The Highgate Highflyers: an on-line programme hosted jointly by the Hopkins and Betjeman Societies

This conference was initially planned to take place as the ALS AGM weekend in May 2021, but was postponed until October due to Covid.  Unfortunately, the on-going pandemic meant that the weekend was replaced with an on-line programme of speakers.  Throughout the day, the emphasis was on the many similarities between these two very different poets, dubbed by Lance Pierson, the Chairman of the Betjeman Society and Vice-President of the Hopkins Society, as ‘Poetry’s Odd Couple’.

The day kicked off with Claire Harman, ALS President, offering commiserations to Hopkins and Betjeman for all the work they had put into planning the weekend, but she welcomed the opportunity to hear about the two poets on-line.  She also talked about the current Honresfield Library appeal, spearheaded by the Friends of the National Libraries, to raise the £15 million required to purchase this unrivalled collection of manuscripts, letters and first editions by Scott, Austen, the Brontës and many others. Finally, she urged us to take action against the on-going and increasing threat to our public libraries by cuts in government spending.  She recommended the Libraries Connected website for more information.

‘Hopkins and Betjeman: Poetry’s Odd Couple’ was a lecture written by Lance Pierson.  Sadly, Lance could not present it himself, due to illness, but it was wonderfully given by his son Robin.  At first glance, the two poets could not seem more dissimilar:  Betjeman’s language is clear and engaging, and frequently funny; while Hopkins’ is opaque and deeply serious, though often also playful. There are many points of convergence, however, the most obvious being their religious faith. Betjeman was an Anglican of High Church persuasion; Hopkins was a Jesuit priest.  They both grew up in Highgate and Hampstead, attended Highgate School, and then, went on to Oxford, which was a place deeply loved by both poets.

Betjeman’s poetry was traditional and perhaps backward-looking; Hopkins was an innovator and seems more like a 20th century poet than a Victorian.  Hopkins always stressed that his poetry needed to be read aloud to be understood, while Betjeman’s is readily recited. (My first, rather startled introduction to him, as he is not well known in the US, was through his own popular recordings of his poetry.) It was appropriate then that Lance’s talk concluded with his pre-recorded readings of ‘The Windhover’ and ‘Before the Anaesthetic’.

The final talk of the morning was given by Dr Jane Wright, Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Bristol, on ‘Making Sense of Hopkins’ Poetry’. She accomplished this through a close reading and explication of two Hopkins’ poems:  ‘As kingfishers catch fire’ and ‘No worst, there is none’. The first is an example of Hopkins connecting his deep and observant interest in the natural world with his religious faith in language of ecstatic exuberance, resulting in on-rushing phrases: ‘As tumbled over rim in roundy wells/Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s /Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name’. The conclusion of the first stanza is full of confident faith: ‘What I do is me: for that I came.’ By contrast, the only comfort found in ‘No worst, there is none’ is that, as each day ends in sleep, so life will end in death.  This is one of the ‘Terrible Sonnets’, written towards the end of Hopkins’ too brief life, when he suffered profoundly from feelings of unworthiness; or, in religious terms, experienced the dark night of the soul.  Dr Wright’s minute examination of these poems, including such odd usages as describing his cries as ‘herds-long’, provided a pathway to understanding Hopkins’ poetry. I can recommend the complete OED as a good companion, having spent an evening as a puzzled undergraduate deciphering ‘shéer plód makes plough down/sillion shine’ from ‘The Windhover’.

We returned after lunch for ‘“A Shared Enthusiasm”: Hopkins, Betjeman, and Victorian Church Architecture’ by Dr Jill Robson of the Hopkins Society.  Hopkins wrote, ‘What you look hard at seems to look hard at you’ and, like Ruskin, Hopkins looked hard at churches (as well as streams, cloudscapes and a cup of hot chocolate). Like Ruskin, he admired Gothic architecture above all.  Betjeman’s love of church architecture was an overwhelming interest throughout his life, beginning with the parish churches of Cornwall, where he spent his childhood holidays.  At the Dragon School, he learned an enthusiasm for church architecture from an admired master, and with a group of like-minded friends, set off on cycling holidays to view churches – a hobby difficult to imagine for a schoolboy today.  Bells, stained glass windows, and other elements of church architecture feature regularly in his poetry, notably in ‘Before the Anaesthetic’.

Julia Hudson, archivist at the Highgate School, gave us a brief overview of their archive which covers both Hopkins and Betjeman as well as many other notable pupils and masters, including T.S. Eliot (who taught Betjeman). The history of the school is fascinating and while we were sorry to have lost the opportunity of visiting the archive in person, Julia invited us to visit when possible.

The day concluded with ALS news, as reported by Mark Green, our new secretary, and me.  On behalf of the ALS, I thanked the Betjeman and Hopkins societies for all the hard work, enthusiasm and inspiration that had been put into planning a wonderful weekend in Highgate, and expressed our regrets that we had not been able to be there in person.  However, we had a memorable day of talks and, with the rain pouring down outside, it was perhaps just as well that we were not embarking on a literary walk through Highgate!

There have been major changes on the ALS committee this year.  Our new treasurer, Jeremy Mitchell, of the Edward Thomas Fellowship, was unable to join us as he was hosting an Edward Thomas Festival in Petersfield, but our new secretary, Mark Green, was introduced and spoke about our plans to increase the digital outreach of the ALS. I provided an update on the Honresfield Library appeal and on future AGMs, before introducing Lyn Lockwood, who invited us all to next year’s celebration of Philip Larkin’s 100th birthday, taking place in Hull 21-22 May.  It was a fitting way to end a day, on which we had to make do without the stimulus and fun of face-to-face conversation with other members of the ALS, as well as members of the Betjeman and Hopkins societies, but thoroughly enjoyed learning more about these two very different, but strangely similar, poets; or, as dubbed by Lance, ‘Poetry’s Odd Couple’.

Less than two weeks after The Highgate Highflyers conference, Lance Pierson sadly passed away.  He was one of the driving forces behind the Betjeman and Hopkins societies’ plans and was determined to give his talk up until the last minute.  Our thoughts are with his family, and with the Betjeman and Hopkins societies.