John Betjeman Betjeman, John (Vol. 6) - Essay

Betjeman, John (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Betjeman, John 1906–

The Poet Laureate of England, Sir John has been concerned in his verse with nature, death, and the vanishing England of his youth. He writes with wit and gentleness poems which appeal more to older readers than to younger and which reflect his admiration for Tennyson, Hardy, and the lesser poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Summoned by Bells is his long verse autobiography. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

At first sight, Betjeman seems one of the least likely of living British poets to find a sympathetic public in America; not because he is not a good poet—he is, full of years and honors—but because he is, in many ways, the most insular, the most cranky, the most John Bullish, in his concentration on very English, very local, attitudes and themes. (p. 289)

["Square"] John Betjeman most emphatically is not; "rooted" might be a better word, "original" would be another, equally applicable to his turn of mind though not to the mechanics of his art. As Larkin points out [in his introduction to Betjeman's Collected Poems], his subjects generally are those common to all poets: sex, love, death, religion, childhood, familiar places remembered or revisited, people (including authors) he admires or detests, satire on the way of life currently in vogue and what it has done to the village, the city or the state. Most of his versification is equally traditional, one of his favorite devices being deliberate evocation, through subtle parody, of famous Anglican hymns….

Exercising his craft within the habits of rhyme and meter [Betjeman] has contentedly inherited from the past, his honesty of private witness not only evokes a very strong sense of atmosphere and place but also communicates a precise metaphysical awareness that irradiates the often trivial, often shady, actuality of his scenes with an intuition of the larger context of his Christian faith. (p. 290)

Betjeman writes … as if Eliot and Pound had never invented "Modern Poetry" or William Empson discovered "Seven Types of Ambiguity"—or poetry itself been smothered in the Halls of Academe with their proliferating light industry of literary criticism…. He is rash enough to believe that he can still address himself to the intelligent (and general) reader who knows what he likes and likes what he knows. This does not mean, however, that the work is trite or shoddy. On the contrary, while the tone varies from the serious to the very funny, the style itself shows consistently able craftsmanship and that sort of intelligence in the deployment of language which C. S. Lewis defined as "witingenium." Betjeman may not stand with Shakespeare or Milton among the giants of English poetry, but he is certainly among the very gifted and accomplished. (p. 291)

People often ask me here what Britain is really like. Now I can offer them a guidebook far more revealing, because far more honest and perceptive, than anything put out by the sellers of the tourist trade. It is all there in John Betjeman's Collected Poems: the whole, over-populated United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland), alternately celebrated or castigated for its people in their strengths and in their follies; for its towns and villages and landscapes in their mixture of decadence and grace. And this is why I think the revised edition just might sell in the U.S. Americans, after all, have been trying hard enough to sell their image overseas. It is not impossible that from John Bull Betjeman they could learn something not only about his "tight little island" and its ambience but the Anglo-Saxon attitudes still strong within many of themselves. (p. 294)

Peter Thomas, "John Bull Speaks: Reflections on 'The Collected Poems' of John Betjeman," in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1972, University of Utah), Summer, 1973, pp. 289-96.

Philip Larkin's introduction to John Betjeman's Collected Poems is a persuasive and slightly shifty defense of Betjeman's "defiant advocacy of the little, the obscure, the dis-regarded," of his "loving and vivid evocation of places," his lasting interest in "human life in society." The defense is shifty because the poet Larkin conjures up is very attractive, probably important, but isn't Betjeman. One can agree with everything Larkin says and still find Betjeman as prim, snobbish and faintly nasty as one always thought he was…. There is a deceptive skill …, more self-consciousness than one might be inclined to think. The forms are resolutely archaic, as befits a rescue of the unfashionable past from the arms of the demolishing present. Betjeman's world is not as quaint and cosy as his reputation suggests. But still, there are no places vividly evoked here. The names of places like Wembley and Woking are made to do an undue amount of work, and Betjeman operates all too often at the level of those British comedians who say Scunthorpe or Bootle when they're short of a joke. Betjeman says Willesden, or Leamington Spa, and we're supposed to chuckle. It's not a question of knowing the associations of such names, although you're lost if you don't. One can know the associations exactly and still dislike these snickering, class-ridden symbolic geographies…. [The] human life that is portrayed in Betjeman's work in general comes almost entirely from the fussy fringes of middle-class, home-counties English life, and in no history that I know has this class been "little," "obscure," or "disregarded." It may have been disregarded by poets, but its material compensations have been considerable. I don't mean Betjeman shouldn't write about this class if he wants to, merely that we can't see Betjeman as a brave cultural hero because he trots out all the idées reçues of his well-off contemporaries. Larkin, who ought to know better, tries just this line of argument on us, suggests that the following lines, although "singularly unforgettable," are not likely to appeal to critics, because "most literary critics these days are on the left wing":

