Trinity College has made a number of appearances in world literature, broadly conceived, and not only from the pens of its own members. Some passages are anthologised below.
Chaucer’s lusty proto-Trinitarians
And nameliche ther was a greet collegge Men clepen the Soler Halle1 at Cantebregge; …. Thanne were ther yonge povre scolers two, That dwelten in this halle, of which I seye. Testif they were, and lusty for to pleye …
1. ‘Soler Hall’ has sometimes been regarded as a name given to King’s Hall, which was amalgamated with Michaelhouse in 1546 to form Trinity College. Strictly speaking, however, it must be noted that the identification is not absolutely certain (ed.).
From GEOFFREY CHAUCER (ca. 1343–1400), The Reeve’s Tale
Trinity found convenient for Inquisition
The comming of the Inquisitours, and of their enterteinment. This was the yeare of oure lord 1556. To thentent therefore to make a salve for this sore, the Commissioners of whom we spake before, came unto Cambrydge the ninth day of January. As they were yet on theyr iourneye not farre from the towne, divers of the maysters and Presidentes of the Colledges, mette them and brought them courteouslye, first into the towne, and after to theyr lodging. They wer enterteined in Trinitie colledge by John Christoforson maister of the same house, & lately before elected bishop of Chichester. Some were desired to one place, & some to an other, as ther was occasion, either to do theyr duties, or to shewe their good willes. Cole to the kynges Colledge, & Watson to S. Johns. But whether it were for thaquaintaunce of Christophorson, or for ye largenes of ye house, (which forasmuch as it was able to receive them al, semed therefore most mete & convenient to take theyr conferens in, & stood wel for all commers to have accesse unto them) they al tooke up their lodginges there.
From ARTHUR GOLDING [?Queens’ College], A Briefe Treatise Concerning the Burnynge of Bucer and Phagius, at Cambrydge, in the Tyme of Quene Mary (1562)
A house of science
I remember in Trinity Colledge in Cambridge, there was an Upper Chamber, which being thought weak in the Roofe of it, was supported by a Pillar of Iron, of the bignesse of ones Arme, in the middest of the Chamber; Which if you had strucke, it would make a little flat Noise in the Roome where it was struck; But it would make a great Bombe in the Chamber beneath.
From FRANCIS BACON, Viscount St Alban (Trinity, 1572–74), Sylva Sylvarum, or a Naturall History (1626/7)
John Dryden claimed to prefer Oxford…
If his ambition may those hope pursue,
Who with religion loves your arts and you,
Oxford to him a dearer name shall be
Than his own mother-university.
Thebes did his green, unknowing youth engage;
He chooses Athens in his riper age.
From JOHN DRYDEN [Trinity, 1650–54], ‘Prologue to the University of Oxford’ (ca. 1676)
… but owned up eventually
I read Plutarch in the Library of Trinity College in Cambridge, (to which foundation I gratefully acknowledge a great part of my Education;) …
Editor’s note: on Dryden’s time at Trinity, see further the fine study by Paul Hammond, ‘Dryden and Trinity’, Review of English Studies, 36 (1985), 35–57.
From JOHN DRYDEN, ‘The Life of Plutarch’, in Plutarch’s Lives (1683)
A coach may pass between
Cambridge is not as big as Oxon by a deal. its situation is on a low ground, very inconvenient in wet weather, & all the winter (if it be not frosty) for then poeple can hardly walk out of doors dry shod. the street are not much broader than Magpy lane. the Generaility of the Colleges & Halls are something more considerable, yet but few of them can compare with those you have the happiness daily to behold. …. Trinity College is the largest. it hath but 2 Quadrangles. one exceeding great, somewhat (as I guessed then) bigger than that of C. Church, beautified with many verdant plats, seperated so from each other that a coach may pass between: in the midst is erected a comely thing not very unlike that in the upper end of Highstreet near Carfax.1 the other quadrangle2 is much about the bigness of that of Magdalen Coll. This is very stately built. here their Library is, which is underpropt with 2 rowes of round pillars, and one the outward side, a wall, where are 2 noble iron gates. The Library is twice as long as the Musæum,3 all paved with white & black marble. There are 4 large globes in’t, one in every corner. it is not very rich of books, yet it’s better stored than any other place in that University. To this College belong 2 butteries. The under graduates have a green to themselves where they play at football, for an hour after dinner, if the weather be dry. The Masters4 recreate themselves either by bowling in an other green hard by this, or by going along in very pleasant walkes.
1. i.e. Great Court and its fountain.
2. i.e. Nevile’s Court.
3. i.e. the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
4. i.e. the Masters of Arts.
Letter of WILLIAM ROWLANDS (M.A., Oxon) to Hugh Jones, 28 Oct. 1695. Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Ashmole 1817a, fos. 412–13 (transcription kindly supplied by Dr A. M. Roos).
Horace expelled from Trinity
Advice to HORACE to take his Leave of Trinity-College in Cambridge
HORACE, you now have long enough
At Cambridge plaid the fool,
Take back your criticising stuff
To Epicurus’ school.
But in excuse of this you’ll say,
You’re so unwieldy grown,
That if amongst that herd you lay,
You scarcely should be known.
How many butter’d crusts you’ve tost
Into your weem so big,
That you’re more like (at college cost)
A porpus than a pig.
