John Betjeman Poetry: British Analysis
It is somehow appropriate that the first item in the 1958 volume of John Betjeman’s Collected Poems should be “Death in Leamington,” for this poem touches on many of the themes that preoccupied him. Although he has been sometimes accused of facility, both because of the traditional rhyme and rhythms of his work and because of his tendency to stress the light-hearted and humorous, it soon becomes obvious to the reader that he was as aware of “the skull beneath the skin” as any apparently more serious writer.
“Death in Leamington” deals with the death of an elderly person in the subdued atmosphere of an unfashionable English spa town, at a time when the town is almost as dead as the ostensible subject of the poem. The title is ambiguous, as is much of Betjeman’s work. He equates the death of a person, and even of a generation, with the death and decay of the person’s surroundings and traditions, and it is clear that he laments the passing of both.
For a poet who is often referred to as “lighthearted” and “humorous,” he is surprisingly often to be found writing on the subject of death. Indeed, in his introduction to Betjeman’s Collected Poems, the earl of Birkenhead compares him in this respect with Samuel Johnson. “On a Portrait of a Deaf Man,” “Before the Anaesthetic: Or, A Real Fright,” “Exeter,” “Inevitable,” “N. W. 5 & N. 6,” and “Saint...
(The entire section is 1735 words.)
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