THE NEW BELFRY
CHRIST CHURCH, OXFORD.
§ 1. On the etymological significance of the new Belfry, Ch. Ch.
The word 'Belfry' is derived from the French bel, 'beautiful, becoming, meet,' and from the German frei, 'free, unfettered, secure, safe.' Thus the word is strictly equivalent to 'meat-safe,' to which the new Belfry bears a resemblance so perfect as almost to amount to coincidence.
§ 2. On the style of the new Belfry, Ch. Ch.
The style is that which is usually known as 'Early Debased': very early, and remarkably debased.
§ 3. On the origin of the new Belfry, Ch. Ch.
Outsiders have enquired, with a persistence verging on personality, and with a recklessness scarcely distinguishable from insanity, to whom we are to attribute the first grand conception of the work. Was it the Treasurer, say they, who thus strove to force it on an unwilling House? Was it a Professor who designed this box, which, whether with a lid on or not, equally offends the eye? Or was it a Censor whose weird spells evoked the horrid thing, the bane of this and of succeeding generations? Until some reply is given to these and similar questions, they must and will remain—for ever—unanswered!
On this point Rumour has been unusually busy. Some say that the Governing Body evolved the idea in solemn conclave—the original motion being to adopt the Tower of St. Mark's at Venice as a model: and that by a series of amendments it was reduced at last to a simple cube. Others say that the Reader in Chemistry suggested it as a form of crystal. There are others who affirm that the Mathematical Lecturer found it in the Eleventh Book of Euclid. In fact, there is no end to the various myths afloat on the subject. Most fortunately, we are in possession of the real story.
The true origin of the design is as follows: we have it on the very best authority.
The head of the House, and the architect, feeling a natural wish that their names should be embodied, in some conspicuous way, among the alterations then in progress, conceived the beautiful and unique idea of representing, by means of the new Belfry, a gigantic copy of a Greek Lexicon. But, before the idea had been reduced to a working form, business took them both to London for a few days, and during their absence, somehow (this part of the business has never been satisfactorily explained) the whole thing was put into the hands of a wandering architect, who gave the name of Jeeby. As the poor man is now incarcerated at Hanwell, we will not be too hard upon his memory, but will only say that he professed to have originated the idea in a moment of inspiration, when idly contemplating one of those highly coloured, and mysteriously decorated chests which, filled with dried leaves
from gooseberry bushes and quickset hedges, profess to supply the market with tea of genuine Chinese growth. Was there not something prophetic in the choice? What traveller is there, to whose lips, when first he enters that great educational establishment and gazes on this its newest decoration, the words do not rise unbidden—'Thou tea-chest'?
It is plain then that Scott, the great architect to whom the work of restoration has been entrusted, is not responsible for this. He is said to have pronounced it a 'casus belli', which (with all deference to the Classical Tutors of the House, who insist that he meant merely 'a case for a bell') we believe to have been intended as a term of reproach.
The following lines are attributed to Scott:—
'If thou wouldst view the Belfry aright,
Go visit it at the mirk midnight—
For the least hint of open day
Scares the beholder quite away.
When wall and window are black as pitch,
And there's no deciding which is which;
When the dark Hall's uncertain roof
In horror seems to stand aloof;
When corner and corner, alternately,
Is wrought to an odious symmetry;
When distant Thames is heard to sigh
And shudder as he hurries by;
Then go, if it be worth the while,
Then view the Belfry's monstrous pile,
And, home returning, soothly swear
"'Tis more than Job himself could bear!"'
§ 4. On the chief architectural merit of the new Belfry, Ch. Ch.
Its chief merit is its Simplicity—a Simplicity so pure, so profound, in a word, so simple, that no other word will fitly describe it. The meagre outline, and baldness of detail, of the present Chapter, are adopted in humble imitation of this great feature.
§ 5. On the other architectural merits of the new Belfry, Ch. Ch.
The Belfry has no other architectural merits.
§ 6. On the means of obtaining the best views of the new Belfry, Ch. Ch.
The visitor may place himself, in the first instance, at the opposite corner of the Great Quadrangle, and so combine, in one grand spectacle, the beauties of the North and West sides of the edifice. He will find that the converging lines forcibly suggest a vanishing point, and if that vanishing point should in its turn suggest the thought, 'would that it were on the point of vanishing!' he may perchance, like the Soldier in the Ballad, 'lean
upon his sword' (if he has one: they are not commonly worn by modern tourists), 'and wipe away a tear.'
