Quotations about Oxford

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

A recent visit to Oxford has left me totally besotted. While I await the arrival of my next set of books about or set in Oxford, here are some of the quotes I’ve collected.


“I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking. It is all—the colleges I mean—like an opera.”

 William Butler Yeats, in a letter to Letter to Katharine Tynan


“… [T]he two great turning-points of my life were when my father sent to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison.”

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis


“Yet, even for us, there is left some loveliness of environment, and the dullness of tutors and professors matters very little when one can loiter in the grey cloisters at Magdalen, and listen to some flute-like voice singing in Waynfleete’s chapel, or lie in the green meadow, among the strange snakespotted fritillaries, and watch the sunburnt noon smite to a finer gold the tower’s gilded vanes, or wander up the Christ Church staircase beneath the vaulted ceiling’s shadowy fans, or pass through the sculptured gateway of Laud’s building in the College of St. John.”

Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist


“There was romance in every place. But Venice, like Oxford, had kept the background for romance, and, to the true romantic, background was everything, or almost everything.”

Oscar Wilde, Chapter 14, The Picture of Dorian Gray


“Humid the air! leafless, yet soft as spring,
The tender purple spray on copse and briers!
And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening,

Lovely all times she lies, lovely to-night!—”

Matthew Arnold, Thyrsis


“… the peculiar air of Oxford—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


Emperors' heads, Oxford

Emperors’ heads by the Clarendon Building, Oxford

“From those pedestals which intersperse the railing of the Sheldonian, the high grim busts of the Roman Emperors stared down at the fair stranger in the equipage. Zuleika returned their stare with but a casual glance. The inanimate had little charm for her.

A moment later, a certain old don emerged from Blackwell’s, where he had been buying books. Looking across the road, he saw, to his amazement, great beads of perspiration glistening on the brows of those Emperors. He trembled, and hurried away. That evening, in Common Room, he told what he had seen; and no amount of polite scepticism would convince him that it was but the hallucination of one who had been reading too much Mommsen. He persisted that he had seen what he described. It was not until two days had elapsed that some credence was accorded him.

Yes, as the landau rolled by, sweat started from the brows of the Emperors. They, at least, foresaw the peril that was overhanging Oxford, and they gave such warning as they could.”

Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson


“And far away across the lengthening wold,
Across the willowy flats and thickets brown,
Magdalen’s tall tower tipped with tremulous gold
Marks the long High Street of the little town,
And warns me to return; I must not wait,
Hark! ‘Tis the curfew booming from the bell at Christ
Church gate.”

Oscar Wilde, The Burden of Itys


“I envy you going to Oxford: it is the most flower-like time of one’s life. One sees the shadow of things in silver mirrors. Later on, one sees the Gorgon’s head, and one suffers, because it does not turn one to stone.”

Oscar Wilde, letter to Louis Wilkinson, 28 December 1898


“The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half as much
As intelligent Mr. Toad!”

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows


Gargoyle, Magdalen College, Oxford

Gargoyle, Magdalen College, Oxford

“For, in spite of the roaring of the young lions at the Union, and the screaming of the rabbits in the home of the vivisector, in spite of Keble College, and the tramways, and the sporting prints, Oxford still remains the most beautiful thing in England, and nowhere else are life and art so exquisitely blended, so perfectly made one. Indeed, in most other towns art has often to present herself in the form of a reaction against the sordid ugliness of ignoble lives, but at Oxford she comes to us as an exquisite flower born of the beauty of life and expressive of life’s joy. She finds her home by the Isis as once she did by the Ilissus; the Magdalen walks and the Magdalen cloisters are as dear to her as were ever the silver olives of Colonus and the golden gateway of the house of Pallas: she covers with fanlike tracery the vaulted entrance to Christ Church Hall, and looks out from the windows of Merton; her feet have stirred the Cunmor cowslips, and she gathers fritillaries in the river-fields.”

Oscar Wilde, review of Henry IV at Oxford, Dramatic Review, 23 May 1885


“Oxford lends sweetness to labour and dignity to leisure.”

