, however good it may be . . .

NOTE: “These are the pitfalls with which the walks of Academe are digged.” The language is modelled after the King James Version, as, for example, Psalm 57:

They have prepared a net for my steps; my soul is bowed down: they have digged a pit before me . . .

But it might equally well be adapted from Milton or the Book of Common Prayer.

That the Prize Competition was important to Lewis is evidenced in the anxiety in his letter to his father, dated 9 May 1921:

There is still no news of Optimism, and by now little optimism among those who await the news. I should have thought that they could have decided on the productions before this: an unsettled possibility like that becomes in the end a nuisance at the back of one’s mind.

But on 24 May it was announced that Lewis had won the Prize: of course, he told his father (probably by wire, to which Albert replied). Lewis wrote a few days later, on 29 May 1921:

Thank you very much for your wire and the letter: I am very glad to have been able to send you good news. I had almost lost heart about the thing, it dragged on so long. Everyone has been very nice about it, particularly the Mugger [the Master of Univ.] who is delighted, and this ought to be of use to me later on. Some of my congratulations indeed have made me feel rather ashamed, coming from people I have been used to class generically as ‘louts.’ By louts I denote great beefy people unknown to me by name, men with too much money and athletic honour, who stand blocking up passages. If looks could kill I’m afraid they would often have been in danger as I shouldered my way through them. Now they have weighed in with polite remarks and gratified my vanity with the grand-paternal “No. Does HE know ME?” I suppose the explanation is that in their view we have done so badly on the river that any success even in so unimportant a field as letters — should be encouraged.

I have also had a letter from Blackwell offering to see me about publishing it, and have, as a formality, written to Heinemann’s. In any case I am not sure what to do about that: I shall certainly not spend any money (nor allow you to, tho’ I know you gladly would) on forcing it into print if publishers won’t take the risk. I have always thought that a bad thing to do. Perhaps publication in some periodical might provide a compromise: it would remind people that I exist and yet it would not give too permanent a form to any opinion or argument that I may outgrow later on. At worst, if any one would like it, it would mean a five pound note and enable you and everyone else to read it decently printed instead of in type. If all these plans fall through, or if they are likely to take a long time, I will get another copy done and send it to you. You must not expect too much: the trains of argument are rather dull and I am afraid this effect is not neutralized by anything more than adequacy in the form. No purple patches — hardly a faint blue. But I must drop the annoying habit of anticipating your judgement. . . . I haven’t heard anything about the prize — I think it is in money — not very much — and there are some books from College. . . .

NOTE: The inquiry from Blackwell (the well-known Oxford bookseller and publisher) was almost certainly routine, in the sense that it was a possible business opportunity. Prize Essays were not usually best-sellers and would probably require subsidizing (as Lewis well knows). There were exceptions; the most notable that comes to mind is the Chancellor’s Prize Essay by Hastings Rashdall, later published by Oxford in three volumes in 1895, on the medieval universities of Europe. In the 1936 edition, revised by F.M. Powicke and A.B. Emden, it is still a standard work.

NOTE: Writing to Heinemann’s was “a formality” because this firm published Lewis’s cycle of lyrics, Spirits in Bondage, in 1919 and, by the terms of their contract, had a first refusal on anything that Lewis wrote. The Prize Essay was not the kind of writing that they were interested in, which is why it is “a formality.”

NOTE: The term “purple patches” is derived from a phrase in the Roman poet Horace, often translated as “purple passages.” It is to be found in De Arte Poetica, On The Art of Poetry, (c.19 B.C.E.):

Inceptis gravibus plerumque et magna professis,
Purpureus, late qui splendeat, unus et alter
Adsuitur pannus.

This may be translated “At the beginning of a great many large and weighty projects, one or two pieces of purple cloth are sown to them so that they might shine throughout.” “Purpureus” has a wider meaning than the noble color purple; more generally it can mean bright and beautiful. While “purple passages” certainly suggests richness of style and vocabulary (and even over-writing) and thus may pay tribute to the writing in question, it often suggests that the remainder of the written work is of an ordinary or even inferior quality.

NOTE: Lewis lies when he says that he does not know the amount of the Prize money, as is witnessed by the following letter.

Lewis told more to Arthur Greeves, in a letter dated June 1921:

So many things have happened since we last met that it is no use to attempt chronology: I may as well begin with what is, I must admit, uppermost in my mind — this Chancellor’s prize, that you ask about. It is set every year for the whole university and decided by seven judges chosen in rotation. The subject this year was ‘Optimism.’ Suitable to my family, as you probably guessed! The actual prize is 20 pounds in money (that is in strict secrecy — I don’t want the fact disclosed at home until it has to be) but of course it is much more valuable as a means of self advertisement and may help me towards a job one of these days: it serves a little to mark you out from the crowd. I liked the subject and took a lot of trouble and am consequently very pleased. The essay may possibly be published — I don’t know yet: in any case, I don’t think anyone at home will care much for it — its rather dull and metaphysical.

No copy of the Prize Essay has survived, unless there is one hidden in the University archives somewhere. When Warren Lewis prepared the Lewis Papers, he wrote:

Albert’s copy of the ‘Essay on Optimism’ survives with, written on it in the top left hand corner, ‘A. J. L. with love from J. July 1921.’ I do not however propose to reproduce the whole or any part of the essay, for it is, as Clive has prophesied it would be, ‘rather dry and metaphysical,’ being in fact a purely philosophical discussion of the matter. (L.P., vol. VI, p.321., by permission of the Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Illinois)

By implication, Warren’s copy does not survive either — that is, he clearly felt that he did not need to preserve it. Thus, it seems fairly certain that we shall never know the content of Lewis’s “Optimism.”

We can surmise some things about it. First, it must have been about 12,000 words; second, it was in two distinct parts; the first and shorter part dealt with the relation of the existence or non-existence of God to optimism, concluding that whether God existed or not made no difference to the philosophical basis of optimism; the second and major part, was a metaphysical disquisition on the prescribed topic, although not without its “insolent” parts.

22 June 1921 Lewis participates in Encaenia.

The Encaenia is the University of Oxford’s annual Commemoration of Founders and Benefactors; it begins at 12 noon on the Wednesday in the ninth week from the beginning of Trinity Full Term. In 1921, this fell on 22 June. The Encaenia is the most elaborate of all Oxford ceremonies, and is particularly noted for welcoming distinguished guests and for awarding honorary degrees.

The name comes from the Greek, by way of Latin. The noun egkainia meant a feast at the dedication, for example, of a temple, and this comes from the verb egkainzw meaning to innovate, renew or renovate. The last meaning gives the clue to the words derivation from en + kainoV= with + new.

In Latin, encaenia meant simply a festival

Strictly, the c should be hard, that is, = k (pronounced en-kay-nee-ah) but in practice the c is soft as in ceiling, so that the accepted pronunciation is en-see-nee-ah. The word as the title for a ceremony is peculiar to Oxford. At Cambridge, the word for the corresponding ceremony is Commencement, which suggests related but not identical meanings to American ears.

The Encaenia was the ceremonial high-point of what is known in Oxford as Commem. — that is, Commemoration Week, a week of academic, ceremonial, and social festivity.