But you from head to foot are brawn,
And so from side to side,
You measure (were a circle drawn)
No longer than you’re wide.
Then bless me, Sir, how many craggs
You’ve drunk of potent ale!
No wonder if the belly swaggs,
That’s rival to a whale.
Ev’n let the fellows take the rest,
They’ve had a jolly taster,
But no great likelihood to feast
’Twixt Horace and the master.
Editor’s note: This offensive doggerel is aimed, not (as might be supposed) at the venerable and admired Roman poet Horace, here strangely reanimated, but rather at the then Master of Trinity, Richard Bentley (1662–1742), whose edition of Horace (1711–18) was notorious for its free conjectural emendations of a very familiar text. More immediately, there had recently been (as the pamphlet earlier makes clear) ‘a prodigious and unusual consumption of bread, ale and firing in the lodge, so that the fellows made a public complaint.’ The verses are in imitation of Horace’s Epistles, II.2: ‘Lusisti satis, edisti satis, atque bibisti’. Relations between the Master and Fellows are now much more cordial.
From WILLIAM KING [matric. Christ Church, Oxford, 1681], ‘Some Account of Horace’s behaviour during his stay at Trinity-College in Cambridge’, in Miscellaneous Poems, Translations, and Imitations, by various hands (1720)
Christopher Smart understands what he professes
Let Dodo rejoice with the purple Worm, who is clothed sumptuously, tho’ he fares meanly. For I bless God in the behalf of TRINITY COLLEGE in CAMBRIDGE and the society of PURPLES in LONDON— … Let ream rejoice with the great Owl, who understandeth that which he professes. For I pray God for the professors of the University of Cambridge to attend and to amend. … For all Foundation is from God depending. For the two Universities are the Eyes of England. For Cambridge is the right and the brightest. For Pembroke Hall was founded more in the Lord than any College in Cambridge.1 For mustard is the proper food of birds and men are bound to cultivate it for their use.
1. It should be borne in mind that Smart wrote these lines whilst incarcerated in a madhouse. (Ed.)
From CHRISTOPHER SMART [Pembroke College, 1737–53], Jubilate Agno (written 1758–1763)
Grand but few
MAY 22.  We breakfasted at Cambridge and then set forward. Bill and myself went after Breakfast and saw King’s Chapel, the finest I ever saw, all fine carved Stone, the Roof of the same – most capital piece of Architecture indeed, gave a man that shew it to us 0. 1. 0. The gentlemen Commoners were black Gowns and gold trimmings made slight upon the sleeves of the same and very small gold Tossills to their square Caps of cloth. The members of Trinity Coll: undergraduates all wear Purple Gowns – gentlemen Commoners were purple Gowns trimmed with silver instead of gold and silver tossills. The Buildings are grand at Cambridge but few of them.
From JAMES (‘PARSON’) WOODFORDE, Diary (1758–1802)
Byron’s Superexcellent Rooms
Trin. Coll. (Wednesday), Novr. 6th, 1805
My Dear Augusta, – As might be supposed I like a College Life extremely, especially as I have escaped the Trammels or rather Fetters of my domestic Tyrant Mrs Byron, who continued to plague me during my visit in July and September. I am now most pleasantly situated in Superexcellent Rooms, flanked on one side by my Tutor, on the other by an old Fellow, both of whom are rather checks upon my vivacity. I am allowed 500 a year, a Servant and Horse, so Feel as independent as a German Prince who coins his own Cash, or a Cherokee Chief who coins no Cash at all, but enjoys what is more precious, Liberty.
GEORGE GORDON, LORD BYRON [Trinity, 1805–07], letter to his sister Augusta, 6 November 1805
Byron keeps a bear
I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame Bear, when I bought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was “he should sit for a fellowship.” Sherard will explain the meaning of the sentence, if it is ambiguous. This answer delighted them not, we have eternal parties here, and this evening a large assortment of Jockies, Gamblers, Boxers, Authors, parsons, and poets, sup with me. – A precious Mixture, and they go well together.
GEORGE GORDON, LORD BYRON, letter to Elizabeth Pigot, 26 October 1807
Unknown, unhonour’d, unwept for
…. The sons of Science these, who thus repaid,
Linger in ease, in Granta’s sluggish shade;
Where on Cam’s sedgy banks supine they lie,
Unknown, unhonour’d live, unwept for, die.
Dull as the pictures, which adorn their halls,
They think all learning fix’d within their walls:
In manners rude, in foolish forms precise,
All modern arts, affecting to despise.
Yet prizing Bentley’s, Brunck’s, or Porson’s note,
More than the verse, on which the critic wrote; ….
GEORGE GORDON, LORD BYRON, ‘Thoughts Suggested by a College Examination’, in Hours of Idleness: A Series of Poems, Original and Translated (1807)
Throw Milton in the Cam
I had thought of the ‘Lycidas’ as a full-grown beauty – as springing up with all its parts absolute – till, in an evil hour, I was shown the original copy of it, together with the other minor poems of the author, in the library of Trinity, kept like some treasure to be proud of. I wish they had thrown them in the Cam, or sent them after the latter Cantos of Spenser, into the Irish Channel. How it staggered me to see the fine things in their ore! interlined, corrected as if their words were mortal, alterable, displaceable at pleasure! as if they might have been otherwise, and just as good! as if inspiration were made up of parts, and these fluctuating, successive, indifferent! I will never go into the workshop of any great artist again.
