John Betjeman Essay - Betjeman, John (Vol. 2)

Betjeman, John (Vol. 2)

Betjeman, John 1906–

Betjeman, a British poet of nostalgia and topography, is England's new poet laureate. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[John] Betjeman's appeal is most often highly local, with a strong smell of wet tweed and a lively effeteness slightly offensive to us. But that is only one side of the matter. Betjeman's appeal is anchored in a burr-like specificity about places and circumstances and in a persuasive feeling for the countryside and its culture. This feeling, infused as it is with bitterness at the changes being wrought in English life, tempers his sentimentality and his occasionally squeamish horror at the increasing visibility and power of the hitherto uneducated classes. Together with his skill as a light-versifier and his familiar, humorous touches, it saves him from being (what he sometimes is anyway) just another weepily conversative Englishman.

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (© 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 220-21.

John Betjeman is several different kinds of poet, but he must be considered above all as a topographical one, obsessed with the magic of locality. North Oxford is one of his favourite places; the north coast of Cornwall, on whose cliffs and among whose rock-pools he spent holidays in childhood, is another….

[The] Home Counties in general, and particularly cosy pine-clad Surrey from Croydon in the east to Camberley in the west are now accepted as Betjeman country. His topographical poems vary greatly in tone: they can be infused by pity, nostalgia or disgust. I suspect that in youth Surrey horrified him but that as time went on associations sanctified it. Or, to put it differently, he began by finding the middle-class landscape with its evergreen-girded villas 'amusing', and ended by coming to love the safe atmosphere…. Cornwall is Betjeman's heaven-on-earth, and some of his finest verse celebrates its landscape, churches and people…. Even the secretary of the local golf club shines in the elegy Betjeman wrote for him, 'The Hon Sec,' with the radiance of an early Cornish saint.

Mention of this kind, regretted man, 'A gentle guest, a willing host,' brings me to recall the other sorts of poet Betjeman is besides a topographical one. He is a poet of friendship, a love poet, a social poet and a religious poet. The verses to Myfanwy, to the Wendy of 'Indoor Games near Newbury' and to the Miss Joan Hunter Dunn of 'A Subaltern's Love Song' are among the most original love poems in the language…. As a social poet Betjeman mourns vanished ways of living. Like William Morris, he cannot ultimately separate his aesthetic and architectural interests from the right ordering of society. His 'Death of King George V' is the elegy of a civilisation.

Who were the principal influences on Betjeman? Wordsworth and Tennyson must be mentioned as his predecessors not only as Laureates but as masters of blank verse. He has much of Hardy's quirkishness and intimacy. Herrick? Crabbe? Cowper? Hymns, A & M? Although Eliot was among his schoolmasters, and one poem, 'Public House Drunk', resembles the pub scene in The Waste Land, I think Betjeman is only comparable to Eliot in that his mind is crammed with the verses of his predecessors. These do not, however, emerge in direct quotations as in Eliot, but as perhaps unconscious reminiscences.

Richard Buckle, "Topographical Laureate," in Books and Bookmen, December, 1972, pp. 11-13.