31 October 2013

‘Willowy banks of a willowy Cherwell’:
visiting the Oxford of John Betjeman

Magdalen College, Oxford ... the college of John Betjeman – and of Oscar Wilde, CS Lewis and Seamus Heaney (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing yesterday about the Oxford of TS Eliot and Louis MacNeice. But, of course, there is also the Oxford of Oscar Wilde and of John Betjeman (1906-1984), Poet Laureate.

Indeed, 20th century Oxford produced a rich crop of writers in a wide variety of genres, including TE Lawrence, Max Beerbohm, Evelyn Waugh, WH Auden, Dorothy Sayers, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams, Ronald Knox, John Wain, Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene, Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin and Robertson Davies, to name but a few whose colleges, pubs and other haunts are of interest to academics and to tourists on the bright sunny days I have experienced this week..

John Betjeman had been taught at Highgate School by TS Eliot, before going to the Dragon School in Oxford as a boarder and then on to Marlborough, where his contemporaries included Louis MacNeice.

Betjeman faced difficulties in trying to get into Oxford with difficulty. He failed the mathematics part of the matriculation exam, Responsions, but eventually was admitted as a commoner or non-scholarship student at Magdalen College, entering the newly-formed School of English Language and Literature. Famously, he brought his teddy bear, Archibald Ormsby-Gore, up to Magdalen with him, an eccentricity that inspired his Oxford contemporary Evelyn Waugh to portray the aesthete extraordinaire Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, in which he is never seen sauntering around Oxford without his teddy bear.

Magdalen is also the college of the Dublin-born Oscar Wilde, of the Belfast-born CS Lewis, who in 1925 was elected a fellow and tutor in English Literature at Magdalen, and later of Seamus Heaney, who was a Fellow of Magdalen while he was Professor of Poetry in Oxford.

As his tutor at Magdalen, CS Lewis regarded Betjeman as an “idle prig”; Betjeman, for his part, found Lewis unfriendly, demanding, and uninspired, and described him as “breezy, tweedy, beer-drinking and jolly.”

Despite all this, Betjeman published a poem in Isis, the university magazine, and in 1927 he was editor of Cherwell, the student newspaper, founded seven years earlier. His bicycle tours of Victorian North Oxford as a young student inspired many of his later poems and instilled in him a life-long love of architecture. Much of this period of his life is recorded in his autobiography Summoned by Bells (1960).

Betjeman cultivated the common misapprehension that he did not complete his degree because he failed to pass the compulsory examination known as ‘Divinity.’ In Hilary term 1928, Betjeman failed Divinity for the second time, and had to leave Oxford for the Trinity term to prepare to resit ‘Divvers.’

He returned to Oxford in October, when he wrote to the Secretary of the Tutorial Board at Magdalen, GC Lee, asking to be entered for the Pass School. Betjeman claims Lewis told him: “You’d have only got a third.” But Lewis told the tutorial board that he thought Betjeman would not achieve an honours degree of any class.

Betjeman was given permission to sit the Pass School, but finally he had to leave at the end of the Michaelmas term, 1928. He passed Divinity on his third attempt but was sent down after failing the Pass School, having achieved a satisfactory result in only one of the three required papers, on Shakespeare and other English authors.

Meanwhile, in his rooms in Magdalen, CS Lewis was struggle with questions about faith, and returned to Christianity in 1929. In Surprised by Joy, he writes:

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.

Although Betjeman left Oxford without a degree, he had formed lasting friendships with people who would later influence his work, including Louis MacNeice and WH Auden. In 1930, he became an assistant editor of The Architectural Review, and in 1931, his first book of poems, Mount Zion, was published by an old Oxford friend, Edward James.

But his poor academic performance at Oxford continued to haunt him for the rest of his life. He was never reconciled with CS Lewis and continued to detest him bitterly.

Yet he had an enduring love of Oxford. From 1951 to 1972, he lived at The Mead in Wantage, 16 miles south of Oxford. Wantage provides the setting for his book Archie and the Strict Baptists. In the boundary changes in 1974, Wantage was transferred from Berkshire to Oxfordshire.

That year, Betjeman accepted an honorary doctorate from Oxford, and two years ago, in 2011, Betjeman was honoured by the university as one of its 100 most distinguished members from ten centuries.

The Mead is at the heart of the Betjeman Millennium Park in Wantage since 1997. Lines from his poems feature on six stones, inscribed by the sculptor Alec Peever. The week-long ‘Wantage (not just) Betjeman Literary Festival 2013’ came to an end on Sunday (27 October 2013).

The chapel tower at Magdalen looks down on the Cherwell at Magdalen Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Myfanwy at Oxford by John Betjeman

Pink may, double may, dead laburnum
Shedding an Anglo-Jackson shade,
Shall we ever, my staunch Myfanwy,
Bicycle down to North Parade?
Kant on the handle-bars, Marx in the saddlebag,
Light my touch on your shoulder-blade.

Sancta Hilda, Myfanwyatia
Evansensis – I hold your heart,
Willowy banks of a willowy Cherwell a
Willowy figure with lips apart,
Strong and willowy, strong to pillow me,
Gold Myfanwy, kisses and art.

Tubular bells of tall St. Barnabas,
Single clatter above St. Paul,
Chasuble, acolyte, incense-offering,
Spectacled faces held in thrall.
There in the nimbus and Comper tracery
Gold Myfanwy blesses us all.

Gleam of gas upon Oxford station,
Gleam of gas on her straight gold hair,
Hair flung back with an ostentation,
Waiting alone for a girl friend there.
Second in Mods and a Third in Theology
Come to breathe again Oxford air.

Her Myfanwy as in Cadena days,
Her Myfanwy, a schoolgirl voice,
Tentative brush of a cheek in a cocoa crush,
Coffee and Ulysses, Tennyson, Joyce,
Alpha-minded and other dimensional,
Freud or Calvary? Take your choice.

Her Myfanwy? My Myfanwy.
Bicycle bells in a Boar’s Hill Pine,
Stedman Triple from All Saints’ steeple,
Tom and his hundred and one at nine,
Bells of Butterfield, caught in Keble,
Sally and backstroke answer “Mine!”

‘Willowy banks of a willowy Cherwell’ ... punts and willows at the Cherwell beneath Magdalen Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

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