Poems from the academy selected by Christopher Ricks

October 14, 2005

The Vulture and the Husbandman - by Arthur Clement Hilton (writing as Louisa Caroline)

The rain was raining cheerfully,
As if it had been May;
The Senate-House appeared inside
Unusually gay;
And this was strange, because it was A Viva-voce day.

The men were sitting sulkily,
Their paper work was done;
They wanted much to go away
To ride or row or run;"It's very rude," they said, "to keep
Us here, and spoil our fun."

The papers they had finished lay
In piles of blue and white.
They answered every thing they could,
And wrote with all their might,
But, though they wrote it all by rote,
They did not write it right.

The Vulture and the Husbandman
Beside these piles did stand,
They wept like anything to see
The work they had in hand."If this were only finished up,"
Said they, "it would be grand!"

"If seven D's or seven C's
We give to all the crowd,
Do you suppose," the Vulture said,
"That we could get them ploughed?"
"I think so," said the Husbandman,
"But pray don't talk so loud."

"O undergraduates, come up,"
The Vulture did beseech,
"And let us see if you can learn
As well as we can teach;
We cannot do with more than two
To have a word with each."

Two Undergraduates came up,
And slowly took a seat,
They knit their brows, and bit their thumbs,
As if they found them sweet,
And this was odd, because you know
Thumbs are not good to eat.

"The time has come," the Vulture said,
"To talk of many things,
Of Accidence and Adjectives,
And names of Jewish kings,
How many notes a sackbut has,
And whether shawms have strings."

"Please, Sir," the Undergraduates said,
Turning a little blue,
"We did not know that was the sort
Of thing we had to do."
"We thank you much," the Vulture said,
"Send up another two."

Two more came up, and then two more,
And more, and more and more;
And some looked upwards at the roof,
Some down upon the floor,
But none were any wiser than
The pair that went before.

"I weep for you," the Vulture said,
"I deeply sympathise!"
With sobs and tears he gave them all
D's of the largest size,
While at the Husbandman he winked
One of his streaming eyes.

"I think," observed the Husbandman,
"We're getting on too quick.
Are we not putting down the D's
A little bit too thick?"
The Vulture said with much disgust
"Their answers make me sick."

"Now, Undergraduates," he cried,
Our fun is nearly done,
"Will anybody else come up?"
But answer came there none;
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd ploughed them every one!

They sound familiar, The Vulture and the Husbandman . And so they are, they are. " The Walrus and the Carpenter/ Were walking close at hand ": in 1872 Lewis Carroll had given the world his masterpiece of hypocritical tearfulness, tucked within Through the Looking-Glass . Carroll was an Oxford man, or rather the real-life Rev Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was. And then, later in 1872, along came a Cambridge man, Arthur Clement Hilton (1851-77), determined to go one better and to parody the great parodist. So the Walrus and the Carpenter became the Vulture and the Husbandman. In opposition to the Dark Blue, Hilton was offering a Cambridge periodical, The Light Green , and there he came clean about what mattered most at both Oxford and Cambridge: how you did in the exams. There is no nonsense about these nonsense verses. The Vulture and the Husbandman is attributed, not to Lewis Carroll, but to what sounds like a distant relative: Louisa Caroline. An introductory note spells out the cruel lingo of the exam world, where to fail was to be "plucked" or to "plough"; "a Vulture is a rapacious and obscene bird, which destroys its prey by plucking it limb from limb with its powerful beak and talons. A Husbandman is a man in a low position of life, who supports himself by the use of the plough." Just see how much the co-examiners enjoy their dark work. But then Hilton enjoyed his work no end, not least because he was so enjoying Carroll's too.

Christopher Ricks is professor of poetry, Oxford University, and professor of the humanities at Boston University, US.

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