John Betjeman

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John Betjeman was one of those poets who are profoundly affected by their childhood environment. He was born in London in the early years of the twentieth century, into a class-ridden society, where even small differences in income were important in measuring a family’s neighborhood status. This would probably have passed unnoticed had Betjeman been a less observant and sensitive child. As it is, although it is obvious from his poetry that none of the finer nuances of middle-class snobbishness escaped his eye, it is unclear whether these small cruelties were profoundly hurtful or whether the objectivity of the artist was already sufficiently developed to protect him. Certainly there is no bitterness in his poetry, so probably the latter explanation is the correct one. He recounts many of the events of his early life in Summoned by Bells, transporting the reader back in time to an England reminiscent of the world depicted by Arthur Conan Doyle, Edith Nesbit, and John Galsworthy.

After leaving Oxford without attaining a degree, Betjeman supported himself by teaching, while continuing to write both poetry and topographical essays. In Summoned by Bells, he states quite clearly that as soon as he could read and write, he knew that he must strive to become a poet. Despite the disappointment that he caused his father by refusing to take his place in the family business, he was always true to that early ambition.

He married in 1933 and had a son and a daughter, although domestic considerations are not of primary importance in his work. His sense of place and his eye for the eccentricities of the English character were far more important to him.

Betjeman was named poet laureate in 1972. Although the post is bestowed as an accolade, it was probably a strain for a craftsman-poet such as Betjeman to have been expected to produce odes and hymns to order. He never found inspiration in the machinations of the higher echelons of humankind, but rather in the idiosyncrasies of its middle ranks. When he entered his seventies and was afflicted by ill health, he was no longer able to write as freely as he once had. Betjeman died in Trebetherick, Cornwall, in 1984. It is to be hoped that his later work, which cannot be judged as anywhere near his best, is not allowed to obscure the very real value and artistic achievement of his most productive middle years.


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Born in London, England, on August 28, 1906, John Betjeman (BEHCH-uh-muhn) was the only child of Mabel Bessie Dawson and Ernest Betjeman, a prominent businessman of Dutch ancestry and supplier of fine furnishings for exclusive shops. Betjeman’s early years, especially those of his childhood, are recounted in his verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells (1960). Growing up in the North London Edwardian suburbs, Betjeman became painfully aware of class differences, the seemingly small but inexorable distinctions of income and status. He developed, even at an early age, a profound sensitivity to subtle forms of snobbery. Betjeman’s family relations were somewhat strained, even perverse. His father, from whom the author later became estranged, figured into his poetry as a formidable reminder of his son’s inadequacies, not only because the younger Betjeman did not enjoy hunting and fishing, as his father did, but also because he refused to continue in the family business. Betjeman’s guilt for disappointing his parent was obsessive, extending to his imagining that he also had disappointed his father’s employees.

Feeling the magnetic draw of poetry, Betjeman recognized even as an adolescent that his future lay in verse: “I knew as soon as I could read and write/ That...

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I must be a poet” (Summoned by Bells). The young poet attended preparatory school at Highgate, London; his teacher there, T. S. Eliot, was a profound force in modern poetry. To Eliot, the young Betjeman would bind and submit his first poetic attempts in a volume titled “The Best of Betjeman.” Eliot never commented, however, upon the schoolboy’s verses. At Marlborough public school, which Betjeman entered in 1920, bullies teased and terrorized the youngster. One of Betjeman’s classmates mocked his poem about a city church, thus humiliating the already sensitive and lonely adolescent. This experience traumatized the fifteen-year-old and contributed to his antipathy toward abusive criticism.

