Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Jesus College, Oxford: the front quad, looking back from the dining hall steps

A week ago today I flew to England to attend a gaudy at Jesus College, Oxford, where I arrived in the autumn of 1958 as a Rhodes Scholar to begin an undergraduate degree.  In America we denominate academic classes by year of graduation; the Oxford convention is to use the year of matriculation.  The college had invited the extant members of the classes of 1957 and 1958—along with cohorts from the much more recent classes of 1965 and 2005. Twenty-nine of us oldsters signed up.  I considered that not merely a good show but a good omen, since Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales long ago established nine-and-twenty as the proper number of felaweshipe.

            We don’t have the word gaudy (n.) in American English.  We have only the  adjectival form, which is nearly as unpleasant as its cousin tawdry.  Both words will serve to exemplify one theme of this essay—lugubrious decay.  Tawdry stuff was the kind of cheap glitter or textile bling you might buy at Saint Audrey[Ætheldreda]’s Fair.  The original meaning of gaudy was rejoicing, from Latin gaudere, and by the sixteenth century the English noun gaudy denoted a celebrative or ceremonial college feast.  So I flew to England to attend a reunion banquet.

            Academic gaudiation (why not?) has ever been associated with the heedless hedonism of youth, alas so transitory, as in the pseudo-medieval academic anthem par exellence:
            Gaudeamus igitur,
            Iuvenes dum sumus.
            Post iucundam iuventutem,
            Post molestam senectutem,
            Nos habebit humus.
(Therefore let us rejoice while we are young.  After our happy youth, after our painful senility, the earth will have us.)

            Despite the advances (or depredations) of modern educational theory, much of education remains what it has been since time immemorial, a cultural transfer from seniors to juniors, from those who are supposed to know something to those who are supposed to need or want to know it. Yet anyone who has spent a lifetime in the business, as I have done, will be aware that the first requirement of being a teacher is to be a learner.

            I suppose it hardly needs saying even to my blog’s youthful audience that the aging process is by no means uniformly pleasant.  Quite a few people, as they experience it, may find nothing pleasing in it.  How could there not be a sense of constriction, diminishment, and shrinking horizons?  We are all headed, after all, for the “seventh age,” that state of living decay so unequivocally characterized by Shakespeare: Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.  Under these circumstances there must be measurable consolation in the discovery that even learning about decay and loss has its unique fascinations.

            One deeply satisfying pleasure that it is literally impossible to experience until you are ripe in years is to reconnect with old college friends after half a century.  With three or four of my Jesus College contemporaries I have had continuing contact over the years.  We see each other periodically, here or in Europe, and we talk on the phone now and again.  But at the gaudy I reconnected with comrades I had not seen since 1961 and in some instances probably not brought to mind since then.  It is one of the marvels of the intensity and energy of youthful friendship that its embers seem unquenchable.  The old bonhomie can blaze up again in an instant, and with it comes a flood of long-dormant happy memories.

Jesus College, Oxford: the dining hall

            Jesus College, Oxford, was founded in 1571.  It is in fact the only college at either of the old universities to be founded by the Great Elizabeth.  Its old dining hall, modest in size in comparison with the halls of some more opulent neighbors, is a Jacobean gem.  The Fellows’ Library, another jewel, is a miniature version of the spectacular library at Trinity College, Dublin.  I was never allowed near it as an undergraduate, but either because of an optimistic assessment of my eminence as medievalist or one yet more optimistic of my potential as donor, I was singled out for a private guided tour just before dinner.

The Fellows' library           

          Almost anybody can look pretty good in a dinner jacket and dim light, and I thought our group of geezers, crowded around a long high table presided over by the College Principal, made a handsome picture.  You may suspect me of partiality.  The dinner was sumptuous, with several exotic courses, the main one being a piece of duck—tasty, indeed, though oddly quadrilateral in shape, as though the fowl had been long confined in a rebus cube.  The evening’s sole blemish, unfortunately a serious one, was acoustical.  The wine flowed freely, and as it flowed the bibulous braying of the youngsters on the lower benches, echoing through the hall, elevated the decibels to life-threatening levels.  There is a special scientific unit of measure for gaudy noise: the heorot.  It takes its name from Hrothgar’s mead-hall in Beowulf.  One heorot is the amount of noise made by one hundred and twelve drunken, cheering Geats as Wealtheow goes about distributing gold rings.  In the Jesus College dining hall last Friday the noise level averaged 4.3 heorots, and at its crescendo it reached 6.1.  But if the dinner conversation was perforce limited, the good will was boundless.

high jinks in Heorot