John Betjeman Remembers T.S. Eliot as Teacher

John Betjeman, “The usher of Highgate Junior School,” in T.S. Eliot Symposium (Chicago, IL: Regnery, 1949), 89-92.

In 1914-15 I spent two unsuccessful terms at Highgate Junior School. Mr Eliot was a tall, quiet usher there whom we called ‘The American Master.’ Some of the cleverer boys from Muswell Hill (I was from Highgate) knew he was a poet. How? I have often wondered, for I cannot imagine him telling them or anyone that he was a poet, and I did not know that he had published any poems in England as early as that. Anyhow, they persuaded me to lend (or did I present it to him?) a manuscript called The Best Poems of Betjeman. I had forgotten the incident until he reminded me of it, in as kind a way as possible, in the early ‘thirties. I record this now purely out of self-advertisement, because I think I must be the only contributor to this book of my age who knew him so long ago. I wish my memory served me better that I might tell you of how he taught in what was then a rough place. All I can remember is that he looked exactly as he does now and that I have no unhappy memories of him.

I hesitate to write of his soul’s journey though it travels in the same carriage as mine, the dear old rumbling Church of England which is high, low and broad at once. I know that we are both ‘high’ and object to certain weaknesses of the system and that we both regard the Church of England, despite these weaknesses, as the Catholic Church of this country. For this reason we remain in it, though it sometimes leads us where we would not. Other Anglicans better versed in theology than I am, who have discussed it with him at greater length will be able to enlighten readers more fully on his theological position. This great poet’s Anglicanism does, however, draw my atten­tion to an aspect of his poetry which is not theological and which is often missed. I refer to its delight in local-ness. The Church of England is the Church of this country. That is one of its attractions to someone who likes what is indigenous.

Eliot is certainly a visual poet, sensitive to the atmosphere of a street and a district, a country and a village. There have probably never been more graphic descriptions of the City of London than those to be found in The Waste Land. We all remember the Bloomsbury of Prufrock. Pimlico and South Kensington blossom from his pen. Indeed, I would say that he is a poet of London, and though three of the superb Four Quartets take their names from English villages, the villages they describe might be everywhere, while most of his poetry, particularly the earlier, is the product of someone who must have walked all over London and travelled in its trains and trams observing his fellow beings, the city men and the sub­urbanites, the cinema-fans and the newspaper-addicts

Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind

That blows before and after time,

Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs

Time before and time after.

Eructation of unhealthy souls

Into the faded air, the torpid

Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London Hampstead and Clerkenwell Campden and Putney

Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here

Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

He has the delight in place-names of the topographer and the further delight in the local atmosphere and industries. His fondness for Sherlock Holmes may in part be due to amuse­ment derived from the plots and from Conan Doyle’s incon­sistencies about Dr Watson’s possible bigamy and Holmes’ education and family background. That sort of ingenuity is an intellectual pleasure which delights other theologically minded writers such as Monsignor Ronald Knox and Miss Dorothy Sayers. But I am sure he also delights in Sherlock Holmes for the vivid atmosphere which the stories convey of dark laurelled gardens in Norwood, of hansom cabs and gaslight and the Charing Cross Hotel. Conan Doyle and Eliot share the same poetry of the outer London of the steam suburbs. It is his pleasure in local association which makes him take an interest in varieties of English cheese (not forgetting the intrinsic excellence of the cheeses themselves) and which causes him to preserve a brass plate on his office door with the surname STEARNS engraved upon it, the relic of a Boston lawyer-forbear.

If it is a weakness in me to stress my own particular passion for topography which I find in Eliot’s poetry, it is part of the strength of his poetry that it can appeal to so many different types of people. Topography may be a minor aspect of his work. It is one which strongly appeals to me. Others will admire in his poetry some of the other qualities which distinguish it.

In case it may be overlooked, I must stress his exquisite ear for rhythm. I remember an old poet of the ‘nineties complain­ing to me that Eliot’s poetry did not scan (this was before the publication of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats whose met­rical ingenuity is a combination of Gilbert and A. A. Milne). I can see what that old poet means —no sonnets, few quotations, no odes, no heroic couplets, no Spenserian stanzas Eliot has rhythms of his own. Each line he writes is in itself a scanning line that could not possibly be mistaken for prose (except here and there where isolated from its context). And each line sets off the rhythm of the line that follows it.

0 City city, I can sometimes hear

Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,

The pleasant whining of a mandoline

And a clatter and chatter from within

Where fishermen lounge at noon: where the walls

Of Magnus Martyr hold

Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.

The sudden contrast of the public bar all dactyls and short a sounds with the caesure and spondees of those rolling lines which describe the cool still City church across the road need no conventional forms. They are a pattern in themselves. They are not free verse. But they are so difficult to write that they are disastrous to imitate which is why Eliot suffers more than most from imitators. He looks so easy and he is so hard.

I must conclude this note with an irrelevancy. The solem­nity of his poetry and criticism, and that serious face, might lead strangers — and they will presumably be readers of this book — to imagine that he is an unhumorous person. Allow one doomed for ever to be thought a ‘funny man’ to say that Eliot is extremely funny. He has a slow deep, humour, subtle and allusive, the sort of humour that appreciates that immortal book The Diary of a Nobody.

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