'Life was luncheons, luncheons all the way', Betjeman wrote, not quite accurately, because he was also an active member of the University Dramatic Society and a regular contributor of poetry and architectural comment to the student magazines Isis and Cherwell, which he edited in 1927. In fact, Betjeman worked tirelessly at what interested him, and if Bishop Betjy was an Oxford character, he was always something more than a poseur. Already a recognised authority on architecture, Betjeman was widely read in the most obscure as well as traditional authors, and he shared his dedication to becoming a poet with another undergraduate and close friend, the decidedly unswanky W H Auden of Christ Church.
Yet like Auden (who instead of a predicted First Class got a Third), Betjeman's experience of English literature at Oxford was, academically speaking, a disaster. It is a common misconception, fostered by Betjeman himself, that he 'Failed in Divinity!' and as a consequence left Oxford for ever: a Byronically outcast 'soul in hell'. But University records indicate that the truth was more complicated and painful than this, and derived in part from the state of mutual antipathy that developed between Betjeman and his tutor, a passionately didactic young don from Northern Ireland who had only just begun teaching at Magdalen in Betjeman's first term: Clive Staples Lewis.
Although only eight years older than his pupil, C S Lewis's undergraduate experience of Oxford had been very different from Betjeman's. Born in 1898, he attended University College for one term before being shipped out to the Western Front in 1917, where he was wounded by an exploding shell at the battle of Arras. He returned to Oxford after the war and took a First in Greats, then a degree in English, but like many ex-servicemen he found himself completely at odds with the fast cars and flappers mentality of the early and mid-'20s. There had been just twelve other undergraduates at University College in 1917, when Lewis was 18 and the right age to be carefree. By the time he returned, he was 21 and had lived through a war that had killed the golden boys of his generation and he was in no position to appreciate the so-called Golden Aesthetes of Betjeman's day.
Moreover, there was the additional problem of the School of English Language and Literature, whose establishment in 1894 had attracted the sort of intellectual opprobrium usually reserved for Media Studies today: 'a school for soft-optioners, school teachers, and women'. In order to elevate the study of English above 'mere chatter about Shelley', the emphasis in the taught syllabus was on language rather than literature. Alongside the big writerly guns (Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton), undergraduates were required to study Anglo-Saxon, Middle English and the history of English language and philology. Without an intimate knowledge of Grimm's Law formulating sound-change in early Germanic consonants, even the most diligent student taught by an entirely sympathetic tutor would struggle to excel if language was not their metier, and so Betjeman the puckish dilettante and Lewis the unyielding pedagogue embarked on a fraught master-pupil relationship, the repercussions of which haunted Betjeman for the rest of his life.
Lewis's idea of a literary salon at this pre-Inklings, pre-Christian stage of his career was a roistering beer-and-baccy session, reciting Norse sagas in his booming voice and encouraging his students to chant linguistic mnemonics out loud. His teaching style was pugnacious, and with his tweed jacket, pipe and aggressively unpoetic vocabulary (excellence was indicated by a laconic 'all right'; defaulters were said to need 'a smack or so' to get them into line), Jolly Jack Lewis appeared to be the embodiment of everything that was hearty and antithetical to the fey, Anglo-Catholic aesthete Betjeman, who admired Victoriana and minor poets and incensed his tutor by insisting that Oscar Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (with whom Betjeman had enjoyed an illicit correspondence when he was at Marlborough), was a greater writer than Shakespeare.
'I wish I could get rid of the idle prig', Lewis confided to his diary. 'I was rung up on the telephone ... from Moreton in the Marsh, to say that he hasn't been able to read the OE, as he was suspected for measles & forbidden to look at a book. Probably a lie, but what can one do?' Or again, when Betjeman did deign to turn up, he '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 replying that I should mind them very much myself but I had no objection to his wearing them.' Betjeman's attempt to win his tutor over by inviting him to tea in his rooms in St Aldate's only alienated Lewis further, as he was forced to participate in conversations about lace curtains and to mingle with 'a galaxy of super-undergraduates', including 'an absolutely silent and astonishingly ugly person called McNeice [sic]'.
It was hardly a surprise, then, that when Betjeman failed the elementary but compulsory First Public Examination in Holy Scripture, his tutor was less than supportive of his requests for help. What was perhaps more surprising was that 'Bishop Betjy', with his attachment to all things ecclesiastical, should have been unsuccessful in his 'Divvers' exam, not once but twice in his third year, before being sent down at the end of Hilary term 1928.
Dr Judith Priestman
Oxford Today - Volume 18 Number 3, Trinity 2006