John Betjeman (BEHCH-uh-muhn) became one of the most popular and widely read English poets of the twentieth century. HisCollected Poems, published in 1958, reportedly sold more than 100,000 copies, and he won many awards for his poetry. In 1972 he was named poet laureate.
Betjeman was born to a wealthy family who lived in the suburbs of North London. The family had many upper-class acquaintances, but Betjeman’s father’s Dutch origin and career in manufacturing prevented the family from forming any intimate ties within this class. From an early age Betjeman learned about the complex class divisions in English society, a theme that appears frequently in his poetry. As a child he decided he would be a poet, and his refusal to continue in the family business distanced him from his father. As a scholar at Highgate School in London, he had as a teacher T. S. Eliot, newly arrived from the United States. Betjeman later recalled giving Eliot a homemade book of his first attempts at poetry.
From 1917 to 1920 Betjeman attended the Dragon School at Oxford, where he developed an interest in architecture from one of his teachers, Gerald Haynes. His interest in places and architecture not only provided him with a steady income as a writer but also with subject matter for poetry. As a scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford, he neglected his studies, to the chagrin of C. S. Lewis, his tutor; during this time he joined a sophisticated group of undergraduates that included Evelyn Waugh, who would be one of Betjeman’s lifelong friends. Betjeman depicts his irreverent Oxford life in one of his best-known poems, “The ‘Varsity Students’ Rag,” written while he was a student.
Betjeman left Oxford without a degree and, after a short stint of teaching, became an editor for Architectural Review. At the same time he published...
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