From early medieval times until 1669 there was an annual university celebration called the Act, preceded by Vespers, all in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Gradually, the ceremony degenerated and became, to say the least, secular. The vulgarity and grossness was carried to intolerable lengths particularly by one character in the celebration, the Terrae Filius (or Son of the Earth). The occasion for this was the “commendation” of the degree recipients by their master, but this insensibly became an opportunity for ribaldry. For example, in 1420, a certain Dobbys of Merton College was thus commended:

Mr Dobbys’s name denotes duplicity and fickleness, because firstly D stands for Duplex; secondly, his name has two syllables; thirdly, it has a double B in the middle; and fourthly bis at the very end. Mr Dobbys has a large head, a very low forehead, beetling eyebrows, black staring eyes, a monstrous mouth, a large nose, a protruding upper lip, and big ears; features which prove him undisciplined, choleric, unsteady, impetuous, proud, feeble, fatuous, unvirtuous, greedy, wicked, rough, quarrelsome, abusive, foolish, and ignorant. (Bodl. Quarterly Record, vi.107-8)

Finally, the conscience of the University was aroused and it became necessary, first, to move out of St. Mary the Virgin’s Church, and, second, to find a more appropriate place. This was done by the munificence of Gilbert Sheldon, the Archbishop of Canterbury (and former Warden of All Souls’ College, Oxford), who had built what came to be called the Sheldonian Theatre as a place for academical exercises. It was designed, specifically for the Act or Encaenia, by Christopher Wren (whose first work had been the Chapel for Pembroke College, Cambridge, and who was later known for the new St Paul’s Cathedral in London after the Great Fire of 1666).

The dedication (encaenia) of the Sheldonian in 1669 was observed every year thereafter. Attempts were made to continue the Act, but disorder persisted, and in 1713 restrictions were imposed on what might be said and done; in 1733 the full Act was revived for the last time and was made memorable by a series of organ concerts by Handel:

One Handel, a forreigner (who, they say, was born at Hanover) being desired to come to Oxford, to perform in Musick this Act, in which he hath great skill, is come down, the Vice-Chancellour (Dr Holmes) having requested him to do so, and as an encouragement, to allow him the Benefit of the Theatre both before the Act begins and after it. Accordingly he hath published Papers for a performance today at 5 s[hillings] a Ticket. This performance began a little after 5 o’clock in the evening. This is an innovation. (from Hearne, Collections, xi.224)

Shortly before the time of the Encaenia, the ‘Noblemen, Heads of Houses, Doctors, Proctors, and gentlemen who partake of Lord Crewe’s benefaction’ (so runs the old formula) meet the Chancellor (or, in his absence, the Vice-Chancellor) in the hall of the Vice-Chancellor’s college. They then enjoy ‘Lord Crewe’s benefaction,’ a collation which traditionally includes peaches (or, some say, strawberries) and champagne.

NOTE: Nathaniel Crewe (1633-1721) was bishop of Oxford and, later, of Durham. He was a benefactor of Oxford University and of Lincoln College. His name has become a symbol of all other benefactions, and in the Creweian Oration (see below) the benefactors of the preceding year are acknowledged. All the benefactors are commemorated, by name, in a University Sermon on the first day of Full Term and on the Sunday before the Encaenia.

Statutum est, quod in concione ante meridien in die Domino praecedente
Encaenia, per quemcumque concionaturum expressa et grata fiat Commemoratio
publicorum Universitatis Oxoniensis Benefactorum.

It takes more than ten minutes for the preacher to read through the list.

A procession is then formed, with an escort, consisting of The University Marshal, carrying a silver wand, followed by Six bedels (two more than the usual number). Then comes the Chancellor (if he/she is presiding), in full robes, with a scholar in evening dress as train-bearer, Next the Vice-Chancellor the doctors in order of their Faculties (Theology, Medicine, Law, and Music), if they are members of Convocation, the Proctors the Heads of Houses who are not doctors. Then come the new honorary doctors, in robes, and in order of Faculties, and finally, the Public Orator and the University Registrar.

The procession comes into the Sheldonian Theatre by the south door, having entered the Bodleian quadrangle by the gate of the Schools, opposite Hertford College (it is only opened on ceremonial occasions) and gone through the Pro-scholium into the Divinity School (where those to be awarded honorary degrees remain).

Inside the Theatre, all members of the University wear full academical dress. Doctors sit in the semicircle, heads of Houses who are not doctors sit immediately in front of the semicircle, Masters in the area or open space in the center. The lower and other galleries are allotted to strangers, but members of the University (other than doctors or masters) have a right to the upper gallery.

The meeting is really of what is called Convocation, an assembly made up of all masters of arts and those holding higher degrees who have kept up their membership of the University by paying the necessary fees. It has certain powers, quite limited, and the real governing body of the University is called Congregation, made up of those members of Convocation who are also teachers or administrators in the University.

This meeting of Convocation, the Encaenia, is witnessed by those who are not members, but they merely witness. While they await the procession, they are entertained with an organ recital.

When the Chancellor enters the Theatre at the head of the procession, all rise and, after some appropriate music while places are found, the National Anthem is played.

All being seated, the Chancellor touches his cap with his forefinger (he never removes it, except when greeting those awarded honorary degrees), and then says:

Causa huius Convocationis est ut iuxta institutionem Honoratissimi et Reverendi admodum Nathaniel, Baronis Crewe, Episcopi Dunelmensis, grata celebretur piorum Benefactorum et Fundatorum Commemoratio; ut, si vobis placuerit, gradus in . . . .in Viros Illustrissimos conferantur honoris causa; ut exercitationes variae Domini Cancellarii aliorumque praemiis donatae publice coram vobis recitentur; necnon ut alia peragantur, quae ad Venerabilem hanc domum spectant.

That is:

The pupose of this convocation is that according to the foundation of the most Honourable and Reverend Nathaniel, Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham, thankful commemoration be made of pious benefactors and founders: that, if it shall please you, honorary degrees in . . . . be conferred on most eminent men; that various exercises which have received the prizes of the Chancellor and of others be publicly recited; and that other business of this Venerable House be transacted.

The Chancellor then puts the honorary degrees to the vote, each in turn, touching his cap to the House, to the Doctors, and to the Masters; the Proctors raise their caps whenever the Chancellor touches his.

Placetne Venerabili Convocationi ut in Virum . . . gradus Doctoris in . . . conferatur honoris causa? Placetne vobis, Domini Doctores? Placetne vobis, Magistri?


Does it please the Venerable Convocation that the Degree of Doctor in . . . be conferred on . . . honoris causa? Does it please you, Doctors? Does it please you, Masters?

The bedels are then sent to escort the new doctors; they have been signing their names in the University records in the Divinity School. Each is then admitted, in turn, by a very complicated procedure, and is greeted by the Chancellor, who stands for the occasion. After admission, they are seated, alternately, on either side of the Chancellor.

When finished, the Chancellor touches his cap to the rostrum on his left (that is, over the east door); this is a sign to the Public Orator (or the Professor of Poetry, for they alternate years) to deliver the Creweian Oration. This is in Latin, and recounts the events of the past academic year — much being taken up with obituary notices and benefactors of the past year. When the Oration is completed, the Chancellor touches his cap, this time to the rostrum on the right and then to the one on the left. This is the sign that extracts shall now be read from the various prize compositions, and in the following order, but read alternately from the two rostra:

Stanhope Essay (east)
Latin Prose (west)
Gladstone Essay (east)
Latin Verse (west)
English Essay (east)
Newdigate Poem (west)

On the occasion of Lewis reading a section of his prize essay, he entangled himself with the Professor of Poetry (W.P. Ker) who had not vacated the rostrum after delivering his Oration from the east.

After the Newdigate Poem extract, the Chancellor and Proctors rise; the Chancellor touches his cap and says:

Dissolvimus hanc Convocationem.


We dissolve this Convocation.

The Chancellor, escorted by the bedels, then leaves the Theatre, and everybody else follows as best they can.

The Encaenia is the only public event on this day, but there are many formal lunches and garden parties later; at these events full academic dress is worn — robes for doctors, gowns and hoods for other degrees. But the Chancellor, if he is present at any of these events, wears the robes of his degree and not his Chancellor’s robes.

