8 Poems and Novels about Cambridge
Cambridge has less of a reputation for producing famous writers than perhaps it deserves.
For one, some of Cambridge’s greatest writers are not strongly associated with the city; John Milton was a graduate of Christ’s, but Paradise Lost doesn’t make much mention of May Balls or punting. For another, there’s no Inklings circle to produce CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein, no Dorothy Sayers writing mysteries, and no Lewis Carroll-penned Alice in Wonderland getting lost in the fens. But despite this first impression, a remarkable amount has still been written specifically about Cambridge. As cities go, it is up there with Oxford, London and Dublin for the amount of ink that has been spilled trying to capture its essence, and a literary tour of Cambridge has a great deal of ground to cover.
And unlike Oxford, where many of its most famous writers feel decidedly Victorian (the Inklings weren’t, of course, but they feel that way), the great writers of Cambridge are spread out over time and even across different cultures. In this article, we explore the poems and novels written about Cambridge, and look at what they have to say about this beautiful city.
William Wordsworth – ‘Residence at Cambridge’ (1850)
William Wordsworth is now best known as a poet of the Lake District, where he wandered lonely as a cloud etc., but in 1787 he began studying at St John’s College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1791, and he looks back on those years in Book 3 of his semiautobiographical poem, The Prelude.
This section of the poem begins with his initial journey through Cambridge, past King’s College Chapel (“nothing cheered our way till first we saw/ The long-roofed chapel of King’s College lift/ Turrets and pinnacles in answering files”), over Magdalene Bridge and towards Castle Hill. He then discusses his time at St John’s, where his rooms were above the college kitchens, in earshot of the pealing bells of Trinity College next door.
It’s a story that feels remarkably familiar, despite having been written over 150 years ago, with Wordsworth sitting in his lecturer’s room, “all studded round, as thick as chairs could stand/ With loyal students, faithful to their books” – although the “honest dunces” who studied with them are less often admitted to Cambridge now. Wordsworth’s depiction of growing friendships, increased confidence and occasional fears for his future will all ring true to students today.
Rupert Brooke – ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ (1912)
This is probably Rupert Brooke’s best-known poem after ‘The Soldier’ (“If I should die, think only this of me…”). It’s a poem of being homesick and nostalgic, and if not for the date, lines such as “here am I, sweating, sick, and hot” make it easy to imagine Brooke writing it from the perspective of a soldier in the First World War, which is after all the setting that he is best known for. In fact, Brooke was writing from the Café des Westens, a well-known meeting place for artists in early 20th-century Berlin, ignorant of the war that would define and end his life just three years later.
The focus is not Cambridge itself but Grantchester, where Rupert Brooke lived for a while. He had studied at King’s College, Cambridge. The poem itself is a little unkind to Cambridge, in a light-hearted way, claiming that “ of that district I prefer/ The lovely hamlet Grantchester/ For Cambridge people rarely smile/ Being urban, squat, and packed with guile”. This is in a section that goes to ever-greater extremes as it explores all the non-Grantchester parts of Cambridgeshire, concluding with, “Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives/ Rather than send them to St Ives/ Strong men have cried like babes, bydam/ To hear what happened at Babraham.” For those who don’t know Cambridgeshire, it’s worth noting that St Ives is a pleasant market town and Babraham a quiet and picturesque village.
Brooke’s wit aside, this is a poem that paints a romantic but easily recognisable view of Cambridgeshire, with tulips in bloom and the waters hurrying by – it’s very easy to understand why he loved it and missed it so much.
Xu Zhimo – ‘On Leaving Cambridge’ (1928)
Arguably the most famous poem about Cambridge is one that most English people have never heard of. Xu Zhimo studied at King’s College, Cambridge in 1921, where he fell in love with the work of the English Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Keats. On returning to China the following year, he began to fuse traditional Chinese poetry with the influences of English Romantic poetry, which ultimately shaped much of the direction of Chinese poetry in the 20th century and contributed to a more relaxed approach to traditional forms.
One such poem, written only three years before his death in a plane crash, was ‘On Leaving Cambridge’, which has also been translated as ‘Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again’ – two divergent titles that demonstrate the difficulties of translating Chinese poetry into English. The poem – one translation of which can be read here – focuses on the view of the Cam from the Backs by King’s College, with its willows, waterlilies and elm trees, describing the punts that travelled it as boats “laden with starlight”. It’s a beautiful tribute to the city that inspired him. In recognition, in 2008 a granite stone was placed on the Backs with the first and last lines of Xu’s poem carved on it, which has become a literary pilgrimage destination for Chinese visitors to Cambridge.
Douglas Adams – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987)
Douglas Adams was a comedy writer who studied at St John’s College, Cambridge, from 1971 to 1974. By 1979, he was working as a script editor on the BBC’s long-running science fiction series, Doctor Who. He wrote the serials ‘City of Death’ (uncredited), ‘The Pirate Planet’ and ‘Shada’, but the latter, set in Cambridge, was never completed as filming was disrupted by strike action. That’s a particular pity because the parts that were filmed have been made available and show a lot of charm and affection for the city. The story concerns an alien Time Lord, Professor Chronotis, posing as an absent-minded and eccentric professor of the fictional St Cedd’s College.
