Charles Stuart Calverley

Charles Stuart Calverley, from The Literary Remains of Charles Stuart Calverley. London: George Bell / Cambridge, UK: Deighton, Bell, 1885. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Stuart Calverley (December 22, 1831 - February 17, 1884) was an English poet and wit. He was the literary father of what has been called "the university school of humour".[1]

Life Edit


Calverley, son of Rev. H. Blayds (who assumed the name of Calverley), was educated at Harrow School, Oxford, and Cambridge. He was called to the Bar in 1865, and appeared to have a brilliant career before him, when a fall on the ice in 1866 changed him from a distinguished athlete to a life-long invalid. Brilliant as a scholar, a musician, and a talker, he is perhaps best known as one of the greatest of parodists. He published Verses and Translations, 1862, and Fly-leaves, 1872. He also translated Theocritus. 1869.[2]

Youth and educationEdit

Calverley was born Charles Stuart Blayds at Martley in Worcestershire. His father, Rev. Henry Blayds, was a descendant of the ancient Yorkshire family of Calverley. His mother was the daughter of Thomas Meade of Chatley, Somersetshire. The old family name, which had been changed to Blayds in the beginning of the century, was resumed in 1852.[3]

Calverley, after being educated by private tutors and for 3 months at Marlborough, was admitted at Harrow on 9 September 1846. He was in the 6th form from January 1848 to July 1850. He read little, affected no interest in other than school studies, and was famous for athletic feats, especially in jumping. His sweet temper and keen wit made him a charming companion; while he already showed extraordinary powers of verbal memory and of Latin versification.[3]

A copy of Latin verses turned off almost as an improvisation won for him the Balliol scholarship, winning him admission to Balliol College on 25 November 1850. At Oxford he won the chancellor's prize in 1851 for a Latin poem which confirmed his high reputation. Offences against discipline proceeding from mere boyish recklessness caused his removal from Oxford in the beginning of 1852.[3]

In the following October he entered Christ's College, Cambridge. Taking warning by his previous experience, he kept upon good terms with the authorities, and became widely popular. He won the Craven scholarship in 1854, the Camden medal in 1853 and 1855, the Browne medal (Greek ode) in 1855, and the members' prize for a Latin essay in 1856. He was second in the classical tripos for 1856, and 2 years later was elected a fellow of Christ's.[3]

His academic success was the more remarkable because his constitutional indolence and love of society prevented regular work. His friends had to drag him out of bed by force, or lock him into his rooms to secure intellectual concentration. He had become the friend of many well-known members of his college, including Professors Seeley, Skeat, and Hales, Mr. Walter Besant, and Dr. Robert Liveing. His social talents were rapidly developing; he could draw clever caricatures, he had a good ear for music and a sweet voice, and a singular facility for all kinds of light composition.[3]

Among his best known facetiæ at this time was the examination paper on Pickwick at Christmas 1857 (printed in Fly Leaves). The prizes were won by Mr. Walter Besant and Professor Skeat. His parodies and other humorous verses had already made him famous amongst fellow-students when his talents were first made known to the world by the publication of Verses and Translations in 1862.[3]


Calverley resided for a time in Cambridge, taking pupils and giving lectures in college. He then studied law, and was called to the bar as a member of the Inner Temple in 1865, having vacated his fellowship by a marriage with his first cousin, Miss Ellen Calverley of Oulton, Yorkshire. He joined the northern circuit, liked his professional studies, and made a good impression.[3]

In the winter of 1866-7 he fell upon his head while skating at Oulton Hall, and received a concussion of the brain. The injury was neglected at the time, and symptoms were soon developed which forced him to abandon his profession. The result was a gradual incapacitation for all serious work, though he continued to write occasional trifles. He also suffered from Bright's disease and great consequent depression, although his mental powers were scarcely impaired till the end. He died on 17 Feb. 1884, and was buried at Folkestone cemetery.[3]


Calverley's almost unique powers of imitation are shown by his translations from and into English. The same power, combined with his quick eye for the ridiculous, made him perhaps the best parodist in the language. His intellectual dexterity, his playful humour and keen wit place him in the front rank of modern writers of the lighter kinds of verse. He shows more intellectual affinity to the author of the Rape of the Lock than to the author of the Excursion. Thackeray, as Professor Seeley says, was his favourite among moderns.[4]

Calverley's wit was refined common sense; he was no mystic, and directed his good-humoured mockery against the stilted, the obscure, and the morbidly sentimental. The affectionate recollections of his friends show that what Professor Seeley calls his "elfish" mockery was the exuberant playfulness of a powerful mind and a tender and manly nature. His verses have the peculiar charm of a schoolboy's buoyancy combined with the exquisite culture of a thorough scholar.[4]

Critical introductionEdit

by Charles L. Graves

Of the 3 “beloved Cambridge Rhymers” — Calverley, J.K. Stephen, and A.C. Hilton — who adorned and enlivened English belles lettres by their wit and humour in the last half of the 19th century, Calverley stood first in time, in equipment, and in achievement. We have the testimony of Dr. Butler, who sat next him in the Sixth at Harrow, and of Sir John Seeley, who lived with him on terms of unbroken intimacy at Cambridge, that as a young man he was not widely read and that his stock of acquired knowledge was small. But he seemed to “know without reading;” he had a wonderful memory, a singularly catholic taste, and an “exquisite and severe appreciation of classical form and rhythm.”

