Matthew Arnold is responsible for two of the most celebrated remarks ever made about Oxford. One is the phrase “city of dreaming spires”—actually “that sweet City with her dreaming spires,” in his poem “Thyrsis.” The other is a passage in the preface to Essays in Criticism where Oxford is seen as the “home of lost causes” and is heard to be “whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age.” The phrase from “Thyrsis” is routinely misquoted and endlessly reused. There is an Oxford Spires Barbers on the High Street, an Oxford Spires hotel, and (perhaps less incongruously) an Oxford Spires Scaffolding company. More seriously, “dreaming spires” has become a compound noun, used as a synonym not just for Oxbridge but for the traditional conception of the university more...


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