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...
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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 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...
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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.