Thursday, October 18, 2018

Betjeman (briefly) on Tolkien

So, my recent post on Betjeman and Dunsany was really a side-trek from my original intent, which was to see if there were any Tolkien references in Betjeman's collected letters. There was one solitary mention that I think's worth sharing, but it's in the context of Betjeman's thorny relationship with C. S. Lewis and thus requires some unpacking.

In brief, Lewis had been Betjeman's tutor at Oxford, and the two men rubbed each other the wrong way. Without going into details, Betjeman blamed Lewis for B's Oxford career being cut short, and for  taking steps to prevent his getting a teaching job elsewhere afterwards. In later years B. referred to CSL as ''My great enemy and ex-tutor Lewis' [p. 389; 1946] and  '. . . Mr C. S. Bloody Lewis, the tutor who sent me down from Oxford' (p. 233, in a 1939 letter to T. S. Eliot, whom Betjeman addressed as 'Dear Poet'). The phrase 'mocks C. S. Lewis' even has its own entry in this volume's  index.

Eventually Betjeman more or less got over his animus for Lewis -- becoming England's most popular, best selling poet might have helped -- though he did not exactly forgive and forget and continued to snipe at CSL occasionally:

'Oh God to be in England . . . 
Yes even for a glance at Lewis
 striding tweed-clad to Headington'
(308; 1942, writing from Ireland) *

What seems to have been a key factor is the lessening of Betjeman's grudge was his writing a long letter to Lewis (p.250-253; 13 December 1939), which he seems to have never actually sent. Betjeman opens by saying he has

'just expunged from the proofs of a preface 
of a new book of poems of mine . . . 
a long and unprovoked attack on you'

After going over the differences between them, he  concludes that he and L. are antithetical in their approach to poetry. He judges that Lewis's poems are 'philosophical or metaphysical or abstract or something I do not understand', whereas he describes his own approach as visual. By this I take him to mean that Lewis's poems are about ideas and Betjeman's are a response to natural beauty and architecture.  This is ironic, given that we know the inspiration for some of CSL's fiction were 'pictures' he found in his mind, and that Lewis mounted a charge against Eliot** almost the same as that which Betjeman is leveling upon Lewis. It's also ironic that the poem B. focuses on as the epitome of what's wrong with Lewis's poetry, 'The Planets', has in recent years been seized upon as The Key to unlocking architectonics supposed to underlie some of his most popular work. B. particularly objects to the line 'Lady Luna in light canoe':

I don't see how anyone who has looked at the moon
can think of it as 'cruising monthly' in a light canoe. 

For Betjeman,
'It seems to me as out of touch as your talk 
about Dragons with Tolkien in a Berkshire bar 
must have seemed to the Berkshire workman'.

Which brings us, by roundabout route, to Tolkien. For this is clearly a reference to the six lines of alliterative verse Lewis created to demonstrate Old English metre:

We were talking of dragons, Tolkien and I
In a Berkshire bar. The big workman
Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe
All the evening, from his empty mug
With gleaming eye, glanced towards us;
'I seen 'em myself', he said fiercely.

Personally, I like these six lines better than I like what little I've read of Betjeman, but I see B's point that trying to impose one poet's aesthetic on another is likely to end badly. And indeed  Betjeman wraps up his critique with the plea that if ever Lewis comes across another student who wants to immerse himself in poetry rather than study philology, would he please send him on to a different tutor, like Coghill?***


*a precursor of 'there goes C. S. Lewis —it must be Tuesday', perhaps?

**I'm away from my books, but I think the poem in question was titled 'A Confession': it was a belated rejoinder to TSE's 'Prufrock'

***B. actually mentions several names, any of whom he considers cd have done a better job than CSL in tutoring him: 'Nichol Smith or Blunden or old John Bryson or Nevill [Coghill]'

1 comment:

OnTheTrail said...

Betjeman was also a former pupil of Eliot, another poet that Lewis disliked for many years. He had described Eliot as an 'immature man' in letters to More and his preface to Paradise Lost (1942) took aim at Eliot plainly. He really disliked Eliot's criticism and what he saw as Eliot's attack on tradition but also could not understand Eliot's modern poetry. Ironic that the Eliot books he read had belonged to Betjeman (his pupil) who he then took aim at, describing him as an 'idle prig'. I don't know much about Lewis beyond his main works but he seemed to take aim at poets. Small wonder that Betjeman considered him to be unfriendly, demanding and uninspiring.