He may then make the circuit of the Quadrangle, drinking in new visions of beauty at every step—
'Ever charming, ever new,
When will the Belfry tire the view?'
as Dyer sings in his well-known poem, 'Grongar Hill'—and, as he walks along from the Deanery towards the Hall staircase, and breathes more and more freely as the Belfry lessens on the view, the delicious sensation of relief, which he will experience when it has finally disappeared, will amply repay him for all he will have endured.
The best view of the Belfry is that selected by our Artist for the admirable frontispiece which he has furnished for the first Volume of the present work. This view may be seen, in all its beauty, from the far end of Merton Meadow. From that point the imposing position (or, more briefly, the imposition) of the whole structure is thrillingly apparent. There the thoughtful passer-by, with four right angles on one side of him, and four anglers, who have no right to be there, on the other, may ponder on the mutability of human things, or recall the names of Euclid and Isaak Walton, or smoke, or ride a bicycle, or do anything that the local authorities will permit.
§ 7. On the impetus given to Art in England by the new Belfry, Ch. Ch.
The idea has spread far and wide, and is rapidly pervading all branches of manufacture. Already an enterprising maker of bonnet-boxes is advertising 'the Belfry pattern': two builders of bathing-machines at Ramsgate have followed his example: one of the great London houses is supplying 'bar-soap' cut in the same striking and symmetrical form: and we are credibly informed that Borwick's Baking Powder and Thorley's Food for Cattle are now sold in no other shape.
§ 8. On the feelings with which old Ch. Ch. men regard the new Belfry.
Bitterly bitterly do all old Ch. Ch. men lament this latest lowest development of native taste. 'We see the Governing Body,' say they: 'where is the Governing Mind?' And Echo (exercising a judicious 'natural selection' for which even Darwin would give her credit) answers—'where?'
At the approaching 'Gaudy,' when a number of old Ch. Ch. men will be gathered together, it is proposed, at the conclusion of the banquet, to present to each guest a portable model of the new Belfry, tastefully executed in cheese.
§ 9. On the feelings with which resident Ch. Ch. men regard the new Belfry.
Who that has seen a Ch. Ch. man conducting his troop of 'lionesses' (so called from the savage and pitiless greed with which they devour the various sights of Oxford) through its ancient precincts, that has noticed the convulsive start and ghastly stare that always affect new-comers when first they come into view of the new Belfry, that has heard the eager questions with which they assail their guide as to the how, the why, the what for, and the how long, of this astounding phenomenon, can have failed to mark the manly glow which immediately suffuses the cheek of the hapless cicerone?
'Is it the glow of conscious pride—
Of pure ambition gratified—
That seeks to read in other eye
Something of its own ecstasy?
Or wrath, that worldlings should make fun
Of anything 'the House' has done?
Or puzzlement, that seeks in vain
The rigid mystery to explain?
Or is it shame that, knowing not
How to defend or cloak the blot—
The foulest blot on fairest face
That ever marred a noble place—
Burns with the pangs it will not own,
Pangs felt by loyal sons alone?'
§ 10. On the logical treatment of the new Belfry, Ch. Ch.
The subject has been reduced to three Syllogisms.
The first is in 'Barbara.' It is attributed to the enemies of the Belfry.
Wooden buildings in the midst of stone-work are barbarous;
Plain rectangular forms in the midst of arches and decorations are barbarous;
Ergo, The whole thing is ridiculous and revolting.
The second is in 'Celarent,' and has been most carefully composed by the friends of the Belfry.
The Governing Body would conceal this appalling structure, if they could;
The Governing Body would conceal the feelings of chagrin with which they now regard it, if they could;
Ergo, ....... (MS. unfinished.)
The third Syllogism is in 'Festino,' and is the joint composition of the friends and the enemies of the Belfry.
To restore the character of Ch. Ch., a tower must be built;
To build a tower, ten thousand pounds must be raised;
Ergo, No time must be lost.
These three Syllogisms have been submitted to the criticism of the Professor of Logic, who writes that 'he fancies he can detect some slight want of logical sequence in the Conclusion of the third.' He adds that, according to his experience of life, when people thus commit a fatal blunder in child-like confidence that money will be forthcoming to enable them to set it right, in ten cases out of nine the money is not forthcoming. This is a large percentage.
§ 11. On the dramatic treatment of the new Belfry, Ch. Ch.
Curtain rises, discovering the Dean, Canons, and Students, seated round a table, on which the mad Architect, fantastically dressed, and rearing a Fool's cap and bells, is placing a square block of deal.
Dean (as Hamlet). Methinks I see a Bell-tower!
Canons (looking wildly in all directions). Where, my good Sir?
Dean. In my mind's eye—(Knocking heard) Who's there?
