Isuppose Matthew Arnold, coiner of the phrase “City of Dreaming Spires”, embodies for many of us — who vaguely remember reading bits of him at school — the very essence of Oxford. But some might say that the spirit he affirms is more that of a relatively new Oxford — Victorian, mainly masculine, self confident, empire building — than that conjured up by his other much-quoted description of the place: “Home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties.”

Arnold (1822-1888) came up to Balliol as a scholar in 1841 at a time when Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) was already a fellow — and he was one of many distinguished students who formed their characters under Jowett’s influence; their defining characteristic, at least according to Prime Minister H.H. Asquith (himself one of them), being “effortless superiority”, a phrase that has annoyed members of Balliol ever since. Other Balliol poets included Hilaire Belloc, Gerald Manley Hopkins, and Arthur Hugh Clough — in whose memory Arnold’s poem Thyrsis was written — which contains the lines: “And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,/She needs not June for beauty’s heightening,/Lovely all time she lies, lovely tonight.”

Jowett himself became Master of Balliol — but demolished much of it in order to produce a college more redolent of his age.

Though by no means rich, indeed the reverse, Arnold exemplified a certain energetic but elitist spirit that was sweeping through the minds of educationalists at the time. He came up to Oxford from Rugby, where his father Thomas Arnold (1795-1842) was headmaster, having created the world remembered by Thomas Hughes (born in Uffington 1822) in Tom Brown’s Schooldays; whose ideas closely resembled those of Jowett — including the notion of promoting a healthy mind in a healthy body through the medium of organised team sports. Indeed, one of Matthew’s brothers, the novelist William Delafield Arnold (1828-1859), was one of the four boys who wrote down the ‘Rugby Rules’, still in force today.

Matthew Arnold all his life lived and breathed the spirit of Oxford. His godfather, John Keble, became a champion of the Oxford Movement; his brother Tom became a Catholic and at one time worked for Cardinal Newman; and his father, a graduate of Corpus Christi, became Regius Professor of Modern History in 1841, the year before he died. He himself became a fellow of Oriel in 1845 and Professor of Poetry in 1857.

G.W.E. Russell, in Portraits of the Seventies, described him as “a man of the world entirely free from worldliness and a man of letters without the faintest trace of pedantry”. His ‘man of the world’ bit was to earn a living as a school inspector, which involved travelling throughout Britain by train, using the time to fill countless notebooks with erudite observations — in much the same way as Trollope wrote his novels in the train while travelling the country on Post Office business.

But in an Oxford that was changing fast, not only through new building but also through Royal Commissions bringing about much needed university reform, how could he write in lines immediately preceding those about “lost causes”: “Beautiful city! so venerable, so lovely, so unravaged by the fierce intellectual life of our century, so serene! . . . whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age . . .”? Beats me. Though I suppose parts of it remained, and still remain, “unravaged”.

As for Jowett, I cannot resist recounting the story of a guide in Broad Street, as described by W.S. Walsh in 1893 “Those are Prof Jowett’s study windows, and there [here the ruffian would stoop down, take up a handful of gravel and throw it against the panes, bringing poor Jowett, livid with fury to the window] ladies and gentlemen, is Professor Benjamin Jowett himself.”