Monthly Archives: June 2015

Jean Cocteau in Oxford

Jean Cocteau, by Juliet Pannett (Photo credit: James Legg)

On Tuesday, 12 June 1956, Jean Cocteau wrote in his diary: ‘Je rentre de la cérémonie – très émouvante.’ The occasion was the conferment on the multi-faceted poet (‘omnis Minervae poeta’) of an honorary doctorate by the University of Oxford. As the Public Orator had proclaimed, ‘praesento vobis Parisiacae urbanitatis specimen, Ioannem Cocteau, poetam Francogallorum Academiae adscriptum paremque dignitatem apud Belgas adeptum, ut admittatur honoris causa ad gradum Doctoris in Litteris.’ Cocteau was proud of his membership of the French and Belgian Academies and of his honorary degrees, and he was particularly attached to what he habitually referred to as his ‘honoris causa’ from Oxford.

Cocteau's sketch of himself with his Oxford degree (Photo credit: David Thomas)

Cocteau’s sketch of himself with his Oxford degree (Photo credit: David Thomas)

In 2014 the Library acquired a volume of Cocteau’s verse, a copy of his Poésie 1916-1923.

Unremarkable in itself, it is simply a late printing (1947) of a work first published in 1925. What distinguishes it, however, is the fact that on the half-title Cocteau has written a dedication, ‘à Jean Seznec / amicalement / Jean Cocteau / 1956’. And he has pencilled underneath one of his typical drawings of a poet’s head crowned with a wreath of laurel leaves.

Jean Cocteau Poésie 1916-1923 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947): Half title page, with Cocteau's sketch and dedication to Jean Seznec (Photo credit: James Legg)

Jean Cocteau Poésie 1916-1923 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947): Half title page, with Cocteau’s sketch and dedication to Jean Seznec (Photo credit: James Legg)


Cocteau’s letter to Seznec (Photo credit: James Legg)

Envelope adddressed to Seznec in Cocteau's hand (Photo credit: James Legg)

Cocteau’s letter (and envelope) to Seznec (Photo credit: James Legg)


Loosely inserted in the volume is an autograph letter, in its original envelope addressed to Professor Seznec, who was Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature at Oxford from 1950 to 1972. The letter adds to the rich documentation surrounding Cocteau’s honorary degree.

The story begins at the end of December 1955 when an Oxford University student, Michael Smithies, called on Cocteau at his house in Milly-la-Forêt. ‘Il m’a semblé,’ Cocteau wrote in his diary, ‘que Smithies venait tâter le terrain pour un voyage à Oxford où je serais nommé docteur honoris causa.’ The following March, Cocteau received a letter from Dr Enid Starkie, the indefatigable and irrepressible Reader in French at Somerville, inviting him to give a lecture at Oxford and suggesting that she might be able to persuade the University to confer on him an honorary degree.

Enid Starkie, by Patrick George (Oil on canvas, 66 x 54 cm) Collection: Somerville College, Oxford (Image: Public Catalogue Foundation/BBC Your Paintings)

Enid Starkie, by Patrick George (Oil on canvas, 66 x 54 cm) Collection: Somerville College, Oxford (Image: Public Catalogue Foundation/BBC Your Paintings)

Cocteau was enthusiastic. Enid had promised nothing but Cocteau’s eyes were firmly fixed on the ‘honoris causa’ and he began to suggest that without the doctorate there could be no lecture. Enid duly set to work and handbagged her way through any resistance that might have been shown by the university authorities. ‘I won, in the end,’ she said later to Cocteau’s biographer, Francis Steegmuller, ‘but don’t ask too closely how it was done … I could only use my influence and my prestige to get him the doctorate. That is what got it for him.’ Cocteau was delighted. ‘J’aimerais faire à Oxford quelque chose d’exceptionnel,’ he wrote in an undated letter in the Taylorian’s collection of manuscripts, but he added, somewhat surprisingly, ‘ce petit voyage d’Oxford m’effraye’. His lecture, on ‘La Poésie ou l’invisibilité’, began to take shape (it would be published later in the year as Le Discours d’Oxford) and on 23 May he sent Enid a sketch of himself in cap and gown, with measurements. The following day he wrote to Professor Seznec the Library’s newly acquired letter, giving details of his arrival in Oxford with ‘l’amie et le fils adoptif’, that is, his patron, Madame Alec (Francine) Weisweiller, and Edouard Dermit, who were to accompany him. Cocteau hopes to meet Seznec that first evening to discuss the programme of his stay in Oxford and the letter concludes: ‘Il est inutile de vous dire avec quelle joie j’accepte votre invitation.’

