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Sir Cecil Maurice Bowra (//; 8 April 1898 – 4 July 1971) was an English classical scholar and academic, known for his wit. He was Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, from 1938 to 1970, and served as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford from 1951 to 1954.
He was born in Jiujiang, China, to English parents. His father was Cecil Arthur Verner Bowra (1869–1947) of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs. Bowra's father had been born in Ningpo, and his paternal grandfather Edward Charles Bowra had also worked for the Chinese Customs, after serving in the Ever Victorious Army under "Chinese Gordon". Soon after Bowra's birth his father was transferred to the treaty port of Newchwang, and the family lived there for the first five years of Bowra's life. During the Boxer Rebellion, in the summer of 1900, Bowra was evacuated to Japan, along with his mother, older brother Edward, and other women and children of the European community. The family returned to England in 1903, travelling via Japan and the United States, and settling in the Kent countryside. Bowra later claimed that he had been fluent in Mandarin, but forgot the language after returning to England. Bowra's parents went back to China in February 1905, leaving their children in the care of their paternal grandmother, who, having been widowed, lived with her second husband, a clergyman, in Putney. During this time the boys received tuition from Ella Dell, sister of the writer Ethel M. Dell. The boys also attended a preparatory school in Putney, where, before the year was out, Maurice was coming top in all classes but arithmetic. During his time at this school Bowra began his classical education with lessons from Cecil Botting, a master at St Paul's School and father of the writer Antonia White.
In 1909, the brothers journeyed across Europe and Russia by train to visit their parents in Mukden, where they visited the battlefield and encountered Lord Kitchener. Their return journey was made in the company of their father and took them through Hong Kong, Colombo, Suez, Naples and Algiers.
Bowra then boarded at Cheltenham College, where he began his studies in April 1910, his father returning to China a couple of weeks later. He did not enjoy such features of the school curriculum as outdoor games and OTC, but won a scholarship in the internal exams held in June 1911. It became clear that he had a particular aptitude for Classics, for which the college laid a thorough grounding in Latin and Greek. During his final two years in the sixth form Bowra, becoming bored with his school work, acquired sufficient French to read Verlaine and Baudelaire, studied a bilingual edition of the Dante's Divina Commedia and began to learn German. In 1916 he won a scholarship to New College, Oxford.
By the time Bowra left Cheltenham College, his father was Chief Secretary of the Customs Service, residing in Beijing with a household employing thirty servants. In January Bowra's mother came to England, to visit her sons, who were both about to see active service in the army. In May, Bowra departed with his mother for China, travelling through Norway, Sweden, and Russia. In Beijing Bowra visited the Great Wall of China and the Ming Tombs, and witnessed the funeral ceremony of Yuan Shikai.
Bowra departed Beijing in September, and on his way home spent three weeks in St Petersburg (then called Petrograd), as the guest of Robert Wilton. During this time he attained a working knowledge of Russian and attended opera performances in which Feodor Chaliapin performed.
On returning to England Bowra trained with the OTC in Oxford, before being called up and sent to the Royal Army Cadet School in March 1917. Bowra served in the Royal Field Artillery, on active service in France from September 1917. In 1917, he saw action at Passchendaele and Cambrai, and in 1918 participated in resistance to the Ludendorff Offensive and the following allied counter-offensive. During this time he continued to read widely, including such works as The Wild Swans at Coole and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Greek and Latin authors.
Bowra was left with a lifelong hatred of war and military strategists, to an extent that he seldom mentioned the war afterwards. Bowra later told Cyril Connolly, "Whatever you hear about the war, remember it was far worse: inconceivably bloody – nobody who wasn't there can imagine what it was like." Anthony Powell wrote that Bowra's wartime experiences "played a profound part in his thoughts and inner life", and records that when a cruise ship on which they were travelling held a ceremony to place a wreath in the sea as it passed the Dardanelles, Bowra was so affected that he retired to his cabin. Following the Second World War he would be accommodating to returning servicemen who wished to study at Oxford, telling one applicant who was worried about his deficiency in Latin, "No matter, War Service counts as Latin."