From CHARLES LAMB, note to ‘Oxford in the Vacation’, in Essays of Elia (1823)
A bruise, and not a man
In June 1833 Samuel Taylor Coleridge came back to to Cambridge for the first time since he had been an undergraduate at Jesus College. His conversation on that occasion, in Connop Thirlwall’s rooms, was recorded by a participant:
… who that was present will ever forget that evening, under the clock at Trinity, which witnessed a symposium from which Plato himself might have carried something away? The remembrance even now creeps over the mind like a Summer Night’s Dream.
From ROBERT ARIS WILLMOTT [Trinity, 1832–42], Conversations at Cambridge (1836)
Coleridge himself recorded the occasion in somewhat more bathetic terms:
My emotions at revisiting the university were at first, overwhelming. I could not speak for an hour; yet my feelings were upon the whole very pleasurable, and I have not passed, of late years at least, three days of such great enjoyment and healthful excitement of mind and body. The bed on which I slept–and slept soundly too–was, as near as I can describe it, a couple of sacks full of potatoes tied together. I understand the young men think it hardens them. Truly I lay down at night a man, and arose in the morning a bruise.
From SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE [Jesus College, 1791–94], letter of June 1833
Nevile’s Court catches light
On Thursday night a fire broke out in Neville’s [sic] Court, which is the most precious part of our College, containing the library. As it is nearly all panelled with oak, considerable apprehension was felt that it would be entirely destroyed. I happened to be in at the time, and certainly the appearance was very alarming; but as engines were soon on the spot, and there was no lack either of water or men to work, we succeeded in putting the flames out entirely in about an hour and a half. …. The damage is very trifling, nothing more than the roof of part of the building is injured; and the College has issued a very nice notice thanking the University and town for their assistance, and at the same time adding that “but for the blessing of Almighty God great damage must have been done.” …. You may picture the scene: long rows of men reaching down to the river some hundred yards distant, others running about with lights, others rescuing books, etc., from rooms in danger. The grass plot reserved for the Fellows’ especial use was trodden down by unprivileged undergraduates.
Letter of BROOKE FOSS WESTCOTT [matric. Trinity 1844; Fellow 1849], Sunday after Ascension, 1847
William Wordsworth’s room with a view
Near me hung Trinity’s loquacious clock,
Who never let the quarters, night or day,
Slip by him unproclaimed, and told the hours
Twice over with a male and female voice.
Her pealing organ was my neighbour too;
And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.
From WILLIAM WORDSWORTH [St John’s College, 1787–91], The Prelude (1850), Book Third
Tennyson returns to Trinity
I past beside the reverend walls
In which of old I wore the gown;
I roved at random through the town,
And saw the tumult of the halls;
And heard once more in College fanes
The storm their high-built organs make,
And thunder-music, rolling, shake
The prophet blazoned on the panes;
And caught once more the distant shout,
The measured pulse of racing oars
Among the willows; paced the shores
And many a bridge, and all about
The same gray flats again, and felt
The same, but not the same; and last
Up that long walk of limes I past
To see the rooms in which he dwelt.
From ALFRED TENNYSON [Trinity, 1828–31], In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850)
Harry Esmond enters Trinity
Mr. Esmond was entered a pensioner of Trinity College in Cambridge, to which famous college my lord had also in his youth belonged. Dr. Montague was Master at this time, and received my Lord Viscount with great politeness; so did Mr. Bridge, who was appointed to be Harry’s tutor. Tom Tusher, who was of Emmanuel College, and was by this time a junior soph, came to wait upon my lord, and to take Harry under his protection; and comfortable rooms being provided for him in the great court close by the gate, and near to the famous Mr. Newton’s lodgings, Harry’s patron took leave of him with many kind words and blessings, and an admonition to him to behave better at the University than my lord himself had ever done.
From WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THAKERAY [Trinity, 1829–30], The History of Henry Esmond (1852)
Celibate encouragements to scholarship
At Trinity College, the largest and wealthiest of the colleges of Cambridge, about four Fellowships are given annually by competition. These Fellowships can only be held on condition of celibacy,1 and the income derived from them is very modest for one single man.2 It is notorious that the examinations for Trinity Fellowships have, directly and indirectly, done much to give a direction to the studies of Cambridge and of all the numerous schools which are the feeders of Cambridge.
1. This is no longer the case. (Ed.)
2. Or woman. This is still the case. (Ed.)
From THOMAS BABINGTON MACAULAY [matric. 1818, Fellow 1825], Report on the Indian Civil Service (1854)
Wives, Daughters … and Fellows of Trinity
He is a very brilliant, clever young man, and he quite hopes to get a fellowship at Trinity.
