Friday 7 November 2014

Ian Hamilton at Keble College

To Keble College, Oxford on Wednesday evening, and a shindig to mark the bequest of the poet and critic Ian Hamilton's library to his alma mater.

Keble is a marvellous Victorian gothic pile. The architect William Butterfield used polychromatic brickwork in a style known as 'holy zebra' which has to be seen to be believed. (His All Saints, Margaret Street, in the heart of London, was described by Ian Nairn as 'an orgasm' and has to be seen to be disbelieved.)

I arrived early so had time to visit Butterfield's Keble chapel, a cross between St. Pancras station and a funfair. It was during choir practice and just before evensong, so I took a seat at the back and looked and listened. The mosaics were all in jolly carnival colours and the organ pipes painted like a mighty Wurlitzer. The mellow reverberations were just the thing for a chilly November evening. Far off could be heard the odd percussive whizz-bang of fireworks - it was Bonfire Night, the 5th of November. 2014 is not only the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, but also Butterfield's bi-centenary - he was born on 7th September 1814.

In the library across the quad some of the 500 poetry volumes in the Hamilton bequest were on display and the bursar had pushed the boat out -  the atmosphere was informal and convivial. Speakers included Ian's son Matthew and his younger brother Stewart, his former tutor John Carey and Xandra Gowrie, who worked with Hamilton on the new review. There were messages of support from some very famous authors unable to make it to Oxford that evening, confirming that Hamilton remains a hugely influential and much-missed mentor to a generation of writers.

The poet Alan Jenkins read Matthew Arnold's magnificent Dover Beach, and read it beautifully. Written in 1867 (seven years before the creation of Keble College) it was a favourite poem of Hamilton's and to hear it read in the library of his old college in the company of family and friends was particularly moving and memorable. The College was founded in memory of John Keble (1792-1866), a leading member of the ‘Tractarian’ movement. He was Matthew Arnold's godfather and Hamilton would write a brilliant biography of Arnold. What goes around . . .

Here's Dover Beach:

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

And for the weekend here's a brilliant television documentary about Ian Hamilton, directed by his partner Patricia Wheatley in 2002, the year after his death:

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