In a letter to Albert Lewis dated 27 June 1921, Lewis wrote:

The event of last week was one of unforseen consequences of my winning ‘Optimism.’ I had almost forgotten, if I had ever known, that ‘prizemen’ have to read portions of their compositions at our ceremony of Encaenia. Being of the troglodytic nature I have never before exerted myself so far as to assist at this show; but having now been compelled, I am glad.

It is a most curious business. We unhappy performers attend (tho’ it is at noon) in caps, gowns, and full evening dress. It was held in the Sheldonian Theatre: I think Macaulay has a purple passage about “the painted roof of the Sheldonian” under which Charles held his last parliament. During the long wait while people trickled in, an organ (much too large for the building) gave a recital. The undergraduates and their guests sit round in the galleries; the ‘floor’ is occupied by the graduates en masse, standing at barriers in all their war-paint. At noon the Vice-Chancellor enters with his procession of ‘Heads of Colleges, Doctors, Proctors, and Noblemen’ — a very strange show they make, half splendid and half grotesque, for few Don’s faces are fit to bear up against the scarlet and blue and silver of their robes.

Then some backchat from the Vice-Chancellor’s throne and the Public Orator led in the persons who were to receive honorary degrees; with the exception of Clemenceau and Keyes (the Zeebruggeman) they were not well known to the world at large. Keyes was a very honest-looking fellow and Clemenceau the tough, burly, ‘people’s man’ whom one expected; but what was beyond all was the canon of Notre Dame; a great theologian apparently, with some name like Raffitol [Batiffol]. Such a picture of a great priest with all the pale dignity that one has imagined, I never saw. If the words “love at first sight” were not tied down to one kind of feeling only, I would almost use them to express the way this man attracted me. He would have appealed to you immensely.

After the honorary degrees the Professor of Poetry made an “oration” in Latin, chiefly about colleagues who had died during the last year; this was my first experience of spoken Latin and I was pleased to find that I could follow and enjoy it.

The performance of us prizemen was of course very small beer after all this. We had been instructed to read for about two minutes each; I had some difficulty in finding a short passage which would be intelligible by itself. I was, of course, nervous: I am told that I was the first of our little band whom Clemenceau looked at: but as I do not know WITH WHAT EXPRESSION he looked, nor whether he speaks English, we must remain in doubt whether this was a compliment or not.

I have had a good lesson in modesty from seeing my fellow-prizemen. I was hardly prepared for such a collection of scrubby, beetle-like, bespectacled oddities: only one of them appeared to be a gentleman. Any I spoke to sounded very like fools, perhaps like Goldsmith, they “writ like an angel and talked like poor Poll.” It brings home to one how little I know
of Oxford; I am apt to regard my own set, which consists mainly of literary gents, with a smattering of political, musical and philosophical — as being central, normal, representative. But step out of it, into the athletes on one side or the pale pot-hunters on the other, and it is a strange planet. . . .

The first paragraph of this letter continues the disingenuous affectation that Lewis knew little about the Prize Essay competition, for it is impossible that he did not know of the reading at Encaenia.

NOTE: The term “purple passage” is discussed above. Alexander Pope seems to refer to the idea in An Essay on Criticism:

A vile Conceit in pompous words express’d
Is like a clown in regal purple dress’d.

Strangely enough, though, it is held that Macaulay himself popularized the expression in England.

NOTE: Macaulay is Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), who, after a brilliant career at Cambridge devoted his energies to literature, writing both poetry and essays, and politics. He was an incomparable debater, entered Parliament in 1830, and by 1845 had begun his History of England from the Accession of James II. This was never completed for it ends with the death of William III, but it is still readily available. Its five volumes makes good and entertaining reading but they are inaccurate, untruthful, and full of bias. Lewis read the History in 1917, and mentions it in his letters to Arthur Greeves; of Vol.II he says “an admirable book, tho’ of course the writer is too much of a Whig and puritan for my taste: the old cavaliers were at any rate gentlemen.” Earlier he had remarked, “What a nice man James [brother of Charles II and later King James II] must have been.” In 1923, his views have changed somewhat:

This is the first time I have looked into Macaulay for many years: I hope it will be many years before I read him again. It’s not the style (in the narrower sense) that’s the trouble — it’s a very good style within its own limits. But the man is a humbug — a vulgar, shallow, self-satisfied mind, absolutely inaccessible to the complexities and delicacies of the real world. He has the journalist’s air of being a specialist in everything, of taking in all points of view and being always on the side of the angels: he merely annoys a reader who has the least experience of knowing things, of what knowing is like. There is not two pence worth of real thought or real nobility in him. But he isn’t dull.

The “purple passage” would seem to be the following, from Vol. II of the History of England, pp.214-5:

The power of these bodies [i.e. the universities of Oxford and Cambridge] has during many ages been great; but it was at the height during the latter part of the seventeenth century. None of the neighbouring countries could boast of such splendid and opulent seats of learning. The schools of Edinburgh and Glasgow, of Leyden and Utrecht, of Louvain and Gottingen, of Padua and Bologna, seemed mean to scholars who had been educated in the magnificent foundations of Wykeham and Wolsey, of Henry the Sixth and Henry the Eighth. Literature and science were, in the academical system of England, surrounded with pomp, armed with magistracy, and closely allied with all the most august institutions of the state. To be the chancellor of a university was a distinction eagerly sought by the magnates of the realm. To represent a university in parliament was a favourite object of the ambition of statesmen. Nobles and even princes were proud to receive from a university the privilege of wearing the doctoral scarlet. The curious were attracted to the universities by ancient buildings rich with the tracery of the middle ages, by modern buildings which exhibited the highest skill of Jones and Wren, by noble halls and chapels, by museums, by botanical gardens, and by the only great public libraries which the kingdom then contained. The state which Oxford especially displayed on solemn occasions rivalled that of sovereign princes. When her chancellor, the venerable Duke of Ormond, [the Chancellor of Oxford University in 1669] sate in his embroidered mantle on his throne under the painted ceiling of the Sheldonian theatre, surrounded by hundreds of graduates robed according to their rank, while the noblest youths of England were solemnly presented to him as candidates for academical honours, he made an appearance scarcely less regal that that which his master made in the banqueting-house of Whitehall. At the universities had been formed the minds of almost all the eminent clergymen, lawyers, physicians, wits, poets, and orators of the land, and of a large proportion of the nobility and of the opulent gentry.

The Sheldonian was begun in 1664 and dedicated in 1669; it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, then aged 31 and Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, after the plan of the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome (B.C.E.23-13). Its beautifully painted ceiling was executed by Robert Streeter or Streater, the Serjeant Painter to the King, who died in 1680. It represents an allegorical scene, designed to give the illusion of an awning held up by ropes (thus imitating the protection of ancient theaters). The subject is Truth descending upon the Arts and Sciences; a detailed explanation of the elaborate imagery can be found in Dr Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire. Macaulay certainly mentions the painted ceiling, but he does not describe it in purple or any other color prose; it is merely mentioned. The ceiling, while very impressive, hides one of Wren’s greatest engineering achievements. The Sheldonian is more than seventy feet across and, in the absence of interior columns (which would spoil the sense of a Roman theater), special roof trusses had to be designed to span this large distance. Wren did this, and gained great credit in both scientific and architectural circles.

King Charles II held his fourth and last Parliament in 1681. It was summoned to meet at Oxford.

The University buildings had been made ready for the use of Parliament. The Commons sat in Convocation House, and the Lords in the Geometry School; the rest of the Schools were given up to the various Parliamentary Committees . . . On the eighth day of the session the King appeared suddenly in the House of Lords . . . in the robes of State. In those Robes alone could he dissolve Parliament. He spoke the fateful words and left the room . . .”

