My tutors let me know that they were grooming me for a fellowship of all souls and a career as an oxford don. For two years i went along with them, and then in the third year almost stopped work, cut myself off from college and the university life and in general made myself unacceptable. I was conceited enough to think that i could easily make a living by writing whether i had a profession or not. I was becoming profoundly disillusioned with oxford and more and more incompatible. I had therefore no goal at which to aim. That of going to oxford had been achieved; that now proposed, of an academic career, failed to appeal; and the true goal of life had not yet been revealed.
I had expected more of oxford than it could give: a home of culture where men were interested in all that could not be bought for money. I threw myself into the new life with enthusiasm. I was assiduous in attending lectures, studying in libraries and in my room, composing essays for my bi-weekly tutorials. I also plunged eagerly into the new social life. Scarcely a day passed without my being invited out or inviting others to my rooms. However, before even the first term ended, there was a chill feeling of disillusionment. Where i had expected understanding i found triviality. Gradually i withdrew upon myself until, by the end of my third year, there were not half a dozen people in the whole university whom i knew well enough to drop in on uninvited. I shrank back from oxford life: never spoke in the union, though fond of debating; never acted in the ouds, though attracted to the stage; never wrote for the isis or cherwell, whichever it was called — the university weekly — although i considered myself a writer.
The inner rejection extended to studies as well as people. History had held my interest at school partly as the pageant of great men and events and partly as a study of long-term developments; but when it was offered to me in the guise of research work — spending months deciphering the rent rolls of a 12th century village in order to write a thesis on the economic basis of medieval land tenure, ferreting out all the references to a tenth-rate tudor politician whom i should not be interested to meet if he lived today — and when this was proposed to me as an occupation in life, i shrank back from it. Twice in future years i was to find that when i saw a field of knowledge to possess intrinsic value i could read voraciously and study meticulously, but not just research for it’s own sake, not amassing details about some question that i felt to be unimportant and in which i was uninterested.
I quite realized, of course, that history or any other discipline of modern learning — sociology, astronomy, marine biology, whatever it may be — advances through the endless, patient, often anonymous research of scholars working either in battalions or deployed singly to strategic points, much of their work infructuous but some of it producing results which can modify a whole theory or inaugurate a hypothesis. To doubt the importance of such research would be to reject the very basis of modern civilization. I do not reject it. That does not mean that i advocate wearing handloom cloth or working by candlelight or any such puerilities. So long as one lives in the modern world it is senseless not to conform to its outer conditions; what is to be rejected is its sense of values, its conviction of its own superiority and belief in the intrinsic worth of the sciences on which it is based, in fact its whole weltanschauung. If the rejection of that were sufficiently widespread it would lead to rejection of its outer forms also, but that is not likely to happen easily or peacefully.
In the social order based on a real respect for human nature (which includes appreciation of man’s spiritual potentialities) a man’s work for the community involves his inner development also. If he is a craftsman making furniture or building houses, his work is an art and he takes pride in its completion; it is also based on a symbolism reflecting his own self-building; if he is a student, his studies tend to the development of his understanding and burgeoning of his character, rectifying warped or stunted tendencies in him. But the modern mechanical civilization uses men as instruments whether they be labourers or scholars. Just as a workman tends to his machines with no consideration for his own development, so a scholar contributes his fragment of research totally alien to wisdom or self-knowledge. It is not true that society is greater than a man, nor is it expedient that one man should die for the good of the people. An anthill is greater than the single ants that compose it, but man has a divinity in his nature which potentially contains and transcends this whole world; and a society which denies this by treating men as instruments, providing no means for their spiritual development, is eating out its own vitals, leaving itself an empty shell. Traditionally it has always been held that the search for truth or knowledge is sacred and requires no motive or justification, that is, a fit end to which to devote one’s life. That is true, but it refers to knowledge of direct or indirect spiritual import, knowledge which gradually illumines or transforms the seeker; to speak in the same terms of the accumulation of mere factual knowledge is a parody; and that is what is done.
I did not know all this at the time, but i intuitively rejected research as a sterile use to which to put one’s years of life. I intuitively rejected modern civilization — not indeed with any knowledge of its sickness, not knowing that my antipathy to it was more than poetic and romantic, but with a deep feeling of its inadequacy. I did not know what i wanted of oxford, but i felt bitterly that i had not found it.
