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8 Memorable Quotes about Oxford

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Over the centuries, countless writers have been inspired to try to capture the essence of Oxford in poetry and in prose. In this article, we’ve looked at a variety of memorable and evocative quotations about the wonderful city and university of Oxford.

1. “That sweet city with her dreaming spires/ She needs not June for beauty’s heightening.” – Matthew Arnold

Image shows Oxford seen from a distance.

This was the view that inspired Matthew Arnold.

If you’ve never heard any other quote about Oxford, you’ve probably heard a reference to Matthew Arnold’s description of “her dreaming spires”. Arnold was himself an Oxford graduate, studying at Balliol College and later elected a Fellow of Oriel College, then Professor of Poetry. He’s credited with creating the Professorship in its modern form by speaking on contemporary work and being the first in the role to deliver his lectures in English, rather than Latin. He was also the only Professor of Poetry to date to be elected to the position twice, in 1857 and 1862.

With him as an undergraduate at Balliol was a friend from his schooldays, fellow poet Arthur Hugh Clough, in whose memory these lines were written as part of a much longer poem, Thyrsis. The poem looks back nostalgically on their time at Oxford together. The poem was written in 1865, and Clough had died four years previously, after a lengthy struggle with his health.

Though Oxford’s spires stand out when the city is seen from almost any direction, the scene that Arnold is commemorating is the view from Boars Hill, southwest of Oxford. It was Clough who had first taken Arnold to admire the view from the hill. Though the scene isn’t quite the same as it was in the mid-nineteenth century, with more houses and trees obscuring some of the view, it’s still possible to climb Boars Hill and look down over Oxford just as Clough and Arnold did.

2. “Summer is more summery here than anywhere else I know; not hotter, certainly not sunnier, but more like summers used to be, in everyone’s childhood memories.” – Jan Morris

Image shows an ORA student punting in Oxford.

A classic Oxford summer’s day includes punting down the river.

Historian and writer Jan Morris is a graduate of Christ Church, Oxford, a college which later made her an honorary fellow. In a long and prolific career she has written works of history, novels, essays and travel fiction, though she has said that she prefers not to be described as a travel writer; her works are about places and people, not journeys.

Her 1965 book on Oxford, one of a series on cities that also includes Venice, Hong Kong and Sydney, demonstrates this perfectly. It’s not of much use to a tourist trying to decide which museum to go to, but it captures the spirit of the city beautifully. Almost every sentence is quotable, but her appreciation of summers in Oxford stands out.

By British standards Oxford summers are warmer, drier and sunnier than most of the rest of the country, but summer in Oxford is more than just pleasant weather. It’s no coincidence that the G&Ds chain of ice-cream shops is an Oxford institution. Oxford knows how to enjoy the summer, from the first celebration of May Day with the choir singing from the top of Magdalen College’s tower, right to the last hot days in late September, just before the students return. For summer activities – such as punting, picnics, and long walks in the sun – Oxford has few equals, and on a hot day in July it can seem like the whole city has come out to the parks and on the river to enjoy it.

3. “Proud and godly kings had built her, long ago/ With her towers and tombs and statues all arow/ With her fair and floral air and the love that lingers there/ And the streets where the great men go.” – James Flecker

Image shows the Christ Church war memorial garden.

This garden in Christ Church stands as a memorial to those lost in the First World War.

You might never have heard of Edwardian poet and graduate of Trinity College, James Flecker. Celebrated in his time, he died of tuberculosis in 1915 at the age of just 30, and was perhaps superseded by the generation of war poets who came after him. This quotation comes from his poem The Dying Patriot, a romantic, almost dream-like poem about present-day soldiers following in the footsteps of the heroes of the past. This attitude to war as something beautiful and worthy of celebration struggled to survive the horror of the First World War trenches, in particular the Battle of the Somme, in which more than a million soldiers were killed or wounded and which had no decisive outcome.

The poem roves over different parts of Britain and celebrates their beauty. This section on Oxford, in its reference to “proud and godly kings”, reflects the traditional founding myth – which is almost certainly untrue – that the university was founded by Alfred the Great. While Flecker was probably well aware of the accuracy of that myth, it fits well with the spirit of the poem overall, which is much more about the patriotic myths of Britain than its reality. The difference between the reality of war and Flecker’s vision of it recalls Philip Larkin’s much later poem about the First World War, MCMXIV, and its refrain of “Never such innocence again”.

4. “I saw the spires of Oxford/ As I was passing by/ The grey spires of Oxford/ Against a pearl-grey sky/ My heart was with the Oxford men/ Who went abroad to die.” – Winifred Mary Letts

Image shows Oxford's spires in the mist, at sunset.

Many writers have been moved by Oxford’s spires.

A much more sorrowful and realistic picture of the First World War and Oxford is painted by Winifred Mary Letts in The Spires of Oxford, first published in 1916. By then the cost of the war was becoming clearer, and contrary to popular belief, it was a cost that fell harder on the officer class who had often either come from the University of Oxford or given up their chance at university to go to war. 12% of ordinary soldiers were killed – still a shocking figure – compared with 17% of officers. Letts would have been well aware of the price of war, as she worked as a masseuse in army camps in Oxford during wartime; other poems of hers, such as The Deserter, similarly treat soldiers with tenderness and sympathy while confronting the harsh truths of wartime.