From ELIZABETH GASKELL, Wives and Daughters (1865)
Lord Gerald sees the Derby
Lord Gerald Palliser, the Duke’s second son, was at this time at Cambridge,– being almost as popular at Trinity as his brother had been at Christ Church. It was to him quite a matter of course that he should see his brother’s horse run for the Derby. But, unfortunately, in this very year a stand was being made by the University pundits against a practice which they thought had become too general. For the last year or two, it had been considered almost as much a matter of course that a Cambridge undergraduate should go to the Derby as that a Member of Parliament should do so. Against this three or four rigid disciplinarians had raised their voices,– and as a result, no young man up at Trinity could get leave to be away on the Derby pretext. ‘Lord Gerald raged against the restriction very loudly. He at first proclaimed his intention of ignoring the college authorities altogether. Of course he would be expelled. But the order itself was to his thinking so absurd,- the idea that he should not see his brother’s horse run was so extravagant,– that he argued that his father could not be angry with him for incurring dismissal in so excellent a cause. But his brother saw things in a different light. He knew how his father had looked at him when he had been sent away from Oxford, and he counselled moderation. Gerald should see the Derby, but should not encounter that heaviest wrath of all which comes from a man’s not sleeping beneath his college roof. There was a train which left Cambridge at an early hour, and would bring him into London in time to accompany his friends to the racecourse;– and another train, a special, which would take him down after dinner, so that he and others should reach Cambridge before the college gates were shut.
Editor’s note: But Gerald – of course – misses the train, and is sent down the next day.
From ANTHONY TROLLOPE, The Duke’s Children (1880)
George Eliot recalls her duty
I remember how, at Cambridge, I walked with her once in the Fellows’ Garden of Trinity, on an evening of rainy May; and she, stirred somewhat beyond her wont, and taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-calls of men the words God, Immortality, Duty pronounced, with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third. Never perhaps, have sterner accents affirmed the sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing Law. I listened, and night fell; her grave, majestic countenance turned toward me like a sibyl’s in the gloom; it was as though she withdrew from my grasp, one by one, the two scrolls of promise, and left me the third scroll only, awful with inevitable fates. And when we stood at length and parted amid that columnar circuit of the forest trees, beneath the last twilight of starless skies, I seemed to be gazing, like Titus at Jerusalem, on vacant seats and empty halls on a sanctuary with no Presence to hallow it, and heaven left lonely of a God.
From F. H. W. MYERS [Fellow, 1865–69], ‘George Eliot’, in The Century Magazine (November, 1881)
How great had been his success!
Herbert was back again at Trinity. He wore a long B.A. gown now, with ribbons on it, that he made no attempt to hide, and a fur hood over his surplice, and sat in great dignity in the Bachelors’ seats in chapel, and at the Fellows’ table in Hall.
He was a Fellow of Trinity!
He sat at the high table now, and the grave portraits of the founders and the illustrious dead looked down upon him approvingly.
The ardours, the sorrows, the struggles of the race, were all over; only the brilliant achievement remained. The great cloud of witnesses that looked down from those old rafters overhead upon those who feasted there had never approved a more nobly earned success in the rich intellectual history of the past of Trinity.
He wore his honours as he had worn his misfortunes, with becoming modesty, and was warmly welcomed by the grave, scholarly old Fellows who sat round the great horseshoe table in the Combination Room.
Perhaps he never quite realized until he sat there, on that first night of his Fellowship after Hall, mute and wondering, enjoying the walnuts and the wine – and all that the walnuts and the wine round that horseshoe table represented of scholarly and philosophical learning and culture – how great had been his success!
From ‘ALAN ST. AUBYN’ (Frances L. Marshall, née Bridges), A Fellow of Trinity (1890)
Fellow of Trinity not successful in life
Her father was a gentleman, I believe – a Fellow of Trinity, Cambridge – and a clergyman, if that means anything! … he was unfortunate and all that – a – intemperate, I fear, and not successful in life. He has been dead six or seven years.
From GEORGE DU MAURIER, Trilby (1894)
Sir Anthony Gloster rues his son’s education
Then came the armour-contracts, but that was M’Cullough’s side;
He was always best in the Foundry, but better, perhaps, he died.
I went through his private papers; the notes was plainer than print;
And I’m no fool to finish if a man’ll give me a hint.
(I remember his widow was angry.) So I saw what his drawings meant;
And I started the six-inch rollers, and it paid me sixty per cent.
Sixty per cent with failures, and more than twice we could do,
And a quarter-million to credit, and I saved it all for you!
I thought – it doesn’t matter – you seemed to favour your ma,
But you’re nearer forty than thirty, and I know the kind you are.
Harrer an’ Trinity College!1 I ought to ha’ sent you to sea –
But I stood you an education, an’ what have you done for me?
The things I knew was proper you wouldn’t thank me to give,
And the things I knew was rotten you said was the way to live.
For you muddled with books and pictures, an’ china an’ etchin’s an’ fans.
And your rooms at college was beastly – more like a whore’s than a man’s;
Till you married that thin-flanked woman, as white and as stale as a bone,
An’ she gave you your social nonsense; but where’s that kid o’ your own?
I’ve seen your carriages blocking the half o’ the Cromwell Road,
But never the doctor’s brougham to help the missus unload. ….
For my son ’e was never a credit: ’e muddled with books and art,
And ’e lived on Sir Anthony’s money and ’e broke Sir Anthony’s heart.
There isn’t even a grandchild, and the Gloster family’s done –
The only one you left me – O mother, the only one!