Though an outstanding student, Bowra was very sociable, and his circle as an undergraduate included Cyril Radcliffe (with whom he shared lodgings), Roy Harrod, Robert Boothby, L. P. Hartley, Lord David Cecil, J. B. S. Haldane, and Christopher Hollis. Bowra also became a friend of Dadie Rylands. The teachers who influenced him included Gilbert Murray and Alic Smith. The treatment he received from one of his tutors in philosophy, H. W. B. Joseph, was said by Isaiah Berlin to have "undermined his faith in his own intellectual capacity."
In 1922, he was elected a Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, with the support of the Regius Professor of Greek, Gilbert Murray. When Murray vacated his chair in 1936, Bowra and others believed that Bowra himself was most likely to succeed his patron. Murray however, recommended E. R. Dodds as his successor, ostensibly rejecting Bowra for, "a certain lack of quality, precision, and reality in his scholarship as a whole". Some believed that the real reason was a whispering campaign over Bowra's "real or imagined homosexuality".
Being passed over for the Regius Chair proved to be a cloud with a silver lining for Bowra. In 1938 the Wardenship of Wadham fell vacant and Bowra was elected to the post, keeping it until 1970, when he was succeeded by Stuart Hampshire. Bowra was supported in the election by his colleague Frederick Lindemann. Lindemann had initially opposed Bowra's election as a fellow of Wadham, proposing that a scientist should be preferred, but had warmed to Bowra because of his vociferous opposition to the Nazi regime in Germany and the policy of Appeasement. The election was held on 5 October 1938, and coincided with the Oxford by-election campaign, in which Bowra lent his support to the anti-Appeasement candidate, Sandy Lindsay.
During the Second World War Bowra served in the Oxford Home Guard. His friends were variously employed by the government, Isaiah Berlin, for example, being posted to the Washington embassy, but Bowra was offered no war work. When Berlin canvassed to find Bowra a position, the file was sent back to him stamped 'unreliable'.
Bowra was Professor of Poetry 1946–51. He wrote of the election that, "The campaign was very enjoyable and C. S. Lewis was outmanoeuvred so completely that he even failed in the end to be nominated and I walked over without opposition. Very gratifying to a vain man like myself."
He spent the academic year 1948–9 at Harvard as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry and gave the 1955 Andrew Lang lecture. He delivered the 1957 Earl Grey Lecture in Newcastle on 'The Meaning of a Heroic Age' and the 1963 Taylorian Lecture on 'Poetry and the First World War'. In 1966 he gave the Romanes Lecture.
Bowra was at Harvard when the post of Vice-Chancellor fell unexpectedly vacant in 1948 on the sudden accidental death of William Stallybrass. When the most senior head of house, J. R. H. Weaver, declined the post, Bowra could himself have succeeded to it. He chose to stay in America, and Dean Lowe filled the post until 1951, when Bowra served his three-year term. His briskness as chair of the Hebdomadal Council was legendary, the business of meetings that customarily occupied a whole afternoon being dispatched in as little as fifteen minutes. When T. S. R. Boase was indisposed by an eye problem in 1959, Bowra returned to the chair of the committee, privately quipping that "jokes about his 'beaux yeux' are not thought funny".
Bowra was President of the British Academy 1958–62. His tenure was marked by two achievements. Firstly, Bowra chaired a committee that produced the Report on Research in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, which resulted in a grant for those purposes from HM Treasury. The second was the establishment of the British Institute of Persian Studies in Tehran.
