Edward Carpenter’s Cambridge – in his own words
Complied By John Baker
The excerpts below are from ‘My Days and Dreams’ by Edward Carpenter, published in 1916 by Allen & Unwin Ltd.
28th August 1875, on a return visit to Trinity Hall Cambridge, Edward Carpenter wrote to Charles Oates, his old college friend (Sheffield City Archives, Carpenter Collection MSS.351.21 - by kind permission);
‘Now I am sitting by the window open upon the little back garden – where the rain, as of old, is pattering upon the leaves of the mulberry trees and the marigolds & fennel grow beneath in ‘sweet confusion’. It is full of reminiscences & associations, from Walt Whitman to the W.C.! But... I really hold it a sacred spot, sacred over all pleasure & pain as some things are.’
Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) spent 10 years at Cambridge from 1864-74:
‘When my father after some hesitation consented to let me go to Cambridge, and asked me which College I would prefer, I said "Trinity Hall," and for my reason that it was a gentlemanly college. My father laughed, as he certainly was justified in doing...
There were however other reasons for my choice. One was that the last Senior Wrangler, was a “Hall” man; the other was that the same College was now Head of the River. Both events had brought Trinity Hall into notice.
So thither I went, and found myself immediately in the thick of a boating set. The whole College was given up to boating. Not to row or help in the rowing in some way or other was rank apostasy. A few might read besides, and a few—a dozen or two at most—did so. I boated and talked boating slang ; was made stroke of the second boat, and it went down several places ; became Secretary of the Boat Club ; and for two years wore out the seat of my breeches and the cuticle beneath with incessant aquatic service. At the end of that time I got sadly bored with the business, and gave it up... But so far perhaps boating had not been a bad thing. It was healthy exercise, and brought me in with healthy muscular companions who bothered their heads about no abstruse problems, and for the most part rarely read a book. Fives and rackets too occupied some of my time...’ (p46)
‘Certainly nothing could be more unlike what I had expected... I found myself at the end of the first term easily head of my year in the College examinations... In coming up to Cambridge it had never occurred to me at the outset to go in for an honour degree; my opinion of the university was too high for that. But after a term or two the tutor to my surprise seriously recommended me to read for the mathematical tripos. Mathematics interested me and I read them with a good deal of pleasure—but I have sometimes regretted that three years of my life should have been—as far as study was concerned—nearly entirely absorbed by so special and on the whole so unfruitful a subject.’ (p47)
‘Summer vacations spent at Cambridge were the part of my university life that I most enjoyed. During the long morning from nine to two one got through a lot of reading unhindered by lectures and other interruptions ; then came afternoons canoeing up the river, two or three together, in the dreamy sheen of the water and the overhanging willows, or through beds of iris ; or bathing ; or playing fives or rackets ; or walking the country lanes, or sitting long on some turfy bank with a friend. What a curious romance ran through all that life...’ (p76)
‘It was just about this time of my degree (and curiously late) that my attention began to be turned towards literary production. I had won as an undergraduate—and to my surprise—two College prizes for English Essays (one, by the way, on Civilization) and shortly after my degree, in 1870, I was awarded a university prize (the Burney), £100, for an essay on " The Religious Influence of Art." Meanwhile I kept scribbling, just for my own satisfaction, quantities of verse, very formless and incoherent—but which formed an outlet for my own feelings in the absence of any more tangible way of expressing them.
How well I remember going down, as I so frequently did, alone to the riverside at night, amid the hushed reserve and quiet grace of the old College gardens, and pouring my little soul out to the silent trees and clouds and waters! I don't know what kind of longing it was—something partly sexual, partly religious, and both, owing to my strangely slow-growing temperament, still very obscure and undefined ; but anyhow it was something that brooded about and enveloped my life, and makes those hours still stand out for me as the most pregnant of my then existence.’ (p49)
Now came my introduction to the poet who was destined so deeply to influence my life. It was in the summer of ’68, that one of the Fellows of Trinity Hall... came into my room with a blue-covered book in his hands (William Rossetti’s edition of Whitman's poems) only lately published, and said: —
"Carpenter, what do you think of this?"
With those words he left me, and I remember lying down then and there on the floor and for half an hour poring, pausing, wondering. I could not make the book out but I knew at the end of that time that I intended to go on reading it. In a short time I bought a copy for myself, then I got Democratic Vistas, and later on (after three or four years) Leaves of Grass complete.
