The Spires of Oxford

March 17 2014

Another bad poem that good people enjoyed, and took to the trenches, appeared in Winifred LettsThe Spires of Oxford, and Other Poems, New York, EP Dutton, 1917 and in A Treasury of War Poetry, British and American Poems of the World War, 1914-1917, Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1917. The latter was extended in a second volume to 1919. What were the English editions?

WM, or Winifred Mary, Letts (1882-1972) was English-born, but lived in Ireland. She wrote other popular poems, including one called The Deserter, which was in her The Spires of Oxford, but not the Treasury. Stanford set some of them.

The Oxford poem might (even in its modesty) have had a meaning for Toynbee, who was an Oxford don when the War began and felt the guilt of a survivor (and was probably a draft dodger on top of it). To the end of his life he kept pictures on his mantlepiece of his friends who had died, and for his Ad Portas speech at his old school, Winchester College, in 1974, his last public appearance, he paid homage to them in Latin. (The phrase “dreaming spires” is from Matthew Arnold’s Thyrsis.)

“I saw the spires of Oxford
As I was passing by,
The gray spires of Oxford
Against the pearl-gray sky.
My heart was with the Oxford men
Who went abroad to die.

The years go fast in Oxford,
The golden years and gay,
The hoary Colleges look down
On careless boys at play.
But when the bugles sounded war
They put their games away.

They left the peaceful river,
The cricket-field, the quad,
The shaven lawns of Oxford,
To seek a bloody sod –
They gave their merry youth away
For country and for God.

God rest you, happy gentlemen,
Who laid your good lives down,
Who took the khaki and the gun
Instead of cap and gown.
God bring you to a fairer place
Than even Oxford town.”

2 Responses to “The Spires of Oxford”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    There are a couple of other Oxford-in-wartime poems, not by her, in A Treasury of War Poetry.

    Hallowe’en and Other Poems of the War was the name of the original English edition of The Spires of Oxford, and Other Poems.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Women could disguise their gender by using initials.

    Or by devices such as George Sand, George Eliot, Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë).


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