To some extent i knew. I knew that i wanted spiritual guidance. The answer to that would be that it is not oxford’s purpose to supply this. That is true, but a deeper counter-current would be that a country or civilization whose highest centre of learning and culture is indifferent to spiritual values, neither inculcating nor denying them, simply ignoring them, is in a very bad way.
Here were young men receiving the best education their country had to offer, some of them studying its language and literature, others its history, and all in utter ignorance of its majestic traditions, of the intrepid strivings of its mystics, the paths to beatitude that they had trod and the final supreme achievement, the mystic union. Ignorant not merely of their actual testimony but of their very existence, not even knowing that there was a goal to life, that there were paths leading to it, and that men had trod these paths and left records of their ascent. One of my friends took sanskrit for his degree, and he also, during his years of study, was never let into the secret that there is anything of spiritual interest in sanskrit literature.
It is remarkable how all doors to spiritual growth were closed to me at this time — or opened only to reveal a bleak, cheerless interior. At first i joined one or two others from my college in going to weekly evangelical meetings in town.
We sat on upright chairs in a bare room while impromptu prayers were said, and some one gave a talk on being saved and what a wonderful experience it was. Well, i thought, it must be a wonderful experience for him, but i don’t seem to have it. So i stopped going. During most of my first year i attended morning chapel instead of roll call — twenty minutes instead of two. I was usually the only person there. I also went to some special kind of evening service that was held in the chapel once or twice a week. But it seemed cold and lifeless and meant nothing to me and i gradually stopped going. Neither the college chaplain nor any other ecclesiastic (and there were some, because christ church chapel is also oxford cathedral) offered any help or encouragement or even seemed aware of my seeking. During one vacation i went to stay at the christ church mission in east london. It was doing useful social work but there was nothing spiritual about it. I visited an anglo-catholic priory but felt no atmosphere such as might impel me to probe deeper. I toyed with the idea of catholicism, but more for its poetic than its religious appeal. I made friends with the two indian undergraduates at my college — one a hindu and the other a muslim — and became a frequent visitor at the majlis, the indian undergraduates’ club, with the vague hope, based on recollections of tagore, that it would lead to some spiritual contact, but nothing of the sort transpired. Most indians abroad either reject their spiritual heritage or are reticent about it, fearful of not being considered modern. I joined a mystic society which was to have weekly meetings with talks on various branches of mysticism. The first meeting was held at balliol in the rooms of antony mathew, one of the few friends i had at oxford, a delightful person, heavy in build, light and graceful in manner, sociable and aloof at the same time. Some wealthy members of the club had brought a gong with a deep, mellow tone to announce the beginning of the meeting. Antony provided mulled claret and turkish and egyptian cigarettes. The gong was struck and the talk started. A south african scholar, a few years older than the rest of us and said to be immensely learned in such matters, was giving a talk on the buddha. It was entirely made up of trivialities and contained nothing whatever of spiritual interest. And that was the end. The club never met again because it turned out that none of us knew anything to talk about. I never heard what happened to the gong. In distress i wrote to morgan to ask him what he had done about spiritual thinking when he was at oxford, and he wrote back that he hadn’t done any. A chill came over me as i read that. It seemed a betrayal. Even rosamond offered no help in this direction. I wrote to her that i was determined to understand christ’s miracles and she ignored that part of my letter in her reply. Perhaps, as a devout catholic, she felt that faith was enough and that it was sacrilegious to want to understand.
Rosamond was a serene and gracious person, reminiscent of green lawns and summer flowers, far from the sombre pinewoods of the north. Scholarly, interested in art and poetry, she was at the same time normal and sensible — all that i was not. We were old friends as soon as we met. I felt that i had known her always. Yet i never thought of asking her to marry me. Looking back, i can see that there were several occasions when my mind might at a touch have turned in that direction, but the touch was never given. In fact, all might-have-beens are an illusion; what did not happen never really lay within the bounds of possibility. Rosamond’s conviction that i should become a great poet was bracing. The frustration that i met with on every side in seeking spiritual guidance led me to turn the more enthusiastically to poetry. In my second year denzil batchelor came up and we immediately became close friends. He was a young man with shining brown eyes and a glowing voice, full of glory and tragedy. His energy was prodigious — poetry, football, drink, work, social life, and always tragically in love. I never doubted that he was one of the world’s great poets; and this also made it easier for me to believe that i was another. I even followed suit in persuading myself that i was a tragic lover, choosing for the purpose an actress ten years my senior whom i had scarcely spoken to. Only many years later, going over such scraps of denzil’s poems as had stuck in my memory, did i realize that they were just melodious words, saying nothing. My own were not even that.