In his long career as an Oxford don, Bowra had contact with a considerable portion of the English literary world, either as students or as colleagues. The character of Mr Samgrass in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is said to be modelled on Bowra. Waugh attended Hertford College (1922–24), and so, was in no sense, Bowra's pupil; indeed they scarcely knew one another at that time, whereas Cyril Connolly, Henry Green, Anthony Powell and Kenneth Clark knew Bowra quite well when they were undergraduates, Clark calling Bowra, "the strongest influence in my life." However, it was Waugh who marked his friend's election as Warden Of Wadham by presenting him with a Monkey-puzzle tree for his garden.
For all that they had in common, Bowra and George Alfred Kolkhorst were avowed arch-enemies, though both were friends of John Betjeman. Betjeman records his appreciation of Bowra in his verse autobiography Summoned by Bells; he evokes an evening spent dining with Bowra in a passage which concludes: "I wandered back to Magdalen, certain then,/ As now, that Maurice Bowra’s company / Taught me far more than all my tutors did."
Though not in any sense religious, Bowra signed the petition (in favour of the Tridentine Catholic Mass) that became informally known as the Agatha Christie indult and regularly attended the Church of England services of his college chapel.
Bowra had learnt the value of poetry during his experiences of the First World War, and Cyril Connolly wrote that, "He saw human life as a tragedy in which great poets were the heroes who fought back and tried to give life a meaning". Bowra was an important champion of Boris Pasternak, lecturing on his work and nominating him repeatedly for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Though he was a friend and supporter of poets, and was respected as a critic, Bowra was never able to fulfil his wish to be accepted as a serious poet himself. His own output consisted of "sharp satires, in verse, on his friends (and sharper still on his enemies)". His friend and literary executor, John Sparrow, once commented that Bowra had cut himself off from posterity, "as his prose was unreadable and his verse was unprintable." This was set half-right by the publication in 2005 of New Bats in Old Belfries, a collection of satires on friends and enemies written between the 1920s and 1960s. (Two poems on Patrick Leigh Fermor were omitted in deference to their subject's wishes, but were published after his death in 2011.) Here is his parody of John Betjeman, who had become choked with emotion on being presented the Duff Cooper Prize comprising a cheque for £150 and a copy of Duff Cooper's memoirs bound in leather, by Princess Margaret on 18 December 1958:
Green with lust and sick with shyness,
Let me lick your lacquered toes.Where my privy parts congeal.
Gosh, oh gosh, your Royal Highness,
Put your finger up my nose,
Pin my teeth upon your dress,
Plant my head with watercress.
Only you can make me happy.
Tuck me tight beneath your arm.
Wrap me in a woollen nappy;
Let me wet it till it's warm.
In a plush and plated pram
Wheel me round St James's, Ma'am.
Let your sleek and soft galoshes
Slide and slither on my skin.
Swaddle me in mackintoshes
Till I lose my sense of sin.
Lightly plant your plimsolled heel
The judges on that occasion had been Lord David Cecil, Harold Nicolson and Bowra himself as chairman. Duff Cooper's widow Lady Diana Cooper observed that "Poor Betch was crying and too moved to find an apology for words." (Philip Ziegler, Diana Cooper: The Biography of Lady Diana Cooper, Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 1981, p. 310.)
As an undergraduate in 1920s Oxford, Bowra was fashionably homosexual, and was known to cruise for sex. He used the term 'the Homintern', and privately referred to his leading position in that, or 'The Immoral Front' or 'the 69th International'.
Bowra retired in 1970, but continued to live in rooms in the college, which were granted to him in exchange for a house he owned. He became an honorary fellow of Wadham and was awarded, honoris causa, the degree of Doctor of Civil Law. He died of a sudden heart attack the following year, and was buried in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford.
Bowra was knighted in 1951, and was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1971. He was also a Commandeur of the Légion d'honneur in France, a Knight-Commander of the Royal Order of the Phoenix in Greece, and recipient of the order "Pour le Mérite" in West Germany.
John Frederick Stenning
|Warden of Wadham College, Oxford|
The Very Reverend John Lowe
|Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University|
Alic Halford Smith