Fool. A spirit, a spirit; he says his name's poor Tom.
Enter the Great Bell, disguised as a mushroom.
Great Bell. Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul fiend hath led through bricks and through mortar, through rope and windlass, through plank and scaffold; that hath torn down his balustrades, and torn up his terraces; that hath made him go as a common pedlar, with a wooden box upon his back. Do poor Tom some charity. Tom's a-cold.
Rafters, and planks, and such small deer,
Shall be Tom's food for many a year.
Censor. I feared it would come to this.
Dean. (as King Lear). The little dons and all, Tutor, Reader, Lecturer—see, they bark at me!
Censor. His wits begin to unsettle.
Dean (as Hamlet). Do you see yonder box, that's almost in shape of a tea-caddy?
Censor. By its mass, it is like a tea-caddy, indeed.
Dean. Methinks it is like a clothes-horse.
Censor. It is backed like a clothes-horse.
Dean. Or like a tub.
Censor. Very like a tub.
Dean. They fool me to the top of my bent.
Enter from opposite sides the Belfry as Box, and the Bodley Librarian as Cox.
Librarian. Who are you, Sir?
Belfry. If it comes to that, Sir, who are you?
Librarian. I should feel obliged to you if you could accommodate me with a more protuberant Bell-tower, Mr. B. The one you have now seems to me to consist of corners only, with nothing whatever in the middle.
Belfry. Anything to accommodate you, Mr. Cox. (Places jauntily on his head a small model of the skeleton of an umbrella, upside down).
Librarian. Ah, tell me—in mercy tell me—have you such a thing as a redeeming feature, or the least mark of artistic design, about you?
Librarian. Then you are my long-lost door-scraper!
They rush into each other's arms.
Enter Treasurer as Ariel. Solemn music.
Five fathom square the Belfry frowns;
All its sides of timber made;
Painted all in greys and browns;
Nothing of it that will fade.
Christ Church may admire the change—
Oxford thinks it sad and strange.
Beauty's dead! Let's ring her knell.
Hark! now I hear them—ding-dong, bell.
§ 12. On the Future of the new Belfry, Ch. Ch.
The Belfry has a great Future before it—at least, if it has not, it has very little to do with Time at all, its Past being (fortunately for our ancestors) a nonentity, and its Present a blank. The advantage of having been born in the reign of Queen Anne, and of having died in that or the subsequent reign, has never been so painfully apparent as it is now.
Credible witnesses assert that, when the bells are rung, the Belfry must come down. In that case considerable damage (the process technically described as 'pulverisation') must ensue to the beautiful pillar and roof which adorn the Hall staircase. But the architect is prepared even for this emergency. 'On the first symptom of deflection' (he writes from Hanwell), 'let the pillar be carefully removed and placed, with its superstruent superstructure' (we cannot forbear calling attention to this beautiful phrase), 'in the centre of "Mercury." There it will constitute a novel and most unique feature of the venerable House.'
'Yea, and the Belfry shall serve to generations yet unborn as an aërial Ticket-office,' so he cries with his eye in a fine frenzy rolling, 'where the Oxford and London Balloon shall call ere it launch forth on its celestial voyage—and where expectant passengers shall while away the time with the latest edition of "Bell's Life"!'
§ 13. On the Moral of the new Belfry, Ch. Ch.
The moral position of Christ Church is undoubtedly improved by it. 'We have been attacked, and perhaps not without reason, on the Bread-and-Butter question,' she remarks to an inattentive World (which heeds her not, but prates on of Indirect Claims and of anything but indirect Claimants), 'we have been charged—and, it must be confessed, in a free and manly tone—with shortcomings in the payment of the Greek Professor, but who shall say that we are not all "on the square" now?'
This, however, is not the Moral of the matter. Everything has a moral, if you choose to look for it. In Wordsworth, a good half of every poem is devoted to the Moral: in Byron, a smaller proportion: in Tupper, the whole. Perhaps the most graceful tribute we can pay to the genius of the last-named writer, is to entrust to him, as an old member of Christ Church, the conclusion of this Monograph.
Look on the Quadrangle of Christ Church, squarely, for is it not a Square?
And a Square recalleth a Cube; and a Cube recalleth the Belfry;
And the Belfry recalleth a Die, shaken by the hand of the gambler;
Yet, once thrown, it may not be recalled, being, so to speak, irrevocable.
There it shall endure for ages, treading hard on the heels of the Sublime—
For it is but a step, saith the wise man, from the Sublime unto the Ridiculous:
And the Simple dwelleth midway between, and shareth the qualities of either.'