Failed in Divinity?

JOHN BETJEMAN’S carefully cultivated image of himself as a devil-may-care student who “failed in divinity” at Oxford has been exposed as a myth after the discovery of his examination results.

Far from being unfazed by his failure, as depicted in his biographical poem Summoned by Bells, he resat his compulsory divinity examination twice, passing on the third attempt.

The Poet Laureate fooled the academic community for 40 years by relating only part of his academic record in chapter nine of his poem, published in 1960. “Failed in Divinity! O, towers and spires!/ Could no one help? Was nothing to be done?/ No. No one. Nothing.”

He lamented that his dreams of “Reading old poets in the library,/ Attending chapel in an M.A. gown/ And sipping vintage port by candlelight” had been dashed.

But curators at the Bodleian Library stumbled across his examination results while researching an exhibition to mark the centenary of his birth today.

Judith Priestman, co-curator of the Betjeman exhibition at the library, said that she had argued with the archivist because she could not believe that Betjeman had passed. “That is how he presented himself. He needed myths to keep himself going. But he didn’t leave Oxford as a Byronic figure.

“He was a good boy really. He presented himself as this great outsider, but actually he did jump through the hoops. He wanted to be an aristocrat, and an aristocrat would have said ‘I’ve failed, so what?’ and swanned off. He came back like the good bourgeois that he was.”

At the time Summoned by Bells was published, Betjeman declared that “one is only interesting when young and struggling”. He recounted his failure to please his father, to learn carpentry or to pass his divinity exam. “I was a poet. That was why I failed.”

He failed his first divinity examination on November 25, 1927, but returned for a second attempt on March 2, 1928. His name finally appeared — misspelt as “Beljemann” — on the moderators’ “satisfied” list on July 18, 1928.

"Times" Online
28 August 2006

1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

One of my favourite Betjeman poems, which doesn't seem to appear in any anthologies, was:

Encase your legs with nylons
Bestride your hills with pylons
O age without a soul
Away with gentle willows
And all the elmy billows
That through your valleys roll.

It was a "green" poem, in a period when "green" was unfashionable.