Harrer and Trinity College – me slavin’ early an’ late –
An’ he thinks I’m dying crazy, and you’re in Macassar Strait!
1. It is possible that the poet intends Oxford; yet the context seems to make Cambridge more likely (ed.)
From RUDYARD KIPLING, ‘The Mary Gloster‘ (1896)
A venerable College, for centuries devoted to learning
The mornings in Cambridge are for books, the afternoon for exercise, and the evening for social intercourse. So, at least, the majority of the undergraduate members of the University regard them, and sometimes throw in an extra hour or two for work between tea and dinner. Of course there are those who work all the evening as well as all the morning, and there are others who do not work at all; but the morning for lectures and books is a general rule, and one that has few exceptions, however squeezed up the morning may be between late breakfast and early luncheon. If you go into the Great Court of Trinity, let us say about ten minutes to eleven in the morning, you will find it, comparatively speaking, deserted. Quite deserted it never is, unless in the dead hours of night, and not always then; but now its chief occupants appear to be the bed-makers, who empty their pails down the gratings, or stand for a few minutes’ gossip by their respective staircases. Every now and then an idler passes through in a leisurely manner, or a don scurries across the grass in a terrible hurry. White-aproned cooks from the college kitchens collect plate and crockery from the various gyp-rooms and carry them away in green boxes balanced on their heads. Tradesmen’s boys, their baskets on their arms, pass from one staircase to another, quite unawed by their surroundings, whilsting as if their errands wwere taking them down a street of numbered houses instead of to the studious rooms of a venerable college, for centuries devoted to learning. But of the undergraduate life which is so busy in the courts of a college at other times of the day there is very little, for most undergraduates are listening to lecturers or coaches, or reading in their own rooms.
From ARCHBOLD MARSHALL (Arthur Hammond Marshall) [Trinity, 1890–94], Peter Binney, Undergraduate (1899)
Its disdainful radiance
One night, just before ten o’clock, he [Maurice] slipped into Trinity and waited in the Great Court until the gates were shut behind him. Looking up, he noticed the night. He was indifferent to beauty as a rule, but “what a show of stars!” he thought. And how the fountain splashed when the chimes died away, and the gates and doors all over Cambridge had been fastened up. Trinity men were around him – all of enormous intellect and culture. Maurice’s set had laughed at Trinity, but they could not ignore its disdainful radiance, or deny the superiority it scarcely troubles to affirm. He had come to it without their knowledge, humbly, to ask its help. His witty speech faded in its atmosphere, and his heart beat violently. He was ashamed and afraid.
From E. M. FORSTER [matric. King’s 1897], Maurice (completed 1914, published 1970)
The lamp of learning sheds a suburban light
The waiters at Trinity must have been shuffling china plates like cards, from the clatter that could be heard in the Great Court. …. Coming down the steps a little sideways [Jacob sat on the window-seat talking to Durrant; he smoked, and Durrant looked at the map], the old man, with his hands locked behind him, his gown floating black, lurched, unsteadily, near the wall; then, upstairs he went into his room. Then another, who raised his hand and praised the columns, the gate, the sky; another, tripping and smug. Each went up a staircase; three lights were lit in the dark windows. If any light burns above Cambridge, it must be from three such rooms; Greek burns here; science there; philosophy on the ground floor. Poor old Huxtable can’t walk straight;–Sopwith, too, has praised the sky any night these twenty years; and Cowan still chuckles at the same stories. It is not simple, or pure, or wholly splendid, the lamp of learning, since if you see them there under its light (whether Rossetti’s on the wall, or Van Gogh reproduced, whether there are lilacs in the bowl or rusty pipes), how priestly they look! How like a suburb where you go to see a view and eat a special cake! “We are the sole purveyors of this cake.” Back you go to London; for the treat is over.
From VIRGINIA WOOLF, Jacob’s Room (1922)
A famous, but indifferent library
It then occurred to me that the very manuscript itself which Lamb had looked at was only a few hundred yards away, so that one could follow Lamb’s footsteps across the quadrangle to that famous library where the treasure is kept. Moreover, I recollected, as I put this plan into execution, it is in this famous library that the manuscript of Thackeray’s Esmond is also preserved. The critics often say that Esmond is Thackeray’s most perfect novel. But the affectation of the style, with its imitation of the eighteenth century, hampers one, so far as I remember; unless indeed the eighteenth-century style was natural to Thackeray – a fact that one might prove by looking at the manuscript and seeing whether the alterations were for the benefit of the style or of the sense. But then one would have to decide what is style and what is meaning, a question which – but here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the college or furnished with a letter of introduction. That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library. Venerable and calm, with all its treasures safe locked within its breast, it sleeps complacently and will, so far as I am concerned, so sleep for ever.
From VIRGINIA WOOLF, A Room of One’s Own (1929)
Editor’s note: it was a different age. The Wren Library welcomes all vistors.
A violet conflagration
Supper. The regal dining hall
graced by the likeness of Henry the Eighth –
those tight-sheathed calves, that beard –
all by the sumptuous Holbein limned;
inside that singularly towering hall
that choir lofts made appear so tall,
it was perpetually murky
despite the violet conflagration,
that filtered through the colour panes.
The naked benches stretched along
the naked tables; there we sat,
in the black cowls of brothers’ capes,
and ate the over-seasoned soups
made out of pallid vegetables.