(G.M. Trevelyan, England Under the Stuarts.)

It was 28 March 1681. There is no mention of the Sheldonian Theatre.

The constitutional aspect of this last Parliament was that, since Charles could not control it, he decided to rule without it — which he did for the last five years of his reign.

The Oxford Divinity School (1423-1483), the entrance of which is in the courtyard of the Sheldonian, is also noted for its ceiling, not painted but richly carved. It has an exceptionally fine Perpendicular Gothic fan-vaulted roof, dating from 1445-1480, and it is recorded of Charles II that, in March 1681, he spent “some time in viewing the roofe thereof, so much admired by forreigners for its great varietie of exquisite sculpture.” After the Divinity School, Charles entered the quadrangle of Bodley and “beheld on the top of the tower thereof the exact effigies of his grandfather [King James I] . . .the statue of Alma Mater Academiae, and that of Fame . . .” (Wood, Life and Times). The Divinity School adjoins the Convocation House (which dates only from 1634).

The Sheldonian Theatre certainly has a “painted roof,” and it is certainly worth a “purple passage,” even though it did not get one from Macaulay. There is no evidence that the Sheldonian was used (as other Oxford buildings certainly were) by Charles II’s last Parliament. Lewis does not make any explicit statement attributing praise of the ceiling to Charles, but there seems to be some vague connection in his mind and a dim and incoherent recollection of Charles praising a ceiling [in fact, the Divinity School fan-vaulting] during the time of his last Parliament.

The Divinity School is now surmounted by an upper storey (added in 1444) which houses Duke Humphrey’s Library where Lewis did much of the reading and research for his volume in the Oxford History of English Literature.

NOTE: Lewis’s comment about the organ being “much too large for the building” is well taken. The present organ, designed by Sir Thomas Jackson, was installed in 1876.

NOTE: During the Great War (or WWI, as it is now usually called), Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) was the Prime Minster and Minister for War of France, 1917-1920. He was the leader of the extreme left in the French National Assembly and earned himself the title of “destroyer of ministries.” He was, indeed, a tough and resilient fighter, symbolized by his other nickname, “The Tiger,” and he had never withheld outspoken criticism, although this brought him into conflict with the French war-time censorship. He had the simple motto “Je fais la guerre.” Among his many achievements must be his leadership in and sustainer of French morale and the nation’s resolve to fight.

NOTE: Vice-Admiral Sir Roger Keyes (1872-1945) became a national hero when, as Commodore Sir Roger Keyes, he led the raid on Zeebrugge on the Belgian coast in 1918. Zeebrugge was only 62 miles from Dover and served as a most convenient base for German submarines and destroyers intent on harrassing British shipping in the English Channel. The newspaper accounts of the attacks to block the harbors of both Zeebrugge and Ostend were glowing, citing individual acts of heroism most appropriate for the day of the assault, 23 April, for it is the day of the Patron Saint of England, St George. The effect on English morale was significant, not least because there were daily reports of German land victories in Flanders and the French channel ports of Calais and Boulogne were in jeopardy. After the 1914-18 War, Keyes was promoted and became commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean (1925-29), commander Portsmouth (1929-31), and, after retirement, Member of Parliament for Portsmouth. He was recalled to duty in 1940 and served as director of combined operations, the commandos (1940-41).

NOTE: The Canon of Notre-Dame de Paris was the Rt. Rev. Monseigneur Pierre Batiffol (1861-1929), a distinguished Church historian noted for his contributions to patristic studies and the history of the early church.

NOTE: “Writ like an angel and talked like poor Poll” is part of an impromptu epitaph by the actor David Garrick on Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774). The complete and exact quotation is:

Here lies Nolly Goldsmith, for shortness called Noll,
Who wrote like an angel, but talk’d like poor Poll.

Lewis letter to his brother, Warren, 1 July 1921:

The great event of MY term was of course “Optimism.” I must thank you for your congratulations before going on: THEY were provoked by the event, but the consequences of it will move your ribaldry. “Prizemen,” the Statutes say, “will read at the Encaenia portions of their exercises (I like that word) — their exercises chosen by the Professor of Poetry and the Public Orator.” Sounds dam’ fine, doesn’t it? But the Statutes omit to mention the very cream of the whole situation — namely that the prizemen will appear in full evening dress. Fancy me entering the Sheldonian at 11.30 a.m. on a fine June morning in a cap, gown, boiled shirt, pumps, white tie and tails. Of course it was a “broiling” day as the P’daytabird [i.e., Albert Lewis] would say, and of course, for mere decency I had to wear an overcoat.

However, I managed to make myself audible, I am told, and beyond nearly falling as I entered the rostrum, I escaped with success. (They DO actually call it a rostrum, so that I was delighted: for the whole gallery of the Damerfesk seemed to gaze at me, and the jarring ghosts of Big, Polonius and Arabudda to lend me countenance.) This was really the fault of one not unlike our Arabudda — old Ker the professor of poetry, who, having earlier in the proceeding delivered his Latin oration, decided to remain sitting in the rostrum instead of going back to his own stall. This (in the language of Marie Stopes) “made entry difficult if not impossible” for us prizemen: in my anxiety to avoid the burly professor, I stumbled over a raised step and nearly fell backwards. This must have appeared curiously enough to those who were on a level with, or higher than the rostrum: but the best effect of all was from the floor, from which, owing to the height of the front barrier and the big velvet cushion on it, I appeared simply to sink through a trap and rise again like a jack-in-the-box. However, I rallied my sang froid and bawled defiant remarks on the universe for two minutes. It is a good thing that the P’daytabird was not present or he would have been sorely put to it — especially if you had been beside him, giddy with laughter. (You can imagine his asking me afterwards “Did you do it to annoy me?”)

I will send you a copy of my essay, since you ask for it, though I do not think it will be much in your line. Some of the insolent passages may amuse you: I hope you will like the way I dealt with with the difficulty of “God or no God.” To admit that person’s existence would have upset my whole applecart: to deny it seemed inadvisable, on the off chance of there being a Christian among the examiners. I therefore adopted the more Kirkian alternative of proving — at any rate to my own satisfaction — that “it really made no difference whatever” whether there was such a person or no. The second part of my essay you may use as a mild test whether you are ever likely to come to metaphysics or not. I look forward with some trepidation to discussing it at home: for his “reading of the thing” will doubtless differ vastly from my writing of it . . . .

NOTE: William Paton Ker (1855-1923), Fellow of All Souls’ College, Oxford, Professor of Poetry, and Professor of English Literature in the University of London, was the author of many books on English, Scottish and Scandinavian literature, including Epic and Romance and The Dark Ages.

NOTE: Lord Big, an elder statesman, was a frog, Polonius Green a villainous parrot, and Sir Charles Arabudda a smooth-talking fish; all are characters from the world of Animal-land which Jack and Warren created as boys; and the Damerfesk was the assembly of citizens. They can be found in Boxen: The Imaginary World of the Young C.S.Lewis. They are also discussed in Chapter V. ‘Renaissance’, of Surpised by Joy.

NOTE: Marie Stopes (1880-1958) was a palaeobotanist and the first woman science lecturer at Manchester University. She also lectured in Tokyo, Japan and collaborated on a book about Japanese No plays (1913). Her marriage was annulled in 1916 and her attention turned to unhappiness in marriage caused by the ignorance of sex and contraception, and she began to disseminate information about them. Her book Married Love (1916) was considered scandalous by many and was banned in the U.S. In 1918 she opened the first British birth control clinic. The reference to her writings here is unidentified by the present writer, although it does not appear in Married Love; it is, however, obviously suggestive. What seems to be evident is that since Lewis is writing to Warren, his brother, who would have been no more interested in marriage and birth control than Lewis himself, he is sharing an “in” joke based upon their reading of a “dirty” book or article, or, rather, upon a book read for salacious purposes.