His favourite studies at Harrow were Pickwick and Virgil. But while his knowledge of Dickens was extensive and peculiar, he was equally devoted to Thackeray, who, according to Seeley, was his favourite English author. In style, he was most influenced by Virgil, and probably Milton; but his audacity was always restrained by a perfect taste, and he thus presented the engaging spectacle of a humorist who divorced scholarship from pedantry and combined reverence for form—and good form—with complete unconventionality of outlook. He owed little to his forerunners in the genre in which he became famous, but there are many lines in Canning which foreshadow Calverley’s peculiar genius for sudden absurdity, notably the couplet:

“The feathered tribe with pinions cleave the air;
Not so the mackerel, and still less the bear.”

Calverley’s fondness for unexpected effects had a physical parallel in his passion as a boy and a young man for taking extraordinary jumps, especially if he did not know where he would alight on the other side of the obstacle. On one memorable occasion, recorded by Dr. Butler, he lit on his head, but was none the worse — and one may say the same of most of the violent transitions in his verses. At any rate no one suffered but himself. The perfect good temper that endeared him to his friends never failed him in his most critical moods.

If, as it has been said of him, he shows more intellectual affinity to the author of The Rape of the Lock than to the author of The Excursion, he was entirely free from the spiteful venom of Pope. His mockery was never disfigured by malice. He made no enemies even among those of the genus irritabile whom he ridiculed for their morbibity, their obscurity, or their sentimentality. His function was that of a caricaturist rather than that of a satirist, but it was backed by sound criticism and common sense. Sir John Seeley tells us that “to him all people were curious and ridiculous,” but they were never contemptible.

Of vers de société in the strict sense there is little in the work of Calverley. He was not unsocial, but his Muse had little traffic with Mayfair; he was not a follower of Praed or a rival of Locker. But though his unsophisticated intellect could not put up with rules or “the pretty Decalogue of Mode,” he was, in spite of a brief period of acute conflict with authority at Oxford, neither a Bohemian nor a rebel. As one of his most intimate friends says, “he entered into and enjoyed much of what he ridiculed.” He had great gifts but no ambition. “It was his love to saunter along the high road of life,” an amused onlooker of the follies of mortals, but with a deep reverence, at the back of all his freakishness for all that was honest and lovely and of good report. This underlying seriousness sometimes emerges in his verse, notably in the beautiful concluding stanzas of Dover to Munich, and it is worthy of note that those who knew him best were men of serious aims and high ideals who loved the man even more than they admired his gifts.

The secret of his charm is hard to define. The element of surprise was seldom lacking, and surprise is of the essence of recreation. Again, in the words of the Latin epitaph, neminem tristem fecit (he made no one sad). He had the joyous intrepidity and the reckless gaiety of boyhood along with the ripe and curious felicity of the trained scholar, the dashing ease of the brilliant amateur, and the calculated elegance of the fastidious artist. These qualities have earned for him an enduring place among writers of humorous verse, apart from the special service which he rendered in the domain of parody.

What Jeffrey said, in his review of Rejected Addresses, of the higher functions of literary travesty as revealed by the brothers Smith, applies with even greater force to Calverley. His essays in this genre were few in number but of supreme excellence, for they not only showed an unerring instinct for pillorying mannerisms, but an extraordinary gift of impersonation—of assuming the mental habit of the writer. With him parody ceased to be a crude mechanical exercise in verbal substitution, and became a legitimate weapon of criticism, as it has remained ever since in the hands of its best exponents.[5]




Collected editionsEdit

  • Literary Remains (with memoir by Walter Joseph Sendall). London: George Bell / Cambridge, UK: Deighton, Bell, 1885.
  • Complete Works (with biographical notice by Walter Joseph Sendall). London: George Bell, 1901.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[6]

Visions Charles Stuart Calverley audiobook

Visions Charles Stuart Calverley audiobook

See alsoEdit


  • PD-icon.svg Stephen, Leslie (1886) "Calverley, Charles Stuart" in Stephen, Leslie Dictionary of National Biography 8 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 264-265 


  1. Calverley, Charles Stuart, Encyclopædia Britannica 11th Edition]], 1911. Wikisource, Web, Mar. 29, 2016.
  2. John William Cousin, "Calverley, Charles Stuart," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910, 70. Web, Dec. 22, 2017.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Stephen, 264.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Stephen, 265.
  5. from Charles L. Graves, "Critical Introduction: Charles Stuart Calverley (1831–1884)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Mar. 29, 2016.
  6. Search results = au:Charles Stuart Calverley, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, July 17, 2013.

External links Edit


PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the Dictionary of National Biography (edited by Leslie Stephen). London: Smith, Elder, 1885-1900. Original article is at: Calverley, Charles Stuart

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.