It’s fair to say that the First World War changed Oxford forever, and not always for the worse. The war changed the relationship between different classes and different genders in Britain, with women and working-class men getting the opportunity to gain an education and take on leadership roles in ways that had previously been denied to them. In 1918 suffrage was introduced for all men and for women over the age of 30, and in 1920 Oxford made a significant move towards gender equality by granting degrees to women for the first time.

5. “In spite of Keble College, and the tramways, and the sporting prints, Oxford still remains the most beautiful thing in England, and nowhere else are life and art so exquisitely blended, so perfectly made one.” – Oscar Wilde

Image shows Keble College.

Keble College’s architecture was much criticised when it was first built.

This quotation from Oscar Wilde, who studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, is usually quoted without the “in spite of…” section at the start. That’s a pity, because it demonstrates how much our view of Oxford has changed over the past decades. Wilde and his contemporaries, who went to considerable lengths to celebrate and pursue art and beauty, were deeply critical of Keble College. What’s now usually seen as a beautiful set of buildings was hugely controversial in its day, built as it was in brick in a deliberate break with Oxford norms, designed to stand out from the Headington limestone in which Oxford colleges are traditionally built. It was a symbol of what Keble was intended to be: extending access to the university and breaking with snobbish and exclusive traditions.

Similarly, Wilde’s objections to tramways and sporting prints also seem dated now. But his belief in Oxford’s beauty has stood the test of time; it’s also fascinating to read this in the context of a late-Victorian writer, who would have seen Britain’s towns and cities before the impact of Second World War bombing that destroyed so many historic city centres, which Oxford was spared.

6. “[Oxford] inculcated a reverence for what is ancient and free and great.” – William Gladstone

Image shows an Oxford college chapel.

Gladstone was in politics at a time when the role of religion in universities was being hotly debated.

British Prime Minister William Gladstone – the only British Prime Minister to date to have served four terms – studied at Christ Church, Oxford, where he received a double first in Classics and Mathematics, and was President of the Oxford Union. Not only that, but he was from 1847 to 1865 the Member of Parliament for the Oxford University constituency, a rare departure for a constituency that for its whole existence otherwise elected only right-wing candidates; Gladstone was a Liberal, and it was his liberalism that lost him the seat in 1865. The university constituencies were abolished in 1950.

While Gladstone’s words on his alma mater could seem a little corny, his sentiments have been shared by many Oxford graduates and even by many of those just passing through. In Gladstone’s time the question of what made the University of Oxford so special was also a pressing one: a slew of new universities were opening, changes were being made to allow non-Anglicans to take up university posts, and women were being admitted for the first time. Hindsight shows us that these changes have been for the good, but at the time they were all controversial.

7. “I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking. It is all like an opera.” – WB Yeats

Image shows ORA students walking past the Radcliffe Camera.

Radcliffe Square is a popular location for film crews.

Writer WB Yeats had no significant connection with Oxford, having grown up in London and Dublin. The quote here comes from a 1888 letter to fellow writer Katharine Tynan, to whom he also wrote much less complimentary things about London (“I sometimes imagine that the souls of the lost are compelled to walk through its streets perpetually”). At this point Yeats’ writing, especially his poetry, was still bent strongly towards the lyrical and Romantic, drawing heavily on Irish myth and legend. In time Yeats became central to the Irish literary scene, promoting Irish culture and traditions that had been suppressed by British occupation, contributing to the Irish Literary Revival of the early 20th century.

Yeats is not the only writer to have seen Oxford’s beauty and splendour and consider it to be almost unreal, though his vivid description – presumably never intended for publication – has caught on, and is one of the most often-quoted famous sayings about the city. In fact, given how often the city is used as a setting for films, such as the Harry Potter series, The Golden Compass, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and the upcoming Tolkien, while it isn’t an opera, it is frequently a film set, which has its own air of unreality.

8. “There are few greater temptations on earth than to stay permanently at Oxford in meditation, and to read all the books in the Bodleian.” – Hilaire Belloc

Image shows Duke Humphrey's Library, part of the Bodleian.

Oxford is home to some of the most beautiful libraries in the world.

There can be few people who have spent any time in Oxford and not shared the view expressed here by Hilaire Belloc. And of course, plenty of people come to Oxford and do succumb to that temptation, going from undergraduate to postgraduate to fellow without ever leaving. Others begin their academic career at Oxford, then go elsewhere, then return.

Belloc himself was a graduate of Balliol College and a President of the Oxford Union, but an enduring disappointment in his life was that he failed to win a fellowship to the fiercely competitive All Souls College, perhaps because of his confrontational expression of his Catholic faith, which could still prompt discrimination at the time. This meant he had to leave the university. Instead of pursuing a career in academia, he became an MP and a hugely prolific writer of over 150 books, including essays, children’s verse, and works on history, politics and economics. So while he didn’t succeed in reading all the books in the Bodleian, he did manage to increase the number held there.

If you’d like to get a taste of Oxford for yourself, why not join our Oxford summer school?


Image credits: Oxford from Boars Hill; Christ Church memorial garden; Oxford spires; Keble College; Bodleian.

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