NOTE: The trepidation that Lewis feels about discussing his essay “at home,” that is, with Albert, refers to his father’s inability to hear or to read what was before him. This characteristic was vividly portrayed in Surpised by Joy (p.120 et seq.):

Far more often he retained something, but something very unlike what you had said. His mind so bubbled over with humor, sentiment, and indignation that, long before he had understood or even listened to your words, some accidental hint had set his imagination to work, he had produced his own version of the facts, and believed that he was getting it from you. As he invariably got proper names wrong (no name seemed to him less probable than another) his textus receptus was often almost unrecognizable. Tell him that a boy called Churchwood had caught a field mouse and kept it as a pet, and a year, or even ten years later, he would ask you “Did you ever hear what became of poor Chickweed who was so afraid of the rats?” For his own version, once adopted, was indelible, and attempts to correct it only produced an incredulous “Hm! Well, that’s not the story you used to tell.”

Letter to Albert Lewis from Oxford Union Society, postmark 30 November 1921:

I am afraid that my weakness in yielding to the Colonel’s [i.e., Warren’s] request for a copy of “Optimism” has reduced the poor man to permanent silence. I must try to get some sort of letter off to him, before Christmas …

But a letter from Warren (serving with the army in Sierra Leone) was on its way to Lewis; dated 22 November 1921: it had clearly not arrived prior to the preceding letter:

I have by the way read your essay twice, but as on neither occasion could I make the slightest glimmer of meaning out of it, I have put it away in despair for perusal in the cold tang of a saner climate . . . .

Warren was to remember, years later, lending “Optimism” to a fellow officer in Sierra Leone who, after reading it, said “Tell me, Lewis, strictly between ourselves, does your brother drink?”

Wilson, in his life of Lewis, is incorrect in saying that Lewis declaimed his prize-winning essay before the “assembled University grandees,” on the occasion of the Encaenia. Only a passage lasting about two minutes was read. And Sayer (Jack, p.158) shares the same error, and is also inaccurate in referring to the Vice-Chancellor’s Prize; it was the Chancellor’s English Essay Prize.

Green and Hooper ( p.67) report:

With his great mental ability and his developing powers of concentration, Lewis was just able to take a Double First in Literae Humaniores — Mods — in March 1920 and Greats in June 1922. He also competed for the Chancellor’s English Essay Prize, the subject set being “Optimism”, and won it triumphantly on 24 May 1921.

What evidence is there for asserting that “Lewis was just able to take a Double First”? It makes it sound as if he merely scraped through, which is not to be believed. It also contrasts strangely with winning the Essay Prize “triumphantly.” That the win was a triumph is obvious, but “triumphantly” seems to suggest that Lewis publicly crowed over his victory; which is not to be believed either.

June 1922 Greats examinations, lasting six days.

Thurday, 8 June Greats exams begin, all three hour papers: Roman history morning, Unseens in the afternoon.

Friday, 9 June Philosophical books in morning, translation Roman history books in afternoon.

Saturday, 10 June Greek history in morning, translation from Plato and Aristotle in the afternoon.

Monday, 12 June Logic in the morning, translation in the afternoon.

Tuesday, 13 June General Ancient History Paper in the morning, Latin Prose in the afternoon.

Wednesday, 14 June Moral and Political Philosophy in the morning, Greek Prose in the afternoon.

These examinations occupied thirtysix hours in all.

28 July 1922 Viva voce, that is, Lewis’s oral examination.

Examination papers are marked by a number of examiners, who later meet and compare the marks (or grades) that have been awarded. In many — perhaps most — cases, there is agreement that a particular candidate deserves a particular Class — First, Second, Third, or Fourth. But there are always some divergences of opinion — should this candidate get a First or a Second? should this other candidate be given even a Fourth?

If these discrepancies cannot be resolved by discussion and/or a further independent reading, they are settled after — and by — the viva voce, the oral examination. All candidates for a B.A. degree must present themselves for a viva. For those about whom the examiners have no disagreement, the viva is brief, formal and inconsequential; for the others the viva can be long, substantive, and fraught with consequences. It can make the difference between a First and a Second Class Honours, which in the highly competitive English system, can make a world of difference, as Lewis well knows. the highly competitive English system, can make a world of difference, as Lewis well knows.

Vivas are public affairs at Oxford and any University member in correct academical dress may attend and listen.

In both his vivas, Lewis was treated quite formally; there was no disagreement among his examiners — he was a First all the way.

Lewis diary, 28 July 1922:

Up betimes in white tie and “subfusc” and into my viva. We all presented ourselves (I knew none of the others) at 9.30. Myers, looking his most piratical, called over our names and read out the times at which we were to come, but not in alphabetical order. Two others and myself were told to stay and I was immediately called out, thus being the first victim of the day. My operator was Joseph. He was very civil and made every effort to be agreeable. He asked what I meant by the contradiction of the pleonexia, why I applied the word “disgusting” to my quotation from Pater, how I wd. distinguish a schoolmaster’s from a state’s right to punish, and if I cd. suggest any way of making “poor old Plato” less ridiculous than he appeared in my account, of the “lie in the Soul.” I showed some forgetfulness of the text in answering this, but I don’t think it was serious. The whole show took about five minutes. From the phrase “poor old Plato” I fancy Joseph must have been Carritt’s informant.

NOTE: “Up betimes,” that is, early, is a favorite phrase of Samuel Pepys (pronounced “Peeps”), the seventeenth century diarist; his other oft quoted phrase is “And so to bed.” Both were commonly adopted or affected by the educated English.

NOTE: “subfusc” is exactly defined in the Proctors’ manuals as either a black coat, a dark waistcoat and dark trousers, a dark blue suit, a dark grey suit, or a dark brown suit, with black shoes or boots, and dark socks. The “white tie” is that of regular evening dress.

NOTE: Horace William Brindley Joseph (1867-1943) was the Senior Philosophical Tutor of New College (1895-1932) and the author of a number of works on logic.

NOTE: “pleonexia,” a Greek word pleonexia meaning claiming too much, more than enough, and hence, advantage, superiority, greed, arrogance. It is a favorite argument of Socrates in the Platonic dialogues, where the human arts or skills, being well-ordered, intelligible, and teachable, provide one model for the virtues; if the virtues are like the arts (in the sense of skills) then there is always a limit. The musician tightens his strings only to the right point — it is not better to reach the desired tone and then tighten more. The arts and the virtues are concerned with limit, and so justice cannot be desire for more, greed or the interest of the stronger. The reference is almost certainly to Book I of the Republic St. 348-, in Socrates’ discussion with Thrasymachus. It might be observed that there is a certain (not complete) similarity between Lewis at that time and Thrasymachus, and it is not surprising that Lewis would attack or seek to discredit an argument that limited him in any way.

NOTE: “lie in the Soul” refers again to Plato, the Republic, Book II, St.381-2:

“What!” I [Socrates] said; “would god wish to lie by spoken or acted illusion?”

“I do not know,” he [Glaucon] said.

“Do you not know,” I said, “that all gods and men hate the true lie, if we may use the expression?”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“This,” I said; “no one deliberately wishes to lie in the most vital part of him about the most vital matters. Every one fears above all to harbour a lie in that quarter.”

“I don’t yet understand,” he said.

“That is because you think I am uttering some mysterious truth. All I am saying is that to lie, and be the victim of a lie, and to be ignorant in the soul concerning reality, to hold and possess falsehood there, is the last thing any man would desire. Men hate falsehood in such a case above all.”

“Certainly,” he said.