From VLADIMIR NABOKOV [Trinity, 1919–22], ‘The University Poem’ (1926), trans. by Dmitri Nabokov
A fishy student
Ronald Overbury Fish was a pink-faced young man of small stature and extraordinary solemnity. He had been at school with Hugo and also at the University. Eton was entitled to point with pride at both of them, and only had itself to blame if it refused to do so. The same remark applies to Trinity College, Cambridge.
From P. G. WODEHOUSE, Money for Nothing (1928)
Trinity’s artless perfection
And at night, when work was over and the time was near for coffee and a friend, there was the Great Court of Trinity, wonderful at all times in the artless perfection of its circuit and the supreme art of its fountain, most wonderful under a veiled moon when lighted windows throw the walls into mystery, and the water murmurs in the darkness. And once there was an evening when the sun sank behind Madingley in a sky blood-red from horizon to zenith, and the trees took on a mourning garb of sombre purple, and the dusk was heavy with the fate of ancient gods. At such times there would come to me something of what Wordsworth and the mystics have made familiar – the sense that for a moment time had stopped, that suddenly the visible world had become transparent, that the eternal reality, beyond and behind things of sense, had been unveiled and in an instant of rapture had enfolded me into union with itself.
From CHARLES E. RAVEN [Gonville and Caius, 1905–08; Dean of Emmanuel 1910–14; Regius Professor of Divinity, 1932–50; Master of Christ’s, 1939–50; Vice-Chancellor, 1947–49; Warden of Madingley Hall, 1950–54], A Wanderer’s Way (1928)
Mr Hankin starts Oxonians on margarine
“Mr Ingleby, can you spare me a moment?” At Mr Hankin’s mildly sarcastic accents, the scene dislimned as by magic. The door-post drapers and Miss Parton’s bosom-friend melted out into the passage, Mr Willis, rising hurriedly with the tray of carbons in his hand, picked a paper out at random and frowned furiously at it, Miss Parton’s cigarette dropped unostentatiously to the floor, Mr Garrett, unable to get rid of his coffee-cup, smiled vaguely and tried to look as though he had picked it up by accident and didn’t know it was there, Miss Meteyard, with great presence of mind, put the sweep counterfoils on a chair and sat on them, Miss Rossiter, clutching Mr Armstrong’s carbons in her hand, was able to look businesslike, and did so. Mr Ingleby alone, disdaining pretence, set down his cup with a slightly impudent smile and advanced to obey his chief’s command. “This,” said Mr Hankin, tactfully blind to all evidences of disturbance, “is Mr Bredon. You will—er—show him what he has to do. I have had the Dairyfields guard-books sent along to his room. You might start him on margarine. Er—I don’t think Mr Ingleby was up in your time, Mr Bredon—he was at Trinity. Your Trinity, I mean, not ours.” (Mr Hankin was a Cambridge man.)
From DOROTHY L. SAYERS [Somerville College, Oxford, 1912–15], Murder Must Advertise (1933)
Egg-laying mammal passes examination
I had a duck-billed platypus when I was up at Trinity,
With whom I soon discovered a remarkable affinity.
He used to live in lodgings with myself and Arthur Purvis,
And we all went up together for the Diplomatic Service.
I had a certain confidence, I own, in his ability,
He mastered all the subjects with remarkable facility;
And Purvis, though more dubious, agreed that he was clever,
But no one else imagined he had any chance whatever.
I failed to pass the interview, the board with wry grimaces
Took exception to my boots and then objected to my braces,
And Purvis too was failed by an intolerant examiner
Who said he had his doubts as to his sock-suspender’s stamina.
Our summary rejection, though we took it with urbanity
Was naturally wounding in some measure to our vanity;
The bitterness of failure was considerably mollified,
However, by the ease with which our platypus had qualified.
From PATRICK BARRINGTON [Magdalen College, Oxford], ‘The Diplomatic Platypus’, in Songs of a Sub-Man (1934)
Editor’s note: the author of this poem, the future 11th Viscount Barrington of Ardglass (1908–1990) was at Oxford, and so it is possible that we have appropriated his platypus unjustly. But the generous reader will forgive the liberty.
Nuts to anywhere else
I was about fifteen when (in a rather odd way) my ambitions took a sharper turn. There is a book by ‘Alan St Aubyn’ called A Fellow of Trinity, one of series dealing with what is supposed to be Cambridge college life.1 I suppose that it is a worse book than most of Marie Corelli’s; but a book can hardly be entirely bad if it fires a clever boy’s imagination. There are two heroes, a primary hero called Flowers, who is almost wholly good, and a secondary hero, a much weaker vessel, called Brown. Flowers and Brown find many dangers in university life, but the worst is a gambling saloon in Chesterton run by the Misses Bellenden, two fascinating but extremely wicked young ladies. Flowers survives all these troubles, is Second Wrangler and Senior Classic, and succeeds automatically to a Fellowship (as I suppose he would have done then). Brown succumbs, ruins his parents, takes to drink, is saved from delirium tremens during a thunderstorm only by the prayers of the Junior Dean, has much difficulty in obtaining even an Ordinary Degree, and ultimately becomes a missionary. The friendship is shattered by these unhappy events, and Flowers’s thoughts stray to Brown, with affectionate pity, as he drinks port and eats walnuts for the first time in Senior Combination Room. Now Flowers was a decent enough Fellow (so far as ‘Alan St Aubyn’ could draw one), but even my unsophisticated mind refused to accept him as clever. If he could do these things, why not I? In particular, the final scene in Combination Room fascinated me completely, and from that time, until I obtained one, mathematics meant to me primarily a Fellowship of Trinity.
