Poems from The Academy selected by Christopher Ricks

May 27, 2005

A work by Siegfried Sassoon kicks off a series on verse that has been influenced by university life.

Founder's Feast

Old as a toothless Regius Professor
Ebbed the Madeira wine. Loquacious graduates
Sipped it with sublimation. They'd been drinking
The health of... was it Edward the Confessor?

A solemn banquet glowed in every cheek,
While nicotinean fumes befogged the roof
And the carved gallery where prim choristers
Sang like Pre-Raphaelite angels through the reek.

Gowns, rose and scarlet in flamingo ranks,
Adorned the dais that shone with ancient silver;
And guests of honour gazed far down the Hall
With precognition of returning thanks.

There beamed the urbanest Law-lord on the Bench,
Debating with the Provost (ceremonious
In flushed degrees of vintage scholarship),
The politics of Plato, - and the French.

But on the Provost's left, in gold and blue,
Sat...O my God!...great Major-General Bluff...
Enough enough enough enough enough!

Copyright Siegfried Sassoon by kind permission of George Sassoon.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) was an officer and a gentleman in the Great War. He showed many kinds of courage, enlisting and then in due course resisting. A Jewish mother, a homosexual leaning, a Roman Catholic ending: these kept him restive. Sassoon, a fox-hunting man, hunted the pompously flushed, too, and he was a good hater, as evidenced in Counter-Attack : his title of 1918, with its fusillades, Base Details and The General. In the wake of the war, Founder's Feast (what better poem upon which to found a series of poems of academic life, here in The Times Higher ) brings home that on such self-congratulatory Oxbridge occasions to see the truth is to seethe. Ripeness is all that is in the air, felt "through the reek". And Sassoon's poem arrives in the end at something that is oddly rare in English poetry (though it is supposed to be everywhere) - a genuinely entirely iambic line: tee tum tee tum tee tum tee tum tee tum. "Enough!" ("Basta!", you bastards?)

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