THOMAS ARNOLD AT OXFORD

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:30

In 1811, at the age of sixteen, Thomas Arnold became a Scholar of Corpus Christi; but his pleasure in following his brother Matthew’s footsteps was marred by the knowledge that his sister, Susanna, was suffering from creeping paralysis, the constant treatment of which would necessitate the family leaving the Isle of Wight to live in London.

In settling in at the university, he spent so much on tableware that he had to be satisfied with hired furniture on which, he was pleased to note, his books gave the room ‘a literary appearance’. A leisurely term followed, with Arnold visiting friends in other colleges, and exerting his body rather than his mind by rowing on the Charwell and Isis. By the start of the second term, however, he was working assiduously for, being younger than his colleagues, he found himself under stress. Learned essays were demanded, or a précis made of four or five volumes of Herodotus. Writing to his Aunt Susan, he mentioned having to read Aristotle at mealtimes and sometimes, in order to catch up, having to miss a meal. Lacking French, he began to teach himself the language.

The atmosphere at Corpus Christi was congenial, for its people were open-minded and welcomed new ideas. This attracted thinkers and, being small, the student body comprised men who knew one another. The method of teaching, peculiar to that college, put undergraduates on their mettle, for lectures were given to classes, and viva-voce examinations before audiences made students anxious lest they show ignorance.

In spite of his junior status, he soon caused something of a sensation in the Common Room by fearlessly airing his opinions on literature, ancient history, poetry, and politics. He was still small, and his youthful presumption in challenging his elders initially engendered resentment, especially when diehard Tories were harangued about the shortcomings of the Church and State. In his favour was his temper control in the face of violent opposition and, as time elapsed, his willingness to moderate his views when logic convinced him he was wrong.

From Arthur Penrhyn Stanley we learn of the concentration he gave to the fifteenth century, using Philip de Comines as a guide, and that many of the criticisms of Gibbon, Livy, and Thucydides published much later were included in his Thoughts on History dated 1815. In the same year his analysis of St Paul’s Epistles and Chrysostom’s Homilies promulgated his theories concerning the identity of Church and State.

For recreation he went on walking expeditions accompanied by his future brother-in-law, John Buckland, and Trevenen Penrose, took part in ‘rags’, or often until after midnight played games of Loo. As might be expected, he haunted the Bodleian and Radcliffe libraries, and never forgot his ambition to obtain a degree in Classics with first-class honours – a feat he achieved when under nineteen, as did Trevenen Penrose, and to celebrate which both went on a walking tour of the Wye Valley.

In June 1814 Oxford was en fête when the Prince Regent played host to the King of Prussia, the Czar of Russia, Blucher, and other generals being honoured for their pre-Waterloo victories over Napoleon – an occasion when Arnold was young enough to delight in the pageantry and to wave his hat at the grand processions.

To be with his family, Arnold was compelled to stay at Pitts Buildings in the village of Kensington which he called a ‘vile hole’, but from which he took the first opportunity to explore London – his itinerary including Hyde Park, various exhibitions, and St Paul’s – ‘the finest thing in London’. At other times he saw The Beggar’s Opera, a pantomime, Edmund Kean in Othello at Drury Lane, and Kemble and Young in Dryden’s Don Sebastian – all proof that, unlike many of the Cloth, he did not consider theatre-going a step on the road to perdition. He visited also the House of Commons, and was entertained by a fireworks display at Vauxhall Gardens. The truth of Wymer’s statement that he ‘behaved fashionably in a fashionable age’ is given weight by the fact that two flirtations are recorded – one with Miss Burley who was pretty, unreserved, and not overburdened with brains; another with the sister of an Oxford colleague, Miss Ormerod, a well-educated lady, demure, and highly principled. But London still bored him.

In 1814 Arnold’s family began to separate when in August his sister, Lydia, married the Earl of Cavan whose home, Englehurst, was on Southampton Water. And in 1815 Frances became engaged to his friend, John Buckland, an event that might have presaged a domestic crisis had not Frances suggested to Martha that she and Susanna (by then almost completely paralysed) move to Hampton to be near John’s small preparatory school. When, in 1816, the marriage took place, Thomas was pleased to move from the detested Kensington.

By that time a Fellow of Oriel College, his ambition was to remain at Oxford for ordination at the age of twenty-three. One wonders if he knew that when his name came up as a candidate for the Fellowship only strong support from Richard Whately (later Bishop of Dublin) obtained it for him. Other examiners thought him unready. A letter from Justice Coleridge to Stanley states how Arnold was not, when he knew him, a formed scholar, but one who composed stiffly and with difficulty. But he continues to give information regarding the accuracy with which he could write in the styles of Herodotus and Thucydides, and recalls his Vacation Tour of the Isle of Wight written in the manner of the Anabasis of Xenophon. Whately’s faith was justified when his nominee won the Chancellor’s Latin essay prize and, two years later, his award for an English essay.

Taking advantage of the facilities offered by the Fellowship, for which no work was obligatory, but which gave him a modest income and allowed him to study without paying fees, Arnold studied Classics and theology, exercised on and in the river, and during 1815-1817 travelled extensively on the Continent, where he saw Waterloo shortly after the battle. Before going abroad he visited eight cities in England, making in each critical notes in favour and against the architecture of their cathedrals. In the north he met Wordsworth for the first time in 1818, and in that year he was ordained a deacon.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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