A. C. Benson
|28th Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge|
|Preceded by||Stuart Alexander Donaldson|
|Succeeded by||Allen Beville Ramsay|
Arthur Christopher Benson
24 April 1862
|Died||17 June 1925 (aged 63)|
|Education||Temple Grove School |
|Alma mater||King's College, Cambridge|
Arthur Christopher Benson,(24 April 1862 – 17 June 1925) was an English essayist, poet and academic, and the 28th Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He wrote the lyrics of Edward Elgar’s Coronation Ode, including the words of the patriotic song "Land of Hope and Glory" (1902). His literary criticism, poems, and volumes of essays were highly regarded. He was also noted as an author of ghost stories.
Benson was born on 24 April 1862 at Wellington College, Berkshire, as one of six children of Edward White Benson (1829–1896), the first headmaster of the college, who would later be Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883 to 1896. His mother, Mary Sidgwick Benson, was a sister of the philosopher Henry Sidgwick.
Benson's literary family included his brothers Edward Frederic Benson, best remembered for his Mapp and Lucia novels, and Robert Hugh Benson, a priest of the Church of England before converting to Roman Catholicism, who wrote many popular novels. Their sister Margaret Benson was an artist, author, and amateur Egyptologist.
Though exceptionally accomplished, the Benson family met tragic times: a son and daughter died young, while another daughter and Arthur himself suffered from a mental condition that may have been bipolar disorder or manic-depressive psychosis, seemingly inherited from their father. None of the children married.
Despite his illness, Arthur was to become a distinguished academic and a prolific author. From the ages of 10 to 21, he lived in cathedral closes, first at Lincoln where his father was Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral, and then at Truro, where his father was the first Bishop of Truro. He retained a love of church music and ceremony.
In 1874 he won a scholarship to Eton from Temple Grove School, a preparatory school in East Sheen. In 1881 he went up to King's College, Cambridge, where he was a scholar (King's College had closed scholarships for which only Etonians were eligible) and achieved first-class honours in the Classical tripos in 1884.
From 1885 to 1903 Benson taught at Eton, but returned to Cambridge in 1904 as a Fellow of Magdalene College to lecture in English Literature. He became president of the college (the Master's deputy) in 1912, and he was Master of Magdalene (head of the college) from December 1915 until his death in 1925. From 1906, he was a governor of Gresham's School.
The modern development of Magdalene was shaped by Benson, as a generous benefactor with a marked impact on the appearance of the college grounds; he appears in at least 20 inscriptions around the college. In 1930, the new Benson Court was named after him.
Benson worked with Lord Esher in editing the correspondence of Queen Victoria, which appeared in 1907. His poems and essay volumes, such as From a College Window and The Upton Letters (essays in the form of letters) were famous in his time; and he left one of the longest diaries ever written: some four million words. His literary criticisms of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward FitzGerald, Walter Pater and John Ruskin rank among his best work.
Benson wrote the lyrics of the Coronation Ode, set to music by Edward Elgar for the 1902 coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. It has as its finale one of Britain's best-known patriotic songs, "Land of Hope and Glory".
Like his brothers Edward Frederic and Robert Hugh, Benson was noted as an author of ghost stories. The bulk of them, in two volumes, The Hill of Trouble and Other Stories (1903) and The Isles of Sunset (1904), were written for his pupils as moral allegories. After Arthur's death, Fred Benson found a collection of unpublished ghost stories and included two in a book, Basil Netherby (1927). The title story was renamed "House at Treheale" and the volume completed by a long piece, "The Uttermost Farthing", but the fate of the other stories is unknown.
Paul the Minstrel and Other Stories (1911, reprinted 1977) collects the contents of The Hill of Trouble and Other Stories and The Isles of Sunset. Nine of Arthur's ghost stories are included in David Stuart Davies (ed.), The Temple of Death: The Ghost Stories of A. C. & R. H. Benson (Wordsworth, 2007), together with seven by his brother R. H. Benson, while nine of Arthur's and ten of Robert's appear in Ghosts in the House (Ash-Tree, 1996) – the contents of the joint collections are similar but not identical.
In The Schoolmaster, Benson summarised his views on education after 18 years' experience at Eton. He criticised a trend he found prevalent in English public schools, to "make the boys good and to make them healthy" to the detriment of their intellectual development.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he founded the Benson Medal in 1916 "in respect of meritorious works in poetry, fiction, history and belles lettres".
A. C. Benson died of cardiac arrest at Magdalene and was buried at St Giles's Cemetery in Cambridge.
Horror critic R. S. Hadji included Benson's Basil Netherby on a list of "unjustly neglected" horror books.
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch included Benson's poem "The Phoenix" in the first and second editions of The Oxford Book of English Verse.
By feathers green, across Casbeen
- The pilgrims track the Phoenix flown,
By gems he strew'd in waste and wood,
- And jewell'd plumes at random thrown.
Till wandering far, by moon and star,
- They stand beside the fruitful pyre,
Where breaking bright with sanguine light
- The impulsive bird forgets his sire.
Those ashes shine like ruby wine,
- Like bag of Tyrian murex spilt,
The claw, the jowl of the flying fowl
- Are with the glorious anguish gilt.
So rare the light, so rich the sight,
- Those pilgrim men, on profit bent,
Drop hands and eyes and merchandise,
- And are with gazing most content.
Genealogy of the family of Benson
A. C. Benson Walter Pater
The House of Quiet: an Autobiography
Life and Letters of Maggie Benson
Hugh: Memoirs of a Brother