1. See entry above (ed.).
From G. H. HARDY [Fellow, 1900–19 and 1931–42], A Mathematician’s Apology (1940)
Masters of Trinity
Instantly there were some heavy tablets in his hand, signed by Aristotle, a parchment signed by Hecate, and some typewritten duplicates signed by the Master of Trinity, who could not remember having met him. All these gave Merlyn an excellent character.
From T. H. WHITE [Queens’ College, 1925-29], The Sword in the Stone (1939)
… he would dream of impossible successes: imagining that the Master of Trinity had referred to him by name in a lecture, or that Dr. Cook had offered to mention him in a footnote to Zeus.
From T. H. WHITE, Mistress Masham’s Repose (1947)
Vladimir Nabokov brings Tirana to Trinity
Not once in my three years of Cambridge – repeat: not once – did I visit the University Library, or even bother to locate it (I know its new place now), or find out if there existed a College library where books might be borrowed for reading in one’s digs. I skipped lectures. I sneaked to London and elsewhere. I conducted several love affairs simultaneously. I had dreadful interviews with Mr Harrison.1 I translated into Russian a score of poems by Rupert Brooke, Alice in Wonderland, and Romain Rolland’s Colas Breugnon. Scholastically, I might as well have gone up to the Inst. M. M. of Tirana.
1. Nabokov’s Tutor.
From VLADIMIR NABOKOV [matric. 1920], Speak Memory (1951)
That class of beings which is regarded with deep suspicion
I felt terribly lonely in my first few days at Trinity …. But suddenly everything changed, and almost for the first time one felt that to be young was very heaven. The reason was simple. Suddenly I found to my astonishment that there were a number of people near and about me with whom I could enjoy the exciting and at the same time profound happiness of friendship. …. Lytton [Strachey], Saxon [Sydney-Turner], Thoby [Stephen], and I belonged, unconcealably and unashamedly, to that class of human beings which is regarded with deep suspicion in Britain, and particularly in public schools and universities, the intellectual.
From LEONARD WOOLF [matric. 1899], Sowing: An Autobiography of the Years 1880 to 1904 (1960)
A wholly unnecessary part of the university
In my third year, however, I met G. E. Moore, who was then a freshman, and for some years he fulfilled my ideal of genius. He was in those days beautiful and slim, with a look almost of inspiration, and with an intellect as deeply passionate as Spinoza’s. He had a kind of exquisite purity. I have never but once succeeded in making him tell a lie, that was by a subterfuge, “Moore,” I said, “do you always speak the truth?” “No”, he replied. I believe this to be the only lie he had ever told. ….
As an undergraduate I was persuaded that the Dons were a wholly unnecessary part of the university. I derived no benefits from lectures, and I made a vow to myself that when in due course I became a lecturer I would not suppose that lecturing did any good. I have kept this vow. ….
Cambridge was important in my life through the fact that it gave me friends, and experience of intellectual discussion, but it was not important through the actual academic instruction. Of the mathematical teaching I have already spoken. Most of what I learned in philosophy has come to seem to me erroneous, and I spent many subsequent years in gradually unlearning the habits of thought which I had there acquired. The one habit of thought of real value that I acquired there was intellectual honesty. This virtue certainly existed not only among my friends, but among my teachers. I cannot remember any instance of a teacher resenting it when one of his pupils showed him to be in error, though I can remember quite a number of occasions on which pupils succeeded in performing this feat. Once during a lecture on hydrostatics, one of the young men interrupted to say: “Have you not forgotten the centrifugal forces on the lid?” The lecturer gasped, and then said: “I have been doing this example that way for twenty years, but you are right.” It was a blow to me during the War to find that, even at Cambridge, intellectual honesty had its limitations. Until then, wherever I lived, I felt that Cambridge was the only place on earth that I could regard as home.
From BERTRAND RUSSELL [matric. 1890; Fellow 1895–1900, 1911–1916 (dismissed upon being convicted of making ‘statements likely to prejudice the recruiting and discipline of His Majesty’s forces’), reinstated 1919, resigned 1920, Tarner Lecturer 1926, Fellow 1944–1949; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1950], Autobiography, 3 vols, vol. I (1967; portions first published as ‘Portraits from Memory’, 1956)
Cunning semantic subterfuge
Bertrand Russell: One of the advantages of living in Great Court, Trinity, I seem to recall, was the fact that one could pop across at any time of the day or night and trap the then young G.E. Moore into a logical falsehood by means of a cunning semantic subterfuge. I recall one occasion with particular vividness. I had popped across and had knocked upon his door.
“Come in”, he said. I decided to wait awhile in order to test the validity of his proposition.
“Come in”, he said once again.
“Very well”, I replied, “if that is in fact truly what you wish”. I opened the door accordingly and went in, and there was Moore seated by the fire with a basket upon his knees.