Henry James, Portraits of Places


“Beautiful city! . . . spreading her gardens to the moonlight, and whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age . . . her ineffable charm. . . . Adorable dreamer, whose heart has been so romantic!”

Matthew Arnold, Preface to Essays in Criticism


“In the summer term Oxford teaches the exquisite art of idleness, one of the most important things that any University can teach, and possibly as the first-fruits of the dreaming in grey cloister and silent garden, which either makes or mars a man …”

Oscar Wilde, review of Primavera in the Pall Mall Gazette, 24 May 1890


“Indeed, there were many, especially among the very young men, who saw, or fancied that they saw, in Dorian Gray, the true realisation of a type of which they had often dreamed in Eton or Oxford days, a type that was to combine something of the real culture of the scholar with all the grace and distinction and perfect manner of a citizen of the world.”

Oscar Wilde, Chapter 11, The Picture of Dorian Gray


“Of course it is a hypothesis, but then it is a hypothesis that explains everything, and if you had been sent to Cambridge to study science, instead of to Oxford to dawdle over literature, you would know that a hypothesis that explains everything is a certainty.”

“Yes, I am aware that Cambridge is a sort of educational institute,” I murmured. “I am glad I was not there.”

Oscar Wilde, The Portrait of Mr W.H.


“OVER, the four long years! And now there rings
One voice of freedom and regret: Farewell!
Now old remembrance sorrows, and now sings:
But song from sorrow, now, I cannot tell.

City of weathered cloister and worn court;
Gray city of strong towers and clustering spires:
Where art’s fresh loveliness would first resort;
Where lingering art kindled her latest fires.

Where on all hands, wondrous with ancient grace,
Grace touched with age, rise works of goodliest men:
Next Wykeham’s art obtain their splendid place
The zeal of Inigo, the strength of Wren.

Where at each coign of every antique street,
A memory hath taken root in stone:
There, Raleigh shone; there, toil’d Franciscan feet;
There, Johnson flinch’d not, but endured alone.

There, Shelley dream’d his white Platonic dreams;
There, classic Landor throve on Roman thought;
There, Addison pursued his quiet themes;
There, smiled Erasmus, and there, Colet taught.

And there, O memory more sweet than all!
Lived he, whose eyes keep yet our passing light;
Whose crystal lips Athenian speech recall;
Who wears Rome’s purple with least pride, most right.

That is the Oxford, strong to charm us yet:
Eternal in her beauty and her past.
What, though her soul be vexed? She can forget
Cares of an hour: only the great things last.

Only the gracious air, only the charm,
And ancient might of true humanities:
These, nor assault of man, nor time, can harm;
Not these, nor Oxford with her memories.

Together have we walked with willing feet
Gardens of plenteous trees, bowering soft lawn:
Hills whither Arnold wandered; and all sweet
June meadows, from the troubling world withdrawn:

Chapels of cedarn fragrance, and rich gloom
Poured from empurpled panes on either hand:
Cool pavements, carved with legends of the tomb;
Grave haunts, where we might dream, and understand.

Over, the four long years! and unknown powers
Call to us, going forth upon our way:
Ah! turn we, and look back upon the towers,
That rose above our lives, and cheered the day.

Proud and serene, against the sky, they gleam:
Proud and secure, upon the earth, they stand:
Our city that the air of a pure dream,
And hers indeed is an Hesperian land.

Think of her so! the wonderful, the fair,
The immemorial, and the ever young:
The city, sweet with our forefathers’ care;
The city, where the Muses all have sung.

Ill times may be; she hath no thought of time:
She reigns beside the waters yet in pride.
Rude voices cry: but in her ears the chime
Of full, sad bells brings back her old springtide.

Like to a queen in pride of place, she wears
The splendour of a crown in Radcliffe’s dome.
Well fare she, well! As perfect beauty fares;
And those high places, that are beauty’s home.”

Lionel Johnson, Oxford


If you liked these quotes about Oxford, you might also like the posts Stony heart and Zuleika Dobson.

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