A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
I discovered “A Day in Vacation at College” entirely by accident while flipping through a pile of rare book catalogs a few years ago. The title and its publication date, 1751, caught my eye for some reason, and I promptly grabbed a PDF of it from Google Books and started reading. It’s a charming little book—really just a 300 line poem with 6 pages of notes—written by a 21 year old Cambridge student named William Dodd. Composed in a mock heroic mode, it’s actually just a mundane account of a college town after all the students have left for break.
The life of a college student hasn’t changed much in the past 260 years. Our narrator wakes up late, complains about his lack of funds, and scrounges up some food. Next he aimlessly heads into town, ends up bumming around a coffee shop all night pining for a girl, and then heads back to his dorm complaining of loneliness. I haven’t gotten through a Back-to-School season since without thinking of poor William Dodd and how happy he’d be to see the end of another lonely summer on campus:
How shall the long, long tedious evening pass?
Where are the social friends, the flowing cups?
Sure, the poetry is far from perfect, but it is also so good humored and timeless an account of college-age listlessness that it makes no difference.
The poem is followed by copious notes in which Dodd explains his use of slang and inside jokes. The notes are funny and self-deprecating, and turn out to be just as compelling an account of Cambridge in the 18th century as the poem. Here’s the note to line 149, in which he refers to the most popular bookstores in Cambridge:
Thurlbourn or Merrill are so well known, we need observe nothing of the Honesty or Excellence of these eminent Booksellers. The third [Mr.Matthews] who is hinted at in the next Line, is less famous in Publick, but renowned within the Walls of Granta, for a very pretty Wife, whom he had just brought Home when this Poem was written, and whose Charms, doubtless, will add no small Increase to his Trade. N. B. This Circumstance may, in future Times, be of no small Service to fix the Chronology of this Poem.
Sadly, our young poet’s story doesn’t end with the notes. While he never became a poet of great renown, he did eventually earn the titles Doctor and Reverend William Dodd. He was a popular preacher and teacher for a time, but ended up more famous for his extravagant lifestyle, his public scandals, and his ignominious death than his writings or teachings.
You see, Dodd liked the high life, so much so he was commonly called The Macaroni Parson. “Macaroni” in those days was slang for foppish, affected fashions, fashions far more costly than a clergyman could usually muster. Living beyond his means, Dodd not only found himself in heavy debt, he got a little shifty in his attempts to dig out. First, he got caught trying to bribe his way into a lucrative job. It was a scandal that forced him to leave London for the continent for two years and earned him a second nickname: “Dr. Simony.” Next, he got caught forging checks under the name of his friend the Earl of Chesterfield. Despite public petitions and the intervention of Samuel Johnson, Dodd was hanged for forgery in 1777.
It’s sad to think of the author of “A Day in Vacation at College” coming to such a terrible end. I have to admit I grew to like the guy over those 300 lines. I’d have petitioned against his execution for sure.
Here’s a PDF of “A Day at Vacation in College” scanned from the Bodleian’s copy by Google Books, I’ve cropped it a bit to make it more readable on eReaders with smaller screens. You can also download the full PDF from Google Books here.
Review by Matthew