By English literature teacher Edward Clarke

Of all the artefacts on display at Blenheim Palace, I think my favourite is Churchill’s burgundy ‘siren suit’, a onesie he had made by his Jermyn Street shirt maker, Turnbull & Asser. According to that shirt maker’s archivist, Martin Wise, it’s one of only three still in existence.

There’s a bespoke padded fibreglass mannequin in the Science Museum in London sporting a green velvet one and I think the third was recently sold for over £29,000 at an auction. Famously, in December 1941, Churchill wore one of these romper suits on a visit to the White House. As Wise notes, ‘At a press conference that week, Mrs Roosevelt declared she was having one made for her husband.’

In Darkest Hour Churchill was portrayed as running around in a flamboyant pink silk dressing gown rather than a velvet onesie. I’m glad to see that Gary Oldman, as well as Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, and Lucy Sibbick, the make-up artists who made 40kg of jowls for the actor, won Oscars this year.

When I watched that film recently I kept thinking of the American poet Wallace Stevens and his masterpiece, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. That poem was written around the same time that Churchill was searching for his Cicero to write his rousing speeches at the beginning of the Second World War.

W. B. Yeats said that ‘Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.’ I think of both Stevens and Churchill in the 1940s as spirits ‘storming in blank walls’, as Stevens puts it in another slightly earlier poem, A Postcard from the Volcano.

At the end of Notes, Stevens addresses a soldier: ‘Monsieur and comrade, / The soldier is poor without the poet’s lines, // His petty syllabi, the sounds that stick, / Inevitably modulating, in the blood.’ Not to admit that truth in the teaching of poetry or in literary criticism, and only to focus on a poem’s historical context, is like awarding an Oscar to those responsible for Churchill’s jowls, but not to the actor underneath.

But please don’t misunderstand me. I was reasonably compelled by Oldman’s prosthetic jowls and I find historical contexts quite interesting. Both have helped me to enjoy works of art. But like that great Irish poet Brendan Kennelly: ‘As a university teacher, I am sometimes appalled at the way imagination is almost completely ousted from the teaching and study of English Literature and, instead, youngsters are expected, even compelled, to stuff their heads with boring arid theories about poetry, theories often expressed in language that is pedantic and leaden. The actual poetry tends to get buried under the mechanical clack. Perhaps that’s the intention.’

Last month the Oxford Union debated the motion: ‘This House Believes Britain Should Be Ashamed of Churchill.’ I wasn’t at that debate, probably because I was too busy trying to make something imaginatively out of a quarrel with myself. Besides this end of the academic year, as it says on our fivers, ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’.