A colourful report in the issue of Picture Post for 30 June 1956 describes Cocteau fizzling through the foyer of the Randolph Hotel ‘like an elderly Puck, wrapped around in a leaf-green cloak’ and being met ‘in a cloudburst of French by a brilliant little lady wearing scarlet slacks, beret and duffle coat’. Enid had a hard day on that Monday, 11 June. A Board meeting in the afternoon was followed by W. H. Auden’s inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry, a post she had with characteristic energy fought for him to get, then a party for Auden in New College, and, finally, a party for Cocteau given in her ground-floor flat at 41 St Giles’. Cocteau recorded the latter event as: ‘Visite chez Enid Starkie, en kimono et saoule’!

The special meeting of Convocation (the other honorand that day was the geographer Jules Blache, Rector of the University of Aix-en-Provence) took place on Tuesday, 12 June. Enid met Cocteau that morning dressed in her beloved approximation of a French sailor’s outfit, much to Cocteau’s amusement, if not consternation: ‘Enid est charmante, éprise de la France et du français qu’elle enseigne. Mais elle boit … Quelle n’était pas notre stupeur, le matin de mon discours, de la voir arriver en matelot français, avec le béret à pompom, la vareuse, le pantalon à pont et le barda sur l’épaule.’ Lunch was held in New College and, after the ceremony, there was a garden party at the Maison Française. Other lunches and dinners were to follow, with Maurice Bowra, Isaiah Berlin and others, and a visit paid to the Ashmolean.

IMG_9407-ResizedCocteau delivered his lecture in the Taylorian on Thursday, 14 June at 5 p.m. He was introduced by Professor Seznec, and Enid, Cocteau noted with obvious relief, was now ‘en robe et toque de docteur’! The lecture was received with what Cocteau describes as ‘un tonnerre d’applaudisse-ments’, an expression of affection, warmth and enthusiasm, which, Maurice Bowra assured him, had not been the case with either Gide or Mauriac. Cocteau’s one complaint was that students appeared to have been deliberately kept at arm’s length. ‘De ce voyage,’ he says. ‘me reste une amertume, celle d’avoir été séparé des élèves par les maîtres’, but what could he do, when he was pushed around like a pawn on a chess board? Enid, he thinks, must have kept them at bay on the pretext that they would tire him. In any case, exhausted, he retired to London to the relative calm of Claridge’s Hotel.

Mixed emotions, then, but, in spite of being made fun of when back in Paris (‘On ne songe qu’à me ridiculiser, à plaisanter mon costume’), he retained an affection for Oxford and for his honorary doctorate.


Jean Cocteau on Oxford: MS.8o.F.129 (Photo credit: David Thomas)

In a scribbled note added to the manuscript of an address he gave to a student audience, a few years later, which the Taylorian also has in its collection, he wrote, in answer to a questioner in the audience who had asked if he was proud of any of the honours which had been bestowed on him in his life: ‘Oui, un seul – c’est d’être docteur Honoris Causa à l’université d’Oxford’.

David Thomas
Former French and Italian Literature and Language Librarian, Taylor Institution Library (1971-2004)

Further reading
Jean Cocteau Le discours d’Oxford (Paris: Gallimard, 1956) Shelfmark: L/N.3028.A.1
Jean Cocteau Le passé défini: journal 8 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1983-2013) Shelfmark: L/N.3432.A.1 – L/N.3432.A.8. Vol 5 covers the years 1956-1957 Shelfmark: L/N.3432.A.5
Jean Cocteau Poésie 1916-1923 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947) Shelfmark: Arch.8o.F.1947(3)
Joanna Richardson Enid Starkie (London: John Murray, 1973) Shelfmark: TAY.2.D.STA
Francis Steegmuller Jean Cocteau (London: Macmillan, 1970) Shelfmark: L/N.3720.A.2

A Manuscript of Magna Carta at the Taylor Institution Library

In this year of Magna Carta, in which new discoveries are being announced with some regularity (such as the discovery of an early copy at Kent County Council Archives, and Winston Churchill’s plan to give away a copy held at Lincoln Cathedral), we are pleased to announce that the Taylor Institution Library also has a copy of Magna Carta!

Image 1: Magna Charta (Oxford, Taylor Institution Library, MS. 8° E 1) Late 17th-century binding, Oxford, 8.6 x 6.5 cm. (Photo credit: Sjoerd Levelt)

Its existence was first noted, shortly after acquisition, in a letter in Notes and Queries of October 1878, written by Dr Heinrich Krebs, Librarian of the Taylor Institution Library. In his letter, Krebs posed a question regarding a recently acquired manuscript which, judging from his wording, was an unusual addition to the collection:

‘Can any of your readers aid me in ascertaining the genuine character and probable date of a very curious and ancient Latin manuscript on vellum concerning the “Magna Charta,” which has been recently acquired for the Taylorian Library at Oxford? It is of the smallest size (only 3 inches by 2 ½), and contains 214 leaves, three empty ones not included. … Owing to its many abbreviations and minute characters this manuscript is by no means easy to read, and it would require collation with a printed text, if such could be found, to become fully intelligible.’

