Osney is mentioned in ‘The Miller’s Tale’, in which Alison uses the absence of her carpenter husband, working at Osney, to cuckold him with the youth Nicholas:
Now sire, and eft, sire, so bifel the case
That on a day this hende Nicholas
Fil with this yonge wyf to rage and pleye,
While that hir housebonde was at Oseneye…
And so bifel it on a Saterday,
This carpenter was goon til Osenay;
And hende Nicholas and Alisoun
Acorded been to this conclusioun,
That Nicholas shal shapen hym a wyle
This sely jalous housbonde to bigyle;
The poem ‘Lockkeeper’s Island’ describes Osney lock.
The twentieth-century poet and novelist John Wain lived in Wolvercote and used to drink in The Waterman’s Arms (now The Punter). The parents of the central character of Wain’s Oxford trilogy Where the Rivers Meet keep a pub on Osney Island called The Bargeman’s Arms. The novels describe social change in the city between the 1920s and 1950s.
Nothing, only shadows, but Aubrey
had three faces drawn and got
the manner of building. A tower and vaults
to counter magpie chatter or quiet souls
in purgatory, with grain then wool accounts
to balance and make envy. You can see
pinnacles over Frog island where
the raised railway shakes, and feel the smart
of scalding liquor. An abbot like a bell
encompassed by water begs to go elsewhere
but wouldn’t lose his fish-pond. Hobbes
who doesn’t much care for logic
traps jackdaws with cheese on a string
but the owner of this arch says the site is safe.
by permission of the author
The Mahogany Pod, a memoir by Jill Hopper published by Saraband in 2021, is set on Osney Island.
Oxford’s original electric power station (now owned by Oxford University) faces East Street from the other side of the Thames and is mentioned in the following poem by Hilaire Belloc, author of the more famous ‘Cautionary Tales’. The poem was written in 1893 as Belloc’s (unsuccessful) entry for the Newdigate Prize. NB Seven Bridges Road is the older name for the Botley Road.
A Prize Poem submitted by Mr. Lambkin of Burford to the Examiners of the University of Oxford on the prescribed poetic theme set by them in 1893, ‘The Benefits of the Electric Light’.
Hail, Happy Muse, and touch the tuneful string!
The benefits conferred by Science I sing.
Under the kind Examiners’ direction
I only write about them in connection
With benefits which the Electric Light
Confers on us; especially at night.
These are my theme, of these my song shall rise.
My lofty head shall swell to strike the skies.
And tears of hopeless love bedew the maiden’s eyes.
Descend, O Muse, from thy divine abode,
To Osney, on the Seven Bridges Road;
For under Osney’s solitary shade
The bulk of the Electric Light is made.
Here are the works; – from hence the current flows
Which (so the Company’s prospectus goes)
Can furnish to Subscribers hour by hour
No less than sixteen thousand candle power,
All at a thousand volts. (It is essential
To keep the current at this high potential
In spite of the considerable expense.)
The Energy developed represents,
Expressed in foot-tons, the united forces
Of fifteen elephants and forty horses.
But shall my scientific detail thus
Clip the dear wings of Buoyant Pegasus?
Shall pure statistics jar upon the ear
That pants for Lyric accents loud and clear?
Shall I describe the complex Dynamo
Or write about its Commutator? No!
To happier fields I lead my wanton pen,
The proper study of mankind is men.
Awake, my Muse! Portray the pleasing sight
That meets us where they make Electric Light.
Behold the Electrician where he stands
Soot, oil, and verdigris are on his hands;
Large spots of grease defile his dirty clothes,
The while his conversation drips with oaths.
Shall such a being perish in its youth?
Alas! It is indeed the fatal truth.
In that dull brain, beneath that hair unkempt,
Familiarity has bred contempt.
We warn him of the gesture all too late:
Oh, Heartless Jove! Oh, Adamantine Fate!
Some random touch – a hand’s imprudent slip –
The Terminals – a flash – a sound like ‘Zip!’
A smell of burning fills the startled Air –
The Electrician is no longer there!
But let us turn with true Artistic scorn
From facts funereal and from views forlorn
Of Erebus and Blackest midnight born.
Arouse thee, Muse! and chaunt in accents rich
The interesting processes by which
The Electricity is passed along:
These are my theme: to these I bend my song.
It runs encased in wood or porous brick
Through copper wires two millimetres thick,
And insulated on their dangerous mission
By indiarubber, silk, or composition.
Here you may put with critical felicity
The following question: ‘What is Electricity?’
‘Molecular Activity,’ say some,
Others when asked say nothing, and are dumb.
Whatever be its nature, this is clear:
The rapid current checked in its career,
Baulked in its race and halted in its course
Transforms to heat and light its latent force:
It needs no pedant in the lecturer’s chair
To prove that light and heat are present there.
The pear-shaped vacuum globe, I understand,
Is far too hot to fondle with the hand.
While, as is patent to the meanest sight,
The carbon filament is very bright.
As for the lights they hang about the town,
Some praise them highly, others run them down.
This system (technically called the Arc),
Makes some passages too light, others too dark.
But in the house the soft and constant rays
Have always met with universal praise.
For instance: if you want to read in bed
No candle burns beside your curtain’s head,
Far from some distant comer of the room
The incandescent lamp dispels the gloom,
And with the largest print need hardly try
The powers of any young and vigorous eye.
Aroint thee, Muse! Inspired the poet sings!
I cannot help observing future things!
Life is a vale, its paths are dark and rough
Only because we do not know enough:
When Science has discovered something more
We shall be happier than we were before.
Hail, Britain, Mistress of the Azure Main
Ten thousand Fleets sweep over thee in vain!
Hail, Mighty Mother of the Brave and Free,
That beat Napoleon, and gave birth to me!
Thou that canst wrap in thine emblazoned robe
One quarter of the habitable globe.
Thy mountains, wafted by a favouring breeze,
Like mighty rocks withstand the stormy seas.
Thou art a Christian Commonwealth; and yet
Be thou not all unthankful – nor forget
As thou exultest in Imperial Might
The Benefits of the Electric Light.
Hilaire Belloc, Verses (1910)