08 January 2010

Sir John Betjeman on Lewis, Christmas


Humphrey Carpenter has some interesting things to relate about Sir John Betjeman and C.S. Lewis, who was Betjeman’s tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford. For those who do not know, Betjeman was an ‘architectural critic, social historian, conservationist, short story writer, railway enthusiast, country lover, humorist, eccentric and Christian’. [1] He was also one of the more popular Poet Laureates of the twentieth century. According to Carpenter, Betjeman was ‘among Lewis’s first pupils . . . and they did not get on well.’ He quotes Lewis’s diary:

Betjeman and Valentin came for Old English. Betjeman appeared in a pair of eccentric bedroom slippers and said he hoped I didn’t mind them as he had a blister. He seemed so pleased with himself that I couldn’t help saying that I should mind them very much myself but that I had no objection to his wearing them—a view which I believe surprised him. Both had been very idle over the OE and I told them it wouldn’t do. [2]


Humphrey writes that Betjeman ‘was certainly prepared to pay a little desultory attention to English literature, but he had not bargained for Old English (Anglo-Saxon), nor for such a tutor’. By his own admission:

I cut tutorials with wild excuse,
For life was luncheons, luncheons all the way. [3]

In another diary entry, Lewis complains, ‘While in College, I was rung up on the telephone by Betjeman speaking from Moreton-in-Marsh, to say that he hadn’t been able to read the Old English, as he was suspected for measles and forbidden to read a book. Probably a lie, but what can one do?’ [4] Eventually, the inevitable happened and Betjeman was ‘sent down . . . for failing the obligatory University examination in Divinity. Carpenter passes along Betjeman’s own story that he ‘sought out Lewis “in his arid rooms”, but was told bluntly, “You’d have only got a Third.”’ [5] But according to Judith Priestman, he finally ‘returned to Magdalen in Michaelmas 1928, not even as a potential Third Class student but, with Lewis's permission, as an ignominious Pass degree candidate: qui nullum honorem ambiunt’. [6] Twelve years later, he struck back with the following lines:

Objectively, our Common Room
Is like a small Athenian State—
Except for Lewis: he’s all right
But do you think he’s quite first rate? [7]

But Priesthood tells the whole story rather well and poignantly. Incidentally, it was from Betjeman that Lewis borrowed a volume of T.S. Eliot’s poetry, leading to his intense dislike for the famous modernist. Carpenter writes that he actually organised ‘an anti-Eliot campaign among his friends’. [8]

Betjeman’s ‘faith journey’, for lack of a better expression, must be an interesting story about which I know nothing. He wrote a nice poem entitled ‘Greek Orthodox’, including the following insightful lines on the Church:

Thus vigorously does the old tree grow,
By persecution pruned, watered with blood,
Its living roots deep in pre-Christian mud,
It needs no bureaucratical protection.
It is its own perpetual resurrection.
Or take the galleon metaphor—it rides
Serenely over controversial tides
Triumphant to the Port of Heaven, its home,
With one sail missing—that’s the Pope’s in Rome. [9]

But Betjeman also managed to produce one of my favourite Christmas poems, which though quite different in style, reminds me of Updike’s Easter poem.

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine. [10]


[1] From the back cover of John Guest, select., The Best of Betjeman (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1979).

[2] Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, & Their Friends (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), p.19.

[3] Ibid., p. 20. For more lines on Betjeman's Magdalen stint, see this post.

[4] Ibid., p. 20.

[5] Ibid., p. 20.

[6] Judith Priestman, ‘The Dilettante & the Dons’, Oxford Today, Vol. 18, No. 3, Trinity 2006.

[7] Carpenter, p. 21.

[8] Ibid., p. 21.

[9] Sir John Betjeman, A Nip in the Air (NY: Norton, 1974), p. 37.

[10] Guest, pp. 81-2.

3 comments:

Maximus Daniel said...

Aaron,
Have you read any of Betjeman's architectural work? or essays? There is one essay in particular of his I absolutely adore.

aaronandbrighid said...

Maximus> Haven't got round to it, unfortunately, but I plan to! Which essay is it you recommend?

Maximus Daniel said...

"First and Last Loves" - book

And the first essay, Love is Dead. I might just scan it and email it to you!