The eccentrics come off best on television: Edith Sitwell, shrewd, self-deprecating, gentler than expected; Stevie Smith, “jaunty, unsettling”, in her cluttered suburban front room; John Betjeman, hymnodist of a more ordered suburbia observed with loving mockery. If Great Poets in Their Own Words (Sunday, BBC4 9pm) threatens at times to slide in to a speedreader’s cribsheet of big names in 20th-entury poetry, the visual material culled from BBC archives makes them come to life.
At times it seems as if Britain’s culture came full circle, from the staid pre-Great War conservatism that visiting American Ezra Pound sought to subvert, via Eliot and Auden’s unflinching blink at chaos, via lyricists (Dylan Thomas) to political rebels (Hugh MacDiarmid) and national treasures (Betjeman).
Rare footage includes Eliot reading his Four Quartets and the pro-fascist Pound attacking capitalism, personalised as Jewish bankers. Robert Graves quizzically recalls being listed as dead during the first world war, his parents even being informed of his heroism. Betjeman predictably blossoms as a populist performer on Michael Parkinson’s show; Auden uses the same platform to play down poetry’s power to change history. How surprising to find middleclass darling Betjeman providing the most political bite with his observation of the young executive. It still inflicts a sharp sting.
Verse was hewn from the harsh realities of Welsh rural life by RS Thomas, a priest who defended the burning of English holiday homes as a sign that Wales the nation was “not completely dead”, recalling the desperate yahboo snarling at “the English empire” and the puff adder charm of Scot Hugh MacDiarmid who would put “anglophobia” as his hobby.
One wonders how many people would want to nominate race hatred as a pastime these days. “O wad some Power the giftie gie us” to explain why one culture’s national treasure is another’s venomous old bigot.