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 Cadoc” are only a few of the other poems in which he touches on various aspects of people’s attitude toward their own mortality.
A particularly striking poem on this theme is “The Heart of Thomas Hardy,” which is written with a degree of bathos and black humor. It describes the heart of Thomas Hardy as “a little thumping fig,” a flight of poetic fancy that in itself should serve to ensure Betjeman’s literary immortality. He goes on to describe the Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and other products of Hardy’s imagination coming to life and leaving their graves to confront their creator in the chancel of Stinsford Church. The poem is something of a literary joke, but it also illustrates Betjeman’s interest in the supernatural. There are several other ghosts and eerie incidents described in his poetry, notably in “A Lincolnshire Tale” and the “Sir John Piers” poem sequence, the latter being among the finest in Betjeman’s canon.
It would be wholly wrong to place too much emphasis on this darker side of Betjeman’s work—indeed, many critics deal with it by the simple expedient of ignoring it; thus they feel justified in dismissing Betjeman as a nostalgic, sentimental apologist for a vanished empire-building middle class. To achieve a balanced view of his work, however, it is necessary to explore all his primary themes, and it is undeniable that there is a somber thread in the fabric of his work.
A lighthearted attraction to women
It would be equally wrong to ignore the lighter side of Betjeman’s poetry, especially when that is probably what initially attracts the casual reader to his writing. The most frequently anthologized of his poems are those that describe his attraction toward “large,” athletic women—Miss Joan Hunter Dunn (in “A Subaltern’s Love-Song”), Pam (in “Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden”), and Myfanwy (in “Myfanwy” and “Myfanwy at Oxford”). These ideal women and his attitude toward them come together in “The Olympic Girl,” where, after eulogizing at some length this perfect and unattainable young woman, he concludes sadly: “Little, alas, to you I mean,/ For I am bald and old and green.” This sentiment, in various forms, appears ever more often in Betjeman’s work and strikes a distinctly Prufrockian note. At first glance, T. S. Eliot and Betjeman seem to have little in common; in the early Betjeman, however, it is possible to detect an awareness of Eliot; for example, “Clash Went the Billiard Balls” is very reminiscent of the concluding section of “A Game of Chess” from The Waste Land (1922), and Betjeman’s personae frequently recall “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
(The entire section is 1735 words.)