Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
The lifelong commitment to poetry on the part of John Betjeman (BEH-chuh-muhn) was matched by an equal dedication to the preservation of the best of English architecture, particularly that of the nineteenth century. Throughout his life, he was intent on opening the eyes of the public to the glories of Victorian architecture, and he and his friends John Piper (the painter) and Osbert Lancaster (the cartoonist) pursued this cause with such dedication and enthusiasm that they have probably done more to influence public taste in this area than anyone since John Ruskin. Such overriding interest in the quality of modern urban life, and, more specifically, its aesthetic excellence or excesses, is to be seen again and again in Betjeman’s prose.
In 1933, soon after publication of his first volume of verse, he published Ghastly Good Taste: Or, A Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture. This work was followed in 1944 by John Piper, and then, in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, a spate of books on landscape and architecture as well as various Shell Guides: First and Last Loves (1952), The English Town in the Last Hundred Years (1956), Collins’ Guide to English Parish Churches (1958), and English Churches (1964, with B. F. L. Clarke). Betjeman’s Cornwall was published in 1984. He also edited a number of anthologies that illustrate his interests, including English, Scottish, and Welsh Landscape (1944), a collection of poetry edited with Geoffrey Taylor; he also collaborated with Taylor in editing English Love Poems (1957). In 1959, Altar and Pew: Church of England Verses, edited by Betjeman, was published, and in 1963 A Wealth of Poetry, edited with Winifred Hudley, was issued.
Betjeman was also an accomplished and sometimes inspired broadcaster, whether reading his own poems or describing and discussing architecture, and, for the most part, he wrote his own scripts. Unfortunately, none of his broadcasts has been published in book form, although such a book would probably prove to be as popular as his poetry and essays.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
John Betjeman’s most notable though least tangible achievement was to make poetry accessible once more to the reading public. He received the Russell Loines Award in 1956 from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but until the publication of his Collected Poems in 1958, he was largely unknown. The publication of this volume by John Murray proved to be something of a literary phenomenon. Compiled and with an introduction by the earl of Birkenhead, it sold so quickly that it had to be reprinted three times within the month. It has been said that in the history of the John Murray publishing firm, nothing like it had been known since the first publication of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812, when copies were sold to a clamoring crowd through the windows of the publisher’s house on Albemarle Street. The most recent poetic success of unparalleled magnitude was that of Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the mid-nineteenth century. So far-reaching was the effect of the publication of this volume that in 1959, when applicants interviewed for entry into an English school at a modern university were asked to name a modern poet, it is said that they would automatically answer “Betjeman.” Before this, the most popular answer had been “T. S. Eliot.”
It is impossible to explain fully the wide appeal of Betjeman’s poetry. At the time it came to the fore, the Movement poets (Philip Larkin, John Wain, Kingsley Amis, and others, to be found in D. J. Enright’s 1955 anthology Poets of the 1950’s) were engaged in a philosophical reaction against the neo-Romanticism of the 1940’s, typified by the vogue for the work of Edith Sitwell and the Dylan Thomas cult that emerged after that gifted writer’s death in the United States in 1953.
It must have been extremely galling for these poets, engaged in stringent academic opposition to the tyranny of iambic pentameter and attempting to purge poetry of the lush metaphor and hyperbole of neo-Romanticism, to witness the meteoric rise to fame of a poet such as Betjeman. It is still true that a taste for Betjeman’s poetry is regarded with suspicion in some academic and...
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Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
List several obstacles to his career that John Betjeman overcame.
What is meant by the term “copious iambics” as a means of describing Betjeman’s poetry? Why might this form of poetry tend to curtail the effect of his verse?
Explain the value of topography to a poet like Betjeman.
By what means does Betjeman generate interest in his subject in “On a Portrait of a Deaf Man”?
Comment on the suggestiveness of the title of the autobiographical poem Summoned by Bells.
What is the theme of Summoned by Bells?
Bibliography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
Betjeman, John. Letters. Edited by Candida Lycett Green. 2 vols. London: Methuen, 1994. This comprehensive collection reveals many intimate details about the life of Betjeman, including the depth of his affection for his friends, his religious sentiment, and his relationships with his wife and with longtime mistress Elizabeth Cavendish. Covers letters written between 1926 and 1984.
Delany, Frank. Betjeman Country. London: John Murray, 1983. This remarkable travel book combines biographical commentary on Betjeman with excerpts from the poet’s poems and numerous photographs of the places connected with the poems of Betjeman. Includes a primary bibliography.
Hamilton, Ian. Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth-Century Poets. London: Viking, 2002. Contains a biography on the poet Betjeman.
Harvey, Geoffrey. “John Betjeman: An Odeon Flashes Fire.” In The Romantic Tradition in Modern British Poetry. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. This provocative, informative study rejects the assessment of Betjeman as a minor establishment poet. Harvey views him as a “consistently subversive force in modern verse”—a committed writer mindful of a real audience.
McDermott, John V. “Betjeman’s ’The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel.’” Explicator 57,...
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