As a poet, Betjeman was never likely to influence the mainstream of poetic practice in Britain. Never a disciple of MODERNISM, Betjeman adopts the stance of entertainer on a search for faith, fighting despair, yet showing a deep love of the human comedy. He comes across in the tone of voice in his poetry that is highly observant of people and their architectural surroundings. Betjeman chooses traditional verse forms including rhymed quatrains, blank verse, couplets and cites Alfred, Lord TENNYSON, George CRABBE, R. S. Hawker, Ernest DOWSON, Thomas HARDY, James Elroy FLECKER, Thomas MOORE, and Hymns Ancient and Modern as his models, choosing his meters to fit the themes at hand.
Betjeman was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, and Marlborough College, then at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1925, but he left without a degree. He began his career as a schoolteacher in 1929 and after that worked in various jobs as editor, film critic, book reviewer, and columnist. His work in broadcasting in the 1950s was very successful as were the sales of his poetry, and he was able to campaign effectively on behalf of threatened architectural gems, particularly of the Victorian period. He famously saved St. Pancras station from demolition. He was awarded a long list of prizes and honorary degrees, including the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1960, the year he was knighted.
Despite Betjeman’s incredible success with his Collected Poems (1958), which sold over a million copies, the academic world has frequently held him in contempt as a middle-class writer, working for a mass audience and going against the dictum that demanded that all poetry should be difficult or obscure. In short, he was rejected as a frivolous populist, refusing the serious anger of the mid-20th-c. writers or the modernist road. But Philip LARKIN championed Betjeman for this very reason, in that Betjeman seemed to have reestablished the link between poet and public, sweeping aside the hurdles of exegesis erected by the academic establishment. Betjeman’s poetry remained rooted directly in what he felt and believed about life.
Betjeman’s success is testimony to the great affection in which he continues to be held by his admirers. His first publications Mount Zion (1931) and Continual Dew (1937) already show the highly crafted qualities that Betjeman came to perfect in his later work. The latter volume contains some poems reprinted from the former, like “Hymn.” It also contains one of his most thematically characteristic poems, “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel,” and “Slough” with its notorious first line: “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!” The blurb inside Continual Dew claims that “The verse is nostalgic and designed for those who appreciate Sunday in a provincial town, the subtleties of high, low and broad churchmanship, gaslit London, bottle parties in the suburbs, civil servants on the hike, and half-timbered houses on the Southern Electric.” This sums up the nature of Betjeman’s poetical interests in the vanished interwar world.
Ghastly Good Taste (1933) was the first of a series of books on architecture, where Betjeman took against both the horrors of the modern and sham antiquarianism in building trends. He followed this with a long list of publications delineating his pet interests and crusading for the issue of conservation, such as English Cities and Small Towns (1943), The English Town in the Last Hundred Years (1956), English Churches (1964), Victorian and Edwardian London from Old Photographs (1969), London’s Historical Railway Stations (1972), and Metroland (1977).
From the 1940s onward, Betjeman’s poetry began to gain that status that it still enjoys. He was moved to write poems because of what he called his “topographical predilection.” Old Lights for New Chancels (1940) contains the extremes of HUMOR from “Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden” to the horrific meditation upon death and decay in memory of his father “On the Portrait of a Deaf Man.” This poem recalls the private fears of the poet and also shows the shocks that he can at times deliver. New Bats in Old Belfries (1945) contains more famous works like “A Subaltern’s Love Song” and the tonally beautiful and languidly paced “Youth and Age on Beaulieu River, Hants,” poetry about church bells, the strikingly Gothic “A Lincolnshire Tale,” and “Parliament Hill Fields” one of his best-known poems.
Betjeman had moved on considerably from his earlier work and was clearly inhabiting Betjeman country with supreme confidence and skill. A Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954) makes up the triad of publications containing classic Betjeman including the overwhelming encounters with womanhood in “The Licorice Fields at Pontefract” and “The Olympic Girl,” the anxious horror of “Devonshire Street W.1,” the near-metaphysical “Late-Flowering Lust” and the satirical comedy of “Hunter Trials.” Summoned by Bells (1960) is Betjeman’s foray into lengthy blank verse autobiography up to his teaching years, set in nine sections, where he tells us that “For myself/I knew as soon as I could read and write/That I must be a poet.” Critical reactions were mixed—John WAIN loathed it, Larkin loved it, and it remains a daring venture, recalling the practice of poetic forefathers, suffering from dull patches, but remaining, as Patrick Taylor-Martin says “an interesting fragment.” Betjeman’s poetic output continued with High and Low (1966) and a Nip in the Air (1974), which found their way into successive editions of the Collected Poems. But Betjeman’s best and most enduring work had already been done. His canon has been vastly augmented and promoted by audio material, recordings which began in 1961, of his readings of poetry, the lively Betjeman’s Banana Blush (1974) with music by Jim Parker, and video compilations such as The Lost Betjemans recorded between 1962 and 1964.
Bibliography Betjeman, J., Collected Poems (2000); Hillier, B., Young Betjeman (1988); Taylor-Martin, P., J. B., His Life and Work (1983)
Christopher John P. Smith
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