Thursday, February 24, 2011

James in the mild machine

A commission for the expurgation of the universities has lately been appointed by Parliament to look into it - a commission armed with a gigantic broom, which is to sweep away all the fine old ivied and cobwebbed improprieties. Pending these righteous changes, one would like .. to attach oneself to the abuse, to bury one's nostrils in the rose before it is plucked. At the college in question there are no undergraduates. This delightful spot exists for the satisfaction of a small society of Fellows who, having no dreary instruction to administer, no noisy hobbledehoys to govern, no obligation toward their own culture, no care save

for learning as learning and truth as truth, are presumably the happiest and most charming people in the world. The party invited to lunch assem-bled first in the library of the college, a cool, gray hall, of very great length and height, with vast wall spaces of rich looking book titles and statues of noble scholars set in the midst. Had the charming Fellows ever anything more disagree-able to do than to finger these precious volumes 

and then to stroll about together in the grassy courts, in learned com-radeship, discussing their precious contents? Nothing, apparently, unless it were to give a lunch at Commemor-ation in the dining hall of the college. When lunch was ready there was a very pretty procession to go to it. Learned gentlemen in crimson gowns, ladies in bright finery, paired slowly off and marched in a stately diagonal across the fine, smooth lawn of the quadrangle, in a corner of which they passed through a hospitable door. But here we cross the threshold of privacy; I remained on the further side of it during the rest of the day.

But I brought back with me certain memories of which, if I were not at the end of my space, I should attempt a discreet adumbration .. the air of liberty to care for the things of the mind assured and secured by machinery which is in itself a satisfaction to sense.

Henry James
English Hours
  'Two Excursions'
Heinemann, 1905©

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