Encaenia


Encaenia means something like 'Festival of Renewal', and Oxford University hold this right at the end of the summer term when exams are over and mostly, students have left town. The event has a fairy tale quality as the central streets of the campus close down, tourists are penned back, and a long ceremonial procession of professors and officials in brightly coloured gowns walks slowly over the cobbles, through very hushed streets, to the Sheldonian Theatre. Wherein a lengthy ceremony takes place, much of it in witty Latin, commemorating benefactors (this year many of the names were Arabic) and honorary doctorates are conferred.

Professor of Poetry Simon Armitage finished the proceedings with a short speech (in English). He started off from the voguish notion that there is an international division between the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’ (Theresa May's appropriation of this argument has already been much discussed.) Looking round the auditorium he wondered whether, for today’s gathering, this demarcation might be adjusted to divide ‘those who expected this outcome’ (ie sitting in such a grand Oxford assembly) and ‘those of us who are still pinching ourselves’. Having just been awarded an honorary DMus degree I included myself in that latter category.

Simon also embroidered into his address a letter that he’d just curated into (is that an Oxford-approved use of the preposition?) an exhibition about Bramwell Bronte. Aged nineteen, Bramwell wrote to Wordsworth, by then the Poet Laureate, asking him to read his poems and give him advice. Wordsworth never wrote back. But what if he had? asked the Professor of Poetry. Who knows? Never forget how important encouragement can be, he told the listening ranks of eminent people. On leaving the Sheldonian (I was first out through some processional quirk, a magic moment spent alone amongst the warmly-coloured stone and intermittent bell-chimes) that was how I felt too, thanks to this unusually gracious gesture from the University and Music Faculty.

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JUDITH WEIR

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