What made me cling to the little blue book from the beginning was largely the poems which celebrate comradeship. That thought, so near and personal to me, I had never before seen or heard fairly expressed... If there had only been those few poems they would have been sufficient to hold me; but there were other pieces: there was "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," "Out of the Rocked Cradle," "President Lincoln's Funeral Hymn," and the prose Preface —and then afterwards Democratic Vistas... a mine of new thought... this and the little blue book I read over and over again, and still they were new.
I had read a great deal of Wordsworth about the time of my degree ; then Shelley captivated and held me for a long time ; portions of Plato and of Shakespeare I had read repeatedly ; but never had I found anything approaching these writings of Whitman's for their inexhaustible quality and power of making one return to them.
From that time forward a profound change set in within me. I remember the long and beautiful summer nights, sometimes in the College garden by the riverside, sometimes sitting at my own window which itself overlooked a little old-fashioned garden enclosed by grey and crumbling walls; sometimes watching the silent and untroubled dawn; and feeling all the time that my life deep down was flowing out and away from the surroundings and traditions amid which I lived— a current of sympathy carrying it westward, across the Atlantic. I wrote to Whitman... (p64)
‘Curiously enough, as it happened, I was practically offered a Fellowship before I took my degree. The College was in want of an assistant Lecturer. There were three clerical Fellowships and one of these clerical Fellowships had lately become vacant... It was understood that I was going into the Church ; it seemed probable that I should take a fair degree ; and for the rest, who could be found so suitable—so mild, so docile, so decently mannered and generally unaggressive—as the young man in question! ...And things turned out accordingly. In the Mathematical Tripos of 1868 I came out tenth wrangler which was a sufficiently high degree to justify Fellowship at a small College; and in the autumn of that year I came into residence at Trinity Hall as a Lecturer ; shortly afterwards I was elected to a clerical Fellowship ; and in June '69 I was ordained Deacon by the Bishop of Ely.’ (p51)
‘After my degree however I came naturally into a more literary society. I belonged to societies which used to meet and discuss literary or other topics. To one of these, I used, after I became a curate, to rush round on Sunday evenings after church—in time to take part in the reading of Mazzini's Duty of Man ; illustrated by a plentiful accompaniment of claret-cup and smoke! W.K. Clifford was a kind of Socratic presiding genius at these meetings—with his Satyr-like face, tender heart, wonderfully suggestive, paradoxical manner of conversation, and blasphemous treatment of the existing gods... and his influence, combined with that of Mazzini, was certainly part of my education at that period.’ (p60)
‘The story of my connection with the Church may be soon told. Brought up in the philosophical Broad Churchism of my father, with an ever –expanding horizon, my mind had at no time undergone any revulsion of feeling such as could be called a religious crisis ; no sense of antagonism to the Church and its teachings had been developed. Though quite aware that my opinions were vastly different from those of the ordinary Churchman, I perhaps hardly appreciated how far I had drifted... As soon as I was ordained I had services in the College Chapel to read, and sermons to preach—with the usual accompaniment of winks and grins from the fellow-students, shufflings of hassocks, racings half-dressed through the prayers on winter mornings, with clicks of watches timing the performance, and all the gaping signs of unconcealed boredom ; but I thought I would like to see something more satisfactory and more definite in the way of Church work than that, and accordingly took a curacy at St. Edward's under a dry evangelical of the steel-knife and lemon-juice type, named Pearson.
If I had nursed in my mind any sentiment of romance in connection with ecclesiastical affairs, it was soon expelled by these experiences... Still I did not torment myself; and when in the following June (1870) the time arrived for my ordination as a priest I prepared myself quite philosophically to go through the ceremony...’(p52)
‘For a couple of years or so after my degree I entered with great zest into this academically intellectual existence...where every subject in Heaven and Earth was discussed, with the university man's perfect freedom of thought and utterance, but also with his perfect absence of practical knowledge or of intention to apply his theories to any practical issue... but after a time it began to pall upon me and bore me.’(p63)
‘I think early in 1871... F. D. Maurice became incumbent of St. Edward's. Maurice had lately come to Cambridge as Professor of Moral Philosophy. Maurice was installed in the living, and thenceforth read the services and prayed and preached, with that profundity of earnest innocence which was so characteristic of him...