“But this that I have just mentioned may be most accurately called the true lie, namely, the ignorance in the soul of him, who is deluded. For the spoken lie is an imitation of this state in the soul, an image of it which arises afterwards and is not a wholly unmixed lie. Is it not so?”


If “lie in the Soul” is equivalent to ignorance, there is a certain shrewdness on the part of the examiner in raising the topic with Lewis.

NOTE: “Carritt’s informant” refers to a Lewis diary entry of 21 June 1922:

Heard from Carritt that one of the examiners had said to him “One of your men seem to think that Plato is always wrong.” Carritt guessed several people. Finally the other said “No: — Lewis. Seems an able fellow anyway” — wh. I suppose is good news.

Lewis diary, Wednesday 2 August 1922:

. . .Later I dreamed that I had got a 2nd. [i.e. a Second Class Honours degree]. Immediately after breakfast I bussed into College and called on Farquharson. Apparently I am not too late to take my B.A. on Saturday . . . He also discussed exams and kept saying that everyone knew my abilities and would not change their opinions if I happened to get a second. From a don, such talk has its uncomfortable side — I hope there is nothing behind it more than his general desire of flattery.

The anxiety of Lewis is evident in his dream. He wanted a first. It is also evident in his concern about Farquharson’s meaning. He imagined, no doubt, that it was possible that Farquharson already knew that he had got a second (which was not the case) and that he was preparing him for the shock of “failure.” That, he feared, might be “behind it.”

There is no explanation of Lewis’s deciding, two days before the ceremony, to take his degree in person, to participate in the ceremony (about which he immediately complained, see below). It was quite customary for graduates to receive their degrees in absentia; in fact, the majority did. All that they needed to do was to inform their College, who submitted their names to the University to be read aloud at the actual ceremony.

4 August 1922 Results of Greats announced. Lewis achieves First Class Honours.

Lewis Diary, Friday 4 August 1922:

. . . I then met W[arren] and we strolled to the Schools to see if my lists would be out in the evening. It gave me rather a shock to find them already up. I had a first: Wyllie a second; everyone else from College a third. The whole thing was rather too sudden to be as pleasant as it sounds on paper. I wired at once to P [i.e., Albert Lewis] and went to lunch with W at Buols.

5 August 1922 Graduation: B.A. (Honours)

The modern degree ceremony at Oxford has evolved out of a number of medieval ceremonies that were required by Statute. To be a Bachelor of Arts required the “keeping” of twelve terms and the performance of a number of “exercises.” When these had been completed, the student had to approach first his college and then the University and request by a petition known as a supplicat for grace, gratia, to proceed to a degree. If the grace were granted, the applicant then had to make himself known to the officers of the University, a process known as the circuitus; and then he had to find nine bachelors of arts who would testify to his good character (“deponing”). He was then presented to the Vice-Chancellor. The final stage came the following Lent, when he was required to “determine,” that is, to take part successfully in the Lenten disputations.

There were no written examinations until 1802, when an 1800 Statute took effect, replacing the old disputations. This affected studies more than ceremonies.

Since Lewis was taking the B.A., the following description relates to that degree only, but the higher degrees involve comparable prolixity of formulae and ceremony.

The ceremony takes place at a meeting of Congregation, usually in the Sheldonian Theatre, and it may be witnessed by friends and relatives of the candidates, sitting in the upper and lower galleries. The candidates, dressed in subfusc, wearing gowns and white ties, assemble in the Apodyterium and sign the University register. They then enter the Theatre and sit grouped by college on benches along the east side of the area (or floor), while the Dean and Professors who are to present them for degrees sit on front benches on either side.

NOTE: The Apodyterium is, literally, Latin for ‘the changing room’ invariably available at both the public and private Baths of antiquity. It is derived from the Greek, apoduein, to undress, and apoduthrion, an undressing room.

The Vice-Chancellor enters with the two Proctors, attended only by one bedel, the bedel of Arts. The other bedels and the University Verger are also present but without staves, their duties being to marshal candidates, hand supplicat papers to the Proctors, and to announce the style and college of the presenters.

As the Vice-Chancellor enters with the Proctors, the House (i.e., members of Congregation, but also everybody else present) rises and is saluted by the Vice-Chancellor and the two Proctors by raising their caps. They then sit on chairs on the floor of the House, with the University Registrar being seated behind the Vice-Chancellor and to his left. The House is then seated and the Vice-Chancellor opens Congregation:

Causa huius Congregationis est ut gratiae et gradus confernatur, necnon ut alia peragantur quae ad hanc Venerabilem Domum spectant.

That is:

The reason for this Congregation is that graces and degrees be conferred, and that other business which concerns this Venerable House be transacted.

The Registrar then certifies that the graces of the several colleges have been granted to the candidates:

Ego Registrarius testor omnibus Candidatis, quorum nomina Venerabili Domui a Procuratoribus statim submittentur, gratias a Collegiis vel Societatibus suis pro gradibus quaestis concessas fuisse, et eosdem mihi satisfecisse.

That is:

I, the Registrar, certify that all the Candidates, whose names will be immediately submitted to the Venerable House by the Proctors, have been granted graces by the Colleges or Societies for the degree asked, and that they have satisfied me.

For incorporation of an undergraduate, as in this case, the Registrar adds:

Insuper testor . . . testimonia omnia, quae per statuta pro incorporando requiruntur, exhibuisse, et mihi satisfecisse.

That is:

Further I certify that . . . has produced all the testimonials required by the statutes for incorporation, and has satisfied me.

Both Proctors then rise, and after capping the House, read out the supplicat of the degrees to be taken, the Senior Proctor the higher degrees, the Junior Proctor the others. The form of all supplicats is much the same except for the description of the candidate (in terms of status or degree he holds in the University):

Supplicat venerabili Congregationi Doctorum et Magistrorum regentium A.B. . . . e collegio C. qui complevit omnis quae per statuta requiruntur (nisi quatenus cum eo dispensatum fuerit); ut haec sufficiant, quo admittatur ad gradum . . .

That is:

A.B. of C. College (with degrees and status), who has completed all that is required by the Statutes, except in so far as dispensation has been granted, asks the Venerable Congregation of Doctors and Regent Masters that these things may suffice for admission to the degree of . . . .

All those taking the same degree have their names read out together, grouped by colleges. The list, especially for B.A.’s, is often long and the latinized first names often cause trouble for the Proctor who has to read them out. When finished, the Proctors raise their caps, walk down or through the House, and return to their places; the Proctor who has read out the supplicat raises his cap and says:

Haec gratia concessa est et sic pronuntiamus concessam.


This grace has been granted and we so pronounce it granted.

NOTE: the walk has an historical origin; it originally gave any member of the House an opportunity to dissent, by tugging or pulling at the Proctor’s gown as he passed by, but today any objections are settled beforehand.

The candidates are then presented to the Vice-Chancellor. In Lewis’s case he would have been presented by the Dean of his College (Farquharson). The presenter comes forward and faces the Vice-Chancellor and the Proctors. The candidate goes to the presenter’s right, who then grasps the candidate’s hand with his right and says:

Insignissime Vice-Cancellarie, vosque egregii Procuratores, praesento vobis hunc meum scholarem in facultate Artium ut admittatur ad gradum Baccalaurei in Artibus.

That is:

Most distinguished Vice Chancellor (here he bows) and you, excellent Proctors (bowing to each in turn), to you I present my scholar in the faculty of Arts to be admitted to the degree of Bacheor of Arts.

The candidates are then administered the short charge by the Junior Proctor:

Domini vos tenemini ad observandum omnia statuta, privilegia, sonsuetudines, et libertates istius Universitatis, quaetenus ad vos spectent.

