John Betjeman World Literature Analysis - Essay

John Betjeman World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In contrast to the erudite and often enigmatic verse of many of his contemporaries, Betjeman’s poetry seems simple and natural. It lacks the features of fragmentation and austere intellectualism that typify much modern poetry, although Betjeman does recurrently embrace the common twentieth century themes of alienation and guilt. Eschewing obscurity, Betjeman embraces a conversational style, replete with narrative elements, and utilizes traditional meter and rhyme, though occasionally he employs metrical variations or substitutions. He borrows his forms especially from his nineteenth century predecessors. Because his verse is so natural, in fact, most critics fail to notice his penchant for ambiguity, evident in some of his better poems, such as “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel,” in Mount Zion, or “On a Portrait of a Deaf Man,” in Old Lights for New Chancels. Betjeman’s major themes underscore the defects of modernity, with its disregard for the aesthetic and its disrespect for the environment. They also highlight the author’s spiritual doubt, his obsession with class, with guilt, and with death, as well as divulge his affinity for topography.

The verses of Mount Zion demonstrate the young author’s interest in topography, especially English suburbia, with such memorable sketches as “Croydon” and Oakleigh Park of “The Outer Suburbs,” with its “blackened blocks” and stained-glass windows. Betjeman’s verse fuses reds and greens, oranges and blacks on his canvas of neighborhood sidewalks, churches, railways, and trams. Mount Zion also reveals Betjeman’s genius for mild satire and for humor, perhaps most noticeable in “The ’Varsity Students’ Rag.”

Though Betjeman figures as a significant modern poetic force, his exceptional prose writings are also a hallmark of his enormous productivity: works on England’s cities and towns, churches and architecture, even a book on his friend, abstract painter John Piper. These prose works, like Betjeman’s poetry, are marked by their readability and friendly, intimate tone.

Most of what is known of Betjeman’s childhood, through his stay at Oxford until the beginning of his first teaching position, is captured in his blank-verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells. This work, written toward the middle of Betjeman’s career, not only demonstrates the poet’s proclivity for detail but also reiterates many of his earlier themes and preoccupations. Sharing some similarities with the confessional poets of the mid-twentieth century, Betjeman’s verse in this volume is surprisingly candid, revealing the poet’s fears and embarrassments, his defeats, as well as his victories.

Many of Betjeman’s later volumes of verse, notably A Few Late Chrysanthemums, High and Low (1966), and A Nip in the Air (1974), deal, in part, with the present impinging upon the past and the results of that friction. Edwardian drawing rooms are replaced by abstruse monstrosities. Thus, Betjeman often establishes a series of antitheses, not only of artificial cities, belted in concrete, but also of artificial people, who, in the name of progress, awkwardly tread on the beautiful and the sacred, in flagrant abandon. The poet frequently illustrates this abrasive combination humorously, as in “Inexpensive Progress,” from High and Low:

Encase your legs in nylons,Bestride your hills with pylonsO age without a soul;Away with gentle willowsAnd all the elmy billowsThat through your valleys roll.

Betjeman likens the industrialized present’s encroachment upon the landscape of the past to the human body, stripped of the gentle curves that signal its beauty, inevitably resulting in barrenness and ugliness. In the above passage, Betjeman shows his keen faculty even for spacing of the lines: The indentations of the third and sixth lines imitate the once-rolling hills and gentle breezes that soon will vanish. Emphasizing the passing of a lifestyle that is continuously eroding, the poet’s images of modern impatience and disregard are typically characteristic of his verse, perhaps best epitomized in the picture of the “Executive,” from A Nip in the Air: “I’ve a scarlet Aston-Martin—and does she go? She flies!/...

(The entire section is 1849 words.)