Maurice had no great ear for music. The organist and choir revelled in florid hymns about the “blood-of-the-Lamb.” Maurice besought me to alter this and induce them to sing again those fine old hymns like the “Old Hundredth.” A nice task for an amiable curate!’ (p57)
‘It was curious that after having been brought up in and adopted Maurice's views, I should now, having become his curate, feel so uncomfortable as I did. But so it was... I saw a good deal of Maurice. He was kindness itself. I opened out my difficulties to him; and he was I think troubled to find I could not reconcile myself to the position which he occupied apparently without difficulty... I could quite understand his historical-philosophical view of the Creeds and the Old Testament; I had in fact been already, long before, initiated into this Broad Church attitude by my father. But when it came to standing up oneself in church and reciting these documents to a congregation who (as one knew perfectly well) did not understand a word of them, and practically received them in their grossest sense and in a spirit of mere superstition, then I felt is was necessary to draw the line...
The trouble to me was a practical one—namely the insuperable feeling of falsity and dislocation... (that) grew on me more and more till I felt the situation to be intolerable. Sometimes when I was occupied with, and thinking about, quite other things, a kind of shiver would run down my back : " You've got to go, you've got to go," and I felt as if I was being pushed to the edge of a steep place. For it was not altogether easy to face the situation. I was doing very well, in a pecuniary sense, at Cambridge, making with my Fellowship and small offices as lecturer, librarian, etc., £500 or £600 a year, and prospects good for the future ; it did not seem quite reasonable to risk all this for what might after all be only a Quixotic fancy.’(p57-9)
‘By '71 and '72 I began to feel that continued existence in my surroundings was becoming impossible to me. (p66) I had come to feel that the so-called intellectual life of the University was (to me at any rate) a fraud and a weariness... (p72) The tension and dislocation of my life was increasing, and I became aware that a crisis was approaching. In May of the former year I had taken a holiday and got away from Cambridge. In October I returned to my lecturing and College work, but not to the church duties ; and all '72 I continued on... By the end of '72 I was obviously ill and incapacitated, and when I asked for leave of absence for a couple of terms it was readily granted.
The year '73 was an important one for me. Feeling shattered and exhausted, and with a big holiday before me, I determined to go to Italy. It was a new life and I may almost say inspiration. I was alone, still alone; but the healing influences of the air and the sunshine were upon me. The Greek sculpture had a germinative influence on my mind, which adding itself to and corroborating the effect of Whitman's poetry, left with me the seed of new conceptions of life. The marvellous beauty and cleanliness of the human body as presented by the Greek mind... the Greek ideal of the free and gracious life of man at one with nature and the cosmos—so remote from the current ideals of commercialism and Christianity!
I stayed in Italy long enough to see, at Florence, the fireflies skim and flicker over the blossoming wheat-fields of May and June, and then returned home, to find that without worrying about it a change had taken place in my mental attitude which would make my return to the Cambridge life impossible.’ (p68)
‘In November’73, I was at Cannes, wither I had gone with my sister Lizzie on account of her illness. I stayed two or three weeks, and then it became necessary for me to return to be present at our College Fellows’ meeting at Christmas. (p72) Somehow I think I must have dimly understood that the trouble arose partly from a deep want of sympathy between myself and the whole mental attitude, mode of life, and ideals of the university, and of the gilded or silvered youth who lived and moved within it ; for I remember that on the memorable journey from Cannes homewards, when I was revolving the whole situation—the abandonment of my Orders and Fellowship,... and the doubt of what I should or could do in the future, it suddenly flashed upon me, with a vibration through my whole body, that I would and must somehow go and make my life with the mass of the people and the manual workers.
It was in pursuance of this last idea that shortly after... I went to see James Stuart at Trinity, who was just then organizing the first outlines of the University Extension Lecturing Scheme, and asked him if he could find me a place on it. He suggested that I should take the subject of Astronomy... and shortly after I was appointed to begin a course of Lectures (in October 1874) at Leeds, Halifax and Skipton.’(p78)
Carpenter Photos used by permission of the Shieffield City Archives; Edward Carpenter Collection: Carpenter Photo Ref. 8/7. Group Photo at Cambridge Ref.9/163