“Moore”, I said, “do you have any apples in that basket?”
“No”, he replied, and smiled seraphically, as was his wont. I decided to try a different logical tack.
“Moore”, I said, “do you then have some apples in that basket?”
“No”, he replied, leaving me in a logical cleft stick from which I had but one way out.
“Moore”, I said, “do you then have apples in that basket?”
“Yes”, he replied. And from that day forth, we remained the very closest of friends.
From JONATHAN MILLER [St John’s], ‘Portrait from Memory’, on the LP Beyond the Fringe (1962)
The truly dined
The moon was in the Cambridge sky
And bathed Great Court in silver light
When Hastings-Bass and Woods and I
And quiet Elizabeth, tall and white,
With that sure clarity of mind
Which comes to those who’ve truly dined,
Reluctant rose to say good-night;
And all of us were bathed the while
In the large moon of Harry’s smile.
Editor’s note: The poem goes on to record Prince Charles’s command to Betjeman to write a poem for his Investiture as Prince of Wales. ‘Harry’ is the Rev. H. A. Williams (1919–2006), then Dean of Chapel at Trinity. ‘Quiet Elizabeth, tall and white’ seems likely to be an allusion to the splendid full-length portrait of Queen Elizabeth I that hangs in the Master’s Lodge.
From JOHN BETJEMAN, ‘A Ballad of the Investiture 1969’ (1974)
Never forget to do that
“I’ll see you lot later,” he said and left his room to his friends.
Wilfred jumped down the wooden stairs, across Great Court, tapping the sundial as he went, never forget to do that, past Hall, under the Wren Library and out through the iron screens on to the Backs. He walked vigorously, a slim, strong, wiry figure, given to sudden changes of direction and pace. When he found his favourite spot on the sloping bank, underneath a willow tree, where he enjoyed the sensation of being slowly but imperceptibly pulled by his heels into the river, he sat down and lit a pipe with quick, deliberate movements.
From JONATHAN SMITH, Wilfred and Eileen (1976; repr. Persephone Books, 2014)
It could have been King’s Cross
And now his heart leapt. She was coming purposefully towards him and breaking into a run. They met and he took her outstretched hands in his. She looked into his eyes and saw that hers were brimming with tears.
He said gently, “My darling, do you need more time?”
“No more time. The answer is yes, yes, yes!”
He didn’t take her in his arms, nor did they kiss. For those first sweet intimacies they needed solitude. For the moment he was content to feel her hands in his and let the extraordinary fount of happiness well up through every vein until it broke and he threw back his head and laughed his triumph aloud. And now she too was laughing.
“What a place for a proposal! Still, it might have been worse. It could have been King’s Cross.” She looked at her watch and added. “Adam, the train goes in three minutes. We could wake to the sound of fountains in Trinity Great Court.”
From P. D. JAMES, The Murder Room (2003)
How all cities should be
December 1951 was sunny but bitterly cold and though there was no snow the Cam was frozen and the lawns and quadrangles white with frost; coming to it from the soot and grime of the West Riding I thought I had never seen or imagined a place of such beauty. And even today the only place that has enchanted me as much as Cambridge did then is Venice. It was out of term, the university had gone down and apart from candidates like myself who had come up for the examination there was nobody about. But then that was true of most English country towns in the early 1950s when tourism was not yet an option. I walked through King’s, past Clare, Trinity Hall and Caius and then through the back gate of Trinity and out into Trinity Great Court and thought that this was how all cities should be. Nothing disconcerted this wandering boy and I even managed to find the smell of old dinner that clung to the screens passage in the college halls somehow romantic and redolent of the past.
From ALAN BENNETT [Exeter College, Oxford 1954–57], ‘The History Boy’, London Review of Books (3 June 2004)
Lukas introduces us.
“What’s this about?” I ask.
“The Mallard fell down,” he says with excitement.
Is he barmy?
Lukas leans forward to explain. He points up to the eaves above our heads. “There’s usually a duck up in the rafters. Don’t ask me why. It’s one of Trinity’s traditions.”
“I’ve heard about it!” I suddenly recall a vague memory.
“Not ‘it’: ‘them’. A veritable flock have fallen down over the years,” Lukas reveals. “Harry wants to put the next one up.”
“How will you do that?” I ask with curiosity. It’s a very high ceiling.
He taps the side of his nose.
From PAIGE TOON, One Perfect Summer (2012)
Suggestions of further passages appropriate (or indeed inappropriate) for inclusion in Trinity in Literature are welcome, and should be addressed to the Secretary of the Website Committee, who would like to thank all those who have already contributed passages: Philip Allott, Nicholas Denyer, John Easterling, Stefan Fraczek, Anne Henry, Boyd Hilton, Douglas Kennedy, E. J. Kenney, Simon Keynes, Yascha Mounk, Vicky Neale, Robert Neild, Deirdre Parsons, Geraldine Parsons, Anna Marie Roos, Peter Sarris, Nellie Phoca-Cosmetatou, Liz Potter, Rod Pullen, Rebecca Rushforth, Anil Seal, William Spencer, Chris Stone, Andrew Taylor, Jeanine Van Order, Tony Weir, and Paula Wolff.