That is:

Sirs, you shall bind yourselves to observe all the statutes, customs, and liberties of the University, so far as they concern you

Candidates for higher degrees are read a much longer charge and must swear on the New Testament to do as charged. They reply: Do fidem, literally, I give faith, or I swear.

The Bachelors of Arts are then admitted by the Vice-Chancellor:

Domine, ego admitto te ad gradum Baccalaurei in Artibus; insuper auctoritate mea et totius Universitatis, do tibi potestatem legendi, et reliqua omnia facienda quae ad eundem gradum spectant.

That is:

Sir, I admit you to the degree of Bachelor in Arts; further, by my authority and that of the whole University, I give you the power of lecturing, and of doing all the other things which concern the same degree.

When the last of the B.A.’s have received their degrees, the Vice Chancellor stands, raises his cap, and adjourns the House.

Continuamus hanc Congregationem.

Some of the Latin formulae in this account have been given as if for one candidate; there are usually very many and the Latin would need to be made plural. Moreover, there are many different degrees awarded on the same occasion, which vastly complicates the account presented — it also consumes much time.

At some convenient point in the proceedings, degrees in absentia would have been awarded. The names would have been read out with those of the candidates in the supplicat lists. The Vice-Chancellor would have risen, with the two Proctors, and would have said:

Ego Vice-Cancellarius, auctoritate mea et totius Universitatis, admitto ad gradum . . . etiam absentem.


I, Vice-Chancellor, by my authority and by that of the whole University, admit to the degree of . . . A.B. of C. College even in his absence.

Lewis Diary, Saturday 5 August 1922:

Went to College after breakfast and saw Poynton about money matters. Found to my surprise and delight that after paying all fees I had a balance in my favour — but I shall not see it until September . . .

I then bussed out to Headington, changed rapidly into white tie and subfusc suit, and returned to lunch with W[arren] at Buols. At 2 o’clock I assembled with the others at Univ. porch to be taken under Farquharson’s wing for degrees. A long and very ridiculous ceremony making us B.A.s — as Watling said, we felt no different beyond being “hot and bothered.”

NOTE: L. R.Farnell, the Vice-Chancellor and Rector of Exeter College (author of Cults of the Greek City States) performed the ceremony.

13 October 1922 Lewis begins study in the Honours School of English Language and Literature.

By virtue of passing Hon. Mods. Lewis was qualified to enter the Honours School of English Language and Literature and was also allowed to take his second Honours School after one year of study instead of the usual two years. The two years plus the preliminary examination constituted the three year program currently in force. It was not an easy prospect, he was warned, but, in the second term, he shared the prospect with a new-found friend, Neville Coghill, who was also completing the program in one year, having taken his degree in modern history.

The substance of the newly-founded English School was more oriented towards language than literature. Lewis started with Anglo-Saxon (also called Old English), something he had always wanted to study, learning the grammar, making a detailed study of Beowulf in the original language, including all the textual difficulties. He then traced the development of the language, through Middle English into Modern English. All the important texts were read, including much of Chaucer, Piers Plowman, and Sir Gawaine. After that, most of Spenser, a great deal of Shakespeare, and nearly all of Milton’s poetry.

The effects of his study were at least two-fold. First, the necessity of writing essays on the finest examples of English literature made him reflect on his own writing powers:

My prose style is really abominable, and between poetry and work I suppose I shall never learn to improve it.

But, as we know, he did improve it. Second, he read a great deal of medieval literature and could not escape the Christianity of the stories.

14-19 June 1923 English School examinations.

Thursday 14 June Schools begin. Old English in the morning, history of language in the afternoon.

Friday, 15 June Middle English in the morning. Chaucer in the afternoon.

Saturday, 16 June Shakespeare, Spenser, Bacon, Sydney in the afternoon.

Monday, 18 June Shakespeare and Milton in the morning. Seventeenth Century in the afternoon — Bunyan, Shadwell.

Tuesday, 19 June Eighteenth Century in the morning, Nineteenth Century in the afternoon.

Lewis thought that the examination questions had been deliberately framed to defeat the candidates: “neither for Mods nor Greats did I ever meet cads for lectureres and malicious papers as I have done in this. I hope more than ever for a first, if only to defeat the old men.”

10 July 1923 Lewis has a viva voce.

Lewis Diary, Tuesday 10 July 1923:

Up betimes and dressed in subfusc and white tie. Arrived at the Schools at 9.30 and met Martley and Lloyd Jones who were also vivaed today. . . At 9.30 we entered the viva room and after the names had been called, six of us were told to stay, of whom I was one.

I then sat in the fearful heat, in my gown and rabbit skin, on a hard chair, unable to smoke, talk, read, or write, until 11.50. I had plenty of leisure to examine my examiners. Brett-Smith seemed a pleasant man; so, in his grim surgical manner, was Craigie, the Scotchman.

Most of the vivas were long and discouraging. My own — by Brett-Smith — lasted about two minutes. I was asked my authority, if any, for the word “little-est.” I gave it — the Coleridge-Poole correspondence in Thomas Poole and His Friends. I was then asked if I had not been rather severe on Dryden and after we had discussed this for a little Simpson said they need not bother me any more.

I came away much encouraged, and delighted to escape the language people — one of whom, not a don, was a foul creature yawning insolently at his victims and rubbing his small puffy eyes. He had the face of a pork butcher and the manners of a village boy on a Sunday afternoon, when he had grown bored but not yet quite arrived at the quarrelsome stage.

NOTE: “rabbit skin” refers to the B.A. hood (part of the compulsory academic dress at vivas) which while properly doubly lined with rabbit fur, often had, in practice, just a fringe of rabbit fur. As a guess, Lewis probably had the former, which would have been hot in July.

NOTE: “pork butcher” came to Lewis’s mind possibly because of the description of Shakespeare’s bust in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, carved by Gheerart Janssen. In the writings of J.Dover Wilson there is a reference to “Janssen’s self-satisfied pork-butcher” and “All this might suit well enough with an affluent and retired butcher, but does gross wrong to the dead poet.” Wilson (1881-1969) was a leading Shakespearean scholar and published his first book in 1911. There is little doubt that Lewis would have read some of his works, although the quotations above are from The Essential Shakespeare which did not appear until 1932; but this book contains passages from earlier works. It is not known to this writer whether Lewis ever visited Stratford-upon-Avon.

16 July 1923 Lewis is listed as First Class Honours in the Honours School of English Language and Literature, along with Neville Coghill and four others.

5 May 1924 Offered a one-year position at Univ. to replace E.F. Carritt, the philosophy tutor, who was going on leave. Accepts.

14 October 1924 Lewis gave first lecture in philosophy.

The theme of Lewis’s first course of lectures was “The Moral Good — its position among the values.” Originally it had been “place” but Farquharson, the Senior Tutor of Univ., thought “position” better. Typical pettiness!

20 May 1925 Lewis elected to Magdalen College Fellowship in English Language and Literature.

In a letter to his father dated 14 August 1925, Lewis describes his initiation into Magdalen College:

The only other event of importance since I wrote last has been my formal “admission” at Magdalen. It is a formidable ceremony and not entirely to my taste. Without any warning of what was in store for me, the Vice-President (a young fellow called Wrong whom I have since got to know on the Cambridge jaunt) ushered me into a room where I found the whole household — it is large at Magdalen. Warren [the Master] was standing and when Wrong laid a red cushion at his feet I realized with some displeasure that this was going to be a kneeling affair. Warren then addressed me for some five minutes in Latin. I was able to follow some three-quarters of what he said: but no one had told me what response I ought to make and it was with some hesitation that I hasarded do fidem as a reply — copying the formula for taking your M.A. This appeared to fill the bill. I was then told (in English) to kneel. When I had done so Warren took me by the hand and raised me with the words “I wish you joy.” It sounds well enough on paper but it was hardly impressive in fact: and I tripped over my gown in rising. I now thought my ordeal at an end: but I was never more mistaken in my life. I was sent all round the table and every single member in turn shook my hand and repeated the words “I wish you joy.” You can hardly imagine how odd it sounded by the twenty-fifth repetition. English people have not the same talent for graceful ceremonial. They go through it lumpishly and with a certain mixture of defiance and embarrassment as if everyone felt he was being rather silly and was at the same time ready to shoot the first man who said so. In a French or Italian university now, this might have gone off nobly . . .