Krebs seems to have been more comfortable with printed books than manuscripts, and the manuscript quite evidently fell outside his expertise. Help was forthcoming, however, in a somewhat dismissive reply, published one month later, by a regular contributor to Notes and Queries:

‘The collection of law tracts beginning with Magna Charta, such as that described by your correspondent, is not of uncommon occurrence either in manuscript or print. It has been often printed from Pynson’s time downwards. Good perfect copies, as is the case with most of the old law books, may often be had for a small price.’

Dr Fiona Whelan helped me identify the author, who signed with the initials J. C. J., as Rev. John Cohen Jackson (c. 1827-95), schoolmaster, editor of the Astronomical Register, and avid book collector (who regularly offered his manuscripts for sale, too). Richard Pynson, to whom Jackson referred, was one of the earliest printers of English books and known particularly as a printer of legal statutes; the reference, then, was meant to say that there was really nothing special about the Taylorian’s manuscript, that the text had been around in print for as long as English laws had been printed, and good copies were so common in manuscript form that it really was not worth much. The tiny fourteenth-century manuscript was not going to add anything to our knowledge of thirteenth-century English law.

 MS. 8° E 1 (Oxford, Taylor Institution Library), fol. 14r.

MS. 8° E 1 (Oxford, Taylor Institution Library), fol. 14r.

Not entirely surprisingly, the Taylor Institution Library Magna Carta led a mostly dormant existence. There are, however, some reasons that make this little book worth a re-examination. These reasons are, as Jackson suggested, not to be found in the medieval Latin text, which is an unremarkable collection of English laws, including an abbreviated version of Magna Carta as confirmed by King Edward I, but in what happened with the manuscript in the late seventeenth century, around the same time that it received its current binding. On the final leaves, which had remained empty up to this point, a reader made some notes about the contents of the book. Interestingly, the notes focus exclusively on two of its texts: the Magna Carta, and its companion document, the Charter of the Forest. The author of the notes clearly had an interest in legal matters, as well as probably some training; the notes constitute a brief discussion of the version of Magna Carta contained in the manuscript, copied directly from Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes, the principal seventeenth-century commentary on English common law. (‘This statute of Magna Carta is but a confirmation or restitution of the Common Law as in the statute called Confirmatio Chartarum anno 25 E.1. … [It] has been confirmed above thirty times and commanded to be put in execution’.)


MS. 8° E 1 (Oxford, Taylor Institution Library), fols. 213r-214v, added notes

According to a note on a front flyleaf in the current binding, in 1705 the manuscript was owned by James Mickleton. James Mickleton the Younger (1688-1719) was a member of a family of lawyers, and he inherited the collection of manuscripts first established by his grandfather, Christopher Mickleton (1612-1669). James would go on to greatly expand the collection, but he died under suspicious circumstances, in 1719, drowned in the Thames, leaving behind significant debts. His books were sold off and eventually came into the hands of Col. William Wasey (d.1817). His son, George Wasey, advised by Sir Henry Ellis of the British Museum, presented the entire collection to the Bishop of Durham, Shute Barrington, who subsequently divided the collection between Bishop Cosin’s Library in Durham and the Inner Temple Library in London. It appears, however, that George Wasey did not part, at this point, with the Magna Carta manuscript; instead, he wrote his name below James Mickleton’s, and kept it for himself.

MS. 8° E 1 (Oxford, Taylor Institution Library), front board and flyleaf, ownership marks

MS. 8° E 1 (Oxford, Taylor Institution Library), front board and flyleaf, ownership marks

This little book, then, and the collection from which it stems, are witnesses to an interest in historical manuscripts by seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century lawyers (an interest also exemplified by Sir John Selden, whose bequest was the largest single gift to the Bodleian Library in the seventeenth century); and an interest in Magna Carta among a more general readership in the nineteenth century. Entirely ignoring all the other contents of the manuscript (such as the Statute of Winchester, the Statute of the Exchequer, and the Statute of Wards and Reliefs), these readers were interested in only one text – and it’s the same text that keeps us all busy in this year of celebration.

MS. 8° E 1Oxford (Taylor Institution Library), fol. 175r, Charter of Wards and Relief

MS. 8° E 1Oxford (Taylor Institution Library), fol. 175r, Charter of Wards and Relief

Sjoerd Levelt, former Library Assistant, Taylor Institution Library (2014-2015)