In 1925, Betjeman entered Magdalen College, Oxford, with plans of earning a degree in English, but, to his father’s disappointment and to his own dismay, his irresolute lifestyle prohibited him from attaining academic success: “For, while we ate Virginia hams,/ Contemporaries passed exams” (Summoned by Bells). However, most of Betjeman’s memories of Oxford were pleasant. There, he developed many friendships, most notably with Evelyn Waugh, who later became one of England’s most prodigious novelists. Betjeman’s talents did not go unnoticed at Oxford. C. W. Bowra, a renowned scholar, applauded Betjeman’s verse, as well as his knowledge of architecture. Despite Bowra’s admiration and affection, Betjeman was not showered with accolades at Oxford. Having neglected his studies, Betjeman won the distaste of his tutor, C. S. Lewis, a distinguished critic and author whom the poet later satirized in some of his poems. Failing repeated attempts to pass a simple qualifying exam, Betjeman was forced at last to leave Oxford. Stunned and saddened by his failure, the poet left college disillusioned, having fallen short of his dream of becoming a university don: “Reading old poets in the library,/ Attending chapel in an M.A. gown/ And sipping vintage port by candlelight” (Summoned by Bells). Despite his aversion to sports, Betjeman obtained, and held for a short time, a teaching post at Heddon Court School, in Barnet, Hertfordshire, a post secured, ironically, under the auspices of his mastery of cricket.

The 1930’s saw Betjeman’s popularity increase as he gained visibility and recognition. In 1931, the poet published his first book of poetry, Mount Zion: Or, In Touch with the Infinite, whose poems contained many of his major themes and revealed his interest in topography. That same year, Betjeman became assistant editor of the Architectural Review, a position that granted him exposure to many of England’s prominent architects and architectural historians of the day. Betjeman left his position in 1933 and began editing a series of topographical guides to Britain. To her mother’s chagrin, Penelope Chetwode, daughter of Field Marshal Sir Philip Chetwode, the commander in chief of India, accepted Betjeman’s proposal of marriage in 1933. The couple had two children, Paul and Candida. In a few short years, Betjeman’s second volume of verse, Continual Dew: A Little Book of Bourgeois Verse (1937), with its light and whimsical tone, appeared and immediately enjoyed success. Betjeman, however, wanted to be regarded as a serious poet, not merely a popular one, though the ambiguity of some of his best images and the complexity of his tone lay buried beneath his copious iambics. Nonetheless, the public flocked to buy his unpretentious verse. Not since George Gordon, Lord Byron and Alfred, Lord Tennyson had a poet been so embraced by the masses.

When World War II broke out, Betjeman’s penchant for writing found various forms of expression. He served as a press attaché in Dublin for the United Kingdom Press, he functioned as a broadcaster for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1943, and he worked in the books department of the British Council from 1944 to 1946. These years saw the publication of Old Lights for New Chancels: Verses Topographical and Amatory (1940), as well as a new collection of poems, New Bats in Old Belfries (1945). Partly because of his enormous success as a writer of books on topology and architecture, such as Ghastly Good Taste: Or, A Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture (1933), An Oxford University Chest (1938), Antiquarian Prejudice (1939), and English Cities and Small Towns (1943), Betjeman’s widespread reputation as a poet seemed almost overshadowed by his prose. Indeed, he had become a spokesperson for the preservation of English architecture, especially Victorian architecture. When the war ended, Betjeman resumed his journalistic career, extending it to the increasingly popular medium of television, at which he won further notoriety.

The poetry of Betjeman’s last forty years, though more overtly pessimistic than his previous work, reiterates many of the author’s earlier themes, as exemplified in his volume A Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954). His continued acclaim, however, as a poet, broadcaster, and critic of modernity gained him widespread recognition, precipitating his being knighted in 1969 and appointed poet laureate in 1972, a position that he held until his death on May 19, 1984, in Cornwall, England.


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Ironically, John Betjeman’s local color, his greatest strength, is the aspect of his poetry most often criticized: His lyrics are decidedly English, not universal. Whether he explores the mystery of faith, satirizes the imperfections of himself, his family, or the middle classes, or whether he nostalgically describes the countryside of Cornwall or a bath at Marlborough, Betjeman exhibits his wry compassion and demonstrates his facility for strict observation. Betjeman, the deliberate traditionalist, presents a discerning, not myopic, view of the world, his world, England. Indeed, his triumph lies in his partisanship.