Even apart from personal ability there was the question of the spirit of the age, a force as impalpable but almost as binding as the law of averages. If you toss a coin it is equally likely to come down heads or tails; and if you toss it a hundred times this applies equally each single time. Therefore, in theory, it should be equally likely to come down heads all the hundred times. But in fact the law of averages is so rigorous that it will not vary more than two or three times either side of fifty. Similarly, it should theoretically be possible for a tennyson to flourish in the age of pope or a pope in the age of tennyson, but it does not happen so. Even when a writer seems to be out of touch with the spirit of the age or voluntarily hostile to it, he will usually be found to represent either an underground current of opposition or the rising tide of tomorrow beating on the crumbling cliffs of yesterday. In the twenties of this century, in the disillusionment following the first world war, cacophony was a desideratum of style and sophisticated superficiality of content. Neither denzil nor i had the cast of mind or the approach to poetry that was then called modern. There were indeed two directions in which some living aspiration was being canalised, but neither of them affected us, or so far as i was aware, the oxford of our time. One was communism. It was the age when enthusiasts turned hopefully to communism as a blueprint for a new utopia, only to be disillusioned later by the stark reality. The other was the spiritual revolt against materialist, mechanized modern civilization which was already flowing in many streams, for which i was searching half unwittingly and wholly in vain. After leaving oxford i was isolated from the trend of things, at first of necessity and later from choice; and when, in the fifties, i was ready to write my books the streams had swollen to torrents; the development of myself had to some extent been reflected in the world, so that i found myself expressing the spirit of a new age and the books that i was then in a condition to write were such as the publishers were looking for. This does not mean, of course, that the world of today can be called spiritual — the very idea is ludicrous — but it does not mean that the anti-spiritual trend that set in with the renaissance has run its course, terminating in the total denial of the age of darwin, marx and freud, which communism seeks to perpetuate, and that an opposite current is now flowing, back to a sense of spiritual reality. It is still a minority movement, as every renaissance must be, but if these were normal times one might regard it as the wave of the future. However, they are not, and it may be that the world as we know it has no future, that this is the time of separation which christ foretold long ago, between those who reject all wisdom and guidance, clinging only to the superficialities of life, and those who turn back with renewed energy in quest of meaning.
I had a contemporary at christ church who had real skill in writing verse and who was, moreover, in accord with the spirit of the age, and he therefore became famous as a poet. That was w.h. Auden. I knew him by sight but do not recollect ever speaking to him.
Writer or not, oxford was not my destiny. It would have been as great a tragedy, as much the waste of a lifetime, if the circle had closed there as if it had closed earlier on a yorkshire farm. It was an intuitive recognition that it would have been evading the fight of whose existence i did not yet know and accepting instead an easy establishment. However, i could not explain this to any one at the time because i did not know it myself.
To say that some one’s destiny is not in a certain port does not absolve him from responsibility for the navigation. In spiritual things, statements which appear contradictory can both be true, expressing different aspects or levels of truth. For instance, christ could say, from one standpoint, that evil must needs come, but he could immediately follow it up from another with a denunciation of those through whom it comes—which would be illogical and unjust if both statements were made from the same standpoint. Similarly, the quran states that evil-doers can act as they do only by the divine will, and yet in another place it denounces them for putting forward this very plea in their own defence. The former viewpoint is cosmic and the latter individual, and each are valid on its own plane. (Actually, there is also a third standpoint, higher than either, the metaphysical; but from that the question of responsibility does not arise). To revert to a symbol used earlier in this book, the former is like viewing a landscape from the air, when the entire course of the river exists simultaneously in the eternal present, the timeless now; the latter is like a man in a boat, for whom the part of the river already navigated is past and that ahead is future. The course that lies ahead of him may be already marked on the map, but he has not access to the map and does not know what it is; also it is not drawn by any arbitrary whim but is due to the lie of the land, the force of the current and the obstacles interposed to its flow.
Had i possessed spiritual understanding at this time i could have remained at oxford without betrayal, or sought a position elsewhere or simply left everything to take its course. As it was, my staying on would have been a betrayal but my making no other provision was an act not of faith but improvidence. It is the motive that makes an act right or wrong. Unfortunately a man can seldom mismanage his own life without hurting others also.