But Adams didn’t like any of his writing to go to waste, so much of the story of ‘Shada’ was recycled for his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (just as other unused Doctor Who plots crop up at times in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series). The plot is too convoluted to be worth explaining, but is similarly something of a celebration of Cambridge life, especially its more eccentric and absurd elements. For instance, Adams uses one of his own college experiences in the story of a sofa that is stuck on a staircase – not only can it not be moved, it appears physically impossible for it to have got there in the first place. That’s based on sofas that were put in place in Third Court at St John’s while staircases were being refurbished. Once the staircases were finished, it became clear that the sofas wouldn’t fit back down them again. It’s this kind of ridiculousness in which Adams delights, and he encourages the reader to enjoy it just as much.
Jill Paton Walsh – The Wyndham Case (1993)
For some reason, Oxford and Cambridge are both prime locations for crime and mystery writers – on a fictional level, both have a murder rate exceeded only by the village of Midsomer. Though Oxford’s Morse and Lewis are better-known, there are still enough murder mysteries set in Cambridge that in the bookshop, Heffers, there are a full eight shelves dedicated to them.
Jill Paton Walsh studied at St Anne’s College, Oxford, but lives in Cambridge, and it’s in Cambridge that her Imogen Quy series is set. Imogen Quy is a part-time college nurse at the fictional St Agatha’s College, a role that brings her into contact with all manner of student problems – in The Wyndham Case, that’s the problem of a locked 17th century library containing a dead student, and only Quy suspects that the death may not have been entirely accidental. In the tradition of English detective novels, it’s a cosy and comforting read despite the subject matter. It’s been followed up with A Piece of Justice, Debts of Dishonour and The Bad Quarto – the latter is particularly fun for those interested in Shakespeare. The whole series offers an affectionate insight into the inner workings of Cambridge college life.
Stephen Fry – Making History (1996)
Stephen Fry’s route to Cambridge was a rocky one, being accepted into Queen’s College only after serving a prison sentence for credit card fraud. But once there, he found his feet, meeting his comedy soulmate Hugh Laurie and getting his start as a performer in the Cambridge Footlights. Making History tells the story of a Cambridge student, Michael Young, who manages to travel back in time in order to make Adolf Hitler’s father infertile so that Hitler will never be born. Without spoiling the ending, it doesn’t go quite as Michael intended.
For some reviewers, the subject matter was just too series to be dealt with in what is essentially a tongue-in-cheek comedic novel. For others, Fry’s light-hearted tone is the only way to approach something so serious and still have a readable book. For fans of Cambridge, there are plenty of incidents in the book that are particularly enjoyable, such as the moment when Michael’s knowledge of how to pronounce ‘Caius’ and ‘Magdalene’ correctly (‘keys’ and ‘maudlin’, respectively) nearly gives him away in the alternative future. And for fans of history, Fry’s passion for his character’s subject (though he himself studied English Literature) shines through, such as the memorable rant about why it’s worth studying in the first place: “There’s no phrase I can come up that will encapsulate in a winning sound-bite why history matters. We know that history matters, we know that it is thrilling, absorbing, fascinating, delightful and infuriating, that it is life.”
Susanna Gregory – A Plague on Both Your Houses (1996)
Susanna Gregory, real name Liz Cruwys, was a police officer for several years in her 20s before taking a PhD at Cambridge and becoming a Fellow and Tutor of marine biology at Wolfson College, Cambridge. It’s a combination that surely makes her unusually well-qualified to contribute to the collection of detective novels set in Cambridge.
Gregory’s series, which begins with A Plague on Both Your Houses, is set in the mid-14th century and stars Matthew Bartolomew, a Benedictine monk, physician and senior proctor at Michaelhouse College, Cambridge. Though Michaelhouse no longer exists, it isn’t fictional; it was Cambridge’s second residential college, founded in 1323 and merged with King’s Hall to form Trinity College in 1546. There are now over 20 novels in the series, all of which testify to Gregory’s understanding of detective work and extensive research into life in medieval Cambridge. One result is that these aren’t cosy crime novels – though good usually triumphs over evil in the end, the unpleasant realities of medieval life and medieval medicine are explored in depth; not one for the squeamish.
James Runcie – Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death (2012)
Grantchester seems to get more than its fair share of attention when it comes to Cambridge’s place in literature. Although James Runcie was born in Cambridge and studied here at Trinity Hall, Grantchester is also where he opted to set his series of murder mysteries. The Grantchester Mysteries are set from the 1950s to the 1980s, and feature a mild-mannered and unconventional clergyman called Sidney Chambers – whose profession allows him to investigate murders that are beyond the reach of the police.
Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is a collection of six short stories, which are deeply cosy and charming, forming something of a love letter to Cambridge and its surroundings even as they sometimes delve into the social issues of the times in which they are set. One Amazon review describes them as ‘unthreatening whimsy’. It probably says something worrying about the English psyche that our go-to comfort reading is the murder mystery, but that being so, reading a murder mystery can be one of the best ways to immerse yourself in a place – especially when that place is Cambridge.