It seems a little ironical for Lewis to be separating himself from the English on the grounds of “graceful ceremonial” when he had just tripped over his gown while rising from the red cushion. He seems to have been only slightly aware of the limits of his own body, his physical limits, and he often transgressed them in clumsy and inappropriate movements.

In the academic year 1924-5, Lewis had been employed by University College at a rather low salary of 200 pounds a year. He was not a Fellow of the College, but an employee of it. What was the College?

Any and every Oxford College is an endowed, self-governing body, independent under a royal charter, with the purpose of providing accommodation and education to specified scholars or students for a specified number of years. The Fellows of the College, sometimes under other names, are powerfully independent, controlled only by their own statutes, and they perpetuate themselves by electing new Fellows as the need arises. The election is for either five or ten years, at the end of which time they are always re-elected. The duties of the Fellows are to do what the College was founded to do — including all the managerial work that accompanies it. Obviously, Fellows are usually expected to teach, to be responsible in some way for the education of their own students. This is usually done by tutorials — that is, a Fellow meeting regularly with one or two students to discuss an essay on a topic proposed by the tutor and prepared by the students, but there are also College lectures. More commonly, lectures are provided by the University — an entity different from the College, but somehow derived from the cooperation of the Colleges individually and developed into a separate corporation. Many Fellows will be invited by the University to offer a course of lectures that it needs, and they usually accede, but their teaching is done for the University; this is different from their College teaching.

When Lewis was elected (note the word, elected, not appointed) a fellow he became a member of the corporation known as Magdalen College; in fact, with the other Fellows, he was the College. He was not an employee.

The College set the stipends of its Fellows and whatever emoluments went with election, that is, the Fellows set for themselves incomes but these were not salaries; they were shares from the total College income, required to maintain the Fellows. There can be little doubt that one of the aspects of being a Fellow that Lewis enjoyed was the independence. He had been very poor and having an income made his life easier and pleasanter, but it also helped him preserve his intellectual independence. It would be hard to imagine him without it.

Some Final Observations

It may well be true that all generations are equidistant from eternity and that, sub specie aeternitatis, all generations are subject to the same standards of judgment. But to understand — and not to judge — requires some grasp of the circumstances in which a life has been lived.

The purpose of this essay has been to set forth those ceremonial aspects of Oxford University life that Lewis encountered and to try to see how he understood them, responded to them, and used them. First, it is apparent that in ceremonial form Oxford could scarcely be considered to have entered the modern world. The University was an ancient and venerable institution, which had such a view of its own worth that it saw little necessity for change, and lacked any viable procedure to effect it, even if it had been thought desirable. The nineteenth century had been an age of some reform and improvement for both Oxford and Cambridge, but it was very hard to separate out the three components of intellectual ability and accomplishment, social stratification and solidarity, and the controlling influence of the needs of the Church of England Establishment.

To suggest some milestones of change. It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that Fellows could be elected without taking Holy Orders, that is, until then all Fellows were ordained. In 1877, Fellows were permitted to marry. Compulsory Greek was abolished in 1920, and Compulsory Latin in 1960. Women were admitted to full membership of the University only in 1920. Lewis himself says that the Honours School of English Language and Literature had only just been established in his time.

Second, the use of the old ceremonial forms and of the Latin language was clearly an impediment to change, even though it was true that a speaker could always ask of the Vice-Chancellor Licetne Anglicae loqui? and hope to receive the reply Licet. But there was no guarantee.

Into this medieval institution came Clive Staples Lewis, initially, at the age of 18 years 4 months. He was not a gentle soul. His sense of his own worth was very high, although not so self-assured that he did not need to belittle others, to reassure himself presumably. But he was also aggressive and highly ambitious, having set his sights on an academic career, preferably as an Oxford don. He was also a snob (the social counterpart of his intellectual superiority), and frequently found it necessary to point out that somebody was not a gentleman; he obviously thought that he was, although his father, as a solicitor, could scarcely claim to be anything other than middle-class. And his table manners were not known for their delicacy and self-restraint.

Oxford, with all its riches and power, could not be anything but accepted by the ambitious Lewis. It was through the University that he would rise, he thought, to any greatness that he would achieve, and it never seems to have crossed his mind that he could or should rebel. He seems, for the most part, to have taken for granted the limitations of the circumstances of medieval/nineteenth century Oxford as things to be accepted and endured, much as he accepted and endured his domestic treatment at the hands of Mrs. Moore.

Although he was ambitious academically and also very effective academically, he says little about being a scholar. He sees himself as a poet. It would be interesting to speculate about whether he would have bloomed as a poet, if he had not been constrained by his university commitments. It is certainly true that the demands of Hon.Mods., Greats, and the English School left him little time to work on his poetry. Add Mrs. Moore and it is a wonder that he did anything.

It may well be that what Lewis needed most were firm, all-encompassing structures, that did not, because of their power and prizes, permit any challenge to their authority. Oxford University certainly provided one such structure, Mrs. Moore another. Albert Lewis did not, and in the period examined, he is manipulated and lied to, deceived and misled.

Although against the backdrop of Oxford University and its ceremonials, Lewis does not seem a very humane or pleasant, or even decent, person, nevertheless, in the light of what he became, there is no need to judge. What he was then does not matter, and the only thing to remark is how he managed to change, first, to reach the point of conversion and, second, to pass through the conversion itself and to lead a full and devoted Christian life.

It was, perhaps, his intellectual honesty that saved him. He sometimes tempered his views, even temporized, but ultimately Oxford supported his right to his opinions and accepted the forceful and dogmatic ways in which he expressed them. Honesty, when he met it, was greeted joyfully and even respectfully, but he made no allowance for the weaknesses or vapidity of others; truth was to be held passionately or not at all.

But that was only in the academic or intellectual realm. It was incumbent on us to declare the truth — having carefully considered the evidence — and to stand up for our opinions in the public, scholarly arena. Privately, however, it was not necessary to be truthful to one’s father.

Biographical note: John Bremer was born in England, matriculated at the University of London before his fifteenth birthday, served in the RAF, attended Pembroke College, University of Cambridge (where he was a Martlet), and came to the U.S. on a Fulbright Grant in 1951. He has also lived in Canada (where he was provincial Commissioner for Education) and in Australia (where he founded the education supplement for The Australian, the national daily newspaper).

He has worked and written extensively on educational reform, and is best known for the creation of the Parkway Program, the School-without-Walls, in Philadelphia in 1969. He was Killam Senior Fellow at Dalhousie University and was tenured at the University of Leicester in England. His last book was On Plato’s Polity. He contributed about fifty articles to C.S. Lewis: A Reader’s Encyclopedia, including its 30,000-word biography of Lewis.

This is the fourth issue of The Lewis Legacy pre-empted by Bremer essays. First was Issue 51 (Winter 1991), with “Fairy Tales about Narnia’s Chronicler.” Second was Issue 61 (Summer 1994), with “From Despoina to Diotima” Third was Issue 74 (Autumn 1997), with “The Title and Epigraphs of Surprised by Joy.” And now Issue 79 (Winter 1999), with “C. S. Lewis and the Ceremonies of Oxford University.” His contributions to Lewis scholarship are unique and authoritative .