By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Oxford has been home to a number of poets, and has educated far more. Some of them have seen fit to celebrate the city of Oxford in their poetry – below are eight of the finest Oxford poems in all of English literature.
Matthew Arnold, Thyrsis.
This poem makes it onto this list because it is the origin of the famous epithet for the city of Oxford: ‘city of dreaming spires’. Arnold was educated at the University of Oxford along with his friend and fellow poet Arthur Hugh Clough, whose death in 1861 Thyrsis commemorates. This long pastoral elegy is closely related to the next Oxford poem on this list, which was also written by Arnold…
Matthew Arnold, ‘The Scholar-Gypsy’.
The story for this long narrative poem, which Arnold wrote in 1852-3, was taken from Joseph Glanvill’s 1661 book The Vanity of Dogmatising. The poem is about an Oxford student who abandoned his studies to join a group of gipsies.
The Scottish scholar John William Mackail said of the poem that it ‘is inseparable from Oxford; it is the poetry of Oxford made, in some sense, complete.’ So a selection of the best Oxford poems would be unthinkable without it.
Ralph Vaughan Williams set part of this poem to music in An Oxford Elegy.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Duns Scotus’s Oxford’.
In this poem by one of Victorian literature’s greatest and most idiosyncratic poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins celebrates Oxford, ‘Towery city and branchy between towers’, looking back to the early days of the city’s university when the theologian Duns Scotus lived and studied there.
Tom Lovatt-Williams, ‘Oxford’.
‘I see the coloured lilacs flame / In many an ancient Oxford lane…’ This poem by the little-known poet and nature writer Tom Lovatt-Williams (1897-1986) is not available online, but became hugely popular when it was included in the BBC radio series Poetry Please!
It was then included in the anthology based on the series, Poetry Please! 100 Popular Poems from the BBC Radio 4 Programme, which is worth purchasing for ‘Oxford’ and the other rare gems it contains.
C. S. Lewis, ‘Oxford’.
Written while Lewis was a young undergraduate and published in 1919, ‘Oxford’ is about the city where Clive Staples ‘Jack’ Lewis would spend much of his life, first as a student, then as a tutor and member of the Inklings writing group.
W. H. Auden, ‘Oxford’.
Auden was another Oxford alumnus, and in ‘Oxford’, Auden pays homage to the city and university where he studied. Combining a focus on nature, love, and youth with ‘the knowledge of death’, ‘Oxford’ is a fine underrated Auden poem.
Keith Douglas, ‘Oxford‘.
Like Auden, Douglas was educated at Oxford and wrote his Oxford poem while he was an undergraduate there, in 1941. Three years later, during the D-Day Landings, he would be killed in action, leaving behind a slim but remarkably accomplished volume of poetry.
Douglas praises Oxford as the ‘city of young men’: ‘of beginning, / ideas, trials, pardonable follies, / the lightness, seriousness and sorrow of youth’ but also of ‘the old’, of ‘the mind’s seven bellies / filled’.
Philip Larkin, ‘Poem about Oxford’.
Dedicated ‘For Monica’ – i.e. Monica Jones, Larkin’s long-term girlfriend – ‘Poem about Oxford’ is a light poem about the city which Larkin and Jones had both ‘shared without knowing’ when they were undergraduates there at the same time (although they would only meet after they had graduated and were both working at the University of Leicester in the late 1940s – Jones as an English lecturer, Larkin as a librarian).
Unfortunately, this poem is not available online and owing to copyright issues we can’t share it here. It is, however, included in the 1988 edition of Philip Larkin Collected Poems: Written by Philip Larkin, 2001 Edition, (New edition) Publisher: Faber and Faber [Paperback], which is a book every poetry-fan should own.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.