     An eight-hour day for all, and more than three
     Of these are occupied with making tea
     And talking over what we all agree—
     Though "Music while you work" is now our wont,
     It's not so nice as "Music while you don't."

This is very funny, and quite inoffensive, I should have thought, even to critics on the left wing (some of us lefties can take a joke). But what is "unforgettable" is the gag (Music while you work is the name of a British radio programme), hardly the social perspective. Even as a parody of Tory myths about the feckless workers (and I don't think it is offered as a parody), the passage is surely trivial enough.

Betjeman is an Ogden Nash who has somehow been trapped into taking himself half-seriously, a sort of cross between Rupert Brooke and one of Tolkien's hobbits. His verse has a real charm at times … and his mimicry of social attitudes is often amusing…. It is even touching. (pp. 43-4)

Nevertheless, Betjeman's snobbery is all-pervasive in these poems. His sneers at typists are in no way balanced by the sneers of a quite different order which he addresses to members of his own class. The poetry is littered with the brand names of soap powders, hair washes, bicycles, automobiles and this betrays not a care for transient, unloved products but a cheap and lazy habit of assuming that the modern world is faithfully reflected in its advertising. The working classes in Betjeman invariably behave like people in television commercials as seen through aloof, unconsuming eyes, and the bland contempt which trickles through [many] lines … is completely irreconcilable with any of the concerns Larkin attributes to Betjeman; and is even less reconcilable with the brave, modest loyalty to his fellow countrymen that Donald Davie attributes to Larkin himself…. Betjeman's response to the choice facing modern British poets is not to become, like Eliot and many others, a poet after all, but to become a poet before anything else, before you have had time to look around and be troubled out of your vocation. Betjeman's comic, anti-quarian verse is not a rescue of a vanishing history, it is a refusal of history altogether, a retreat into Tennyson-land, a scuttling-off down the hobbit-hole before the going gets rough. The sheer, sickly, clever unpleasantness of the poem called "Mortality" takes some beating, it seems to me. What speaks here is the exact reverse of compassion:

  The first-class brains of a senior civil servant
    Shiver and shatter and fall
  As the steering column of his comfortable Humber
    Batters in the bony wall…
  And this had to happen at the corner where the by-pass
    Comes into Egham out of Staines.
  That very near miss for an All Souls' Fellowship
    The recent compensation of a "K"—
  The first-class brains of a senior civil servant
    Are sweetbread on the road today.            (pp. 45-6)

Michael Wood, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974.

Collections of John Betjeman's verse don't change, they merely become more appropriate. Betjeman poems have always watched the old England die, the self age, believed fearlessly in the gentle virtues and tremulously in salvation. Neither his earlier nor his later work has required to be falsified in order to achieve such remarkable consistency. Betjeman was simply born old, thereby ruling out the prospect of immaturity; or else is still infantile, with maturity never to arrive; or perhaps both. The co-existence of sage and toddler keeps predictability at bay. The only risk he has run as an artist is of being repetitive.

Everything in A Nip in the Air has occurred before. But still the ambiguities linger, making the best loved and most cuddly of Poets Laureate a permanent oddball. Familiarity is deceptive, although very familiar….

[The] poems to Charles and Anne in this volume were written by a born monarchist, not a convert. The disappearing social order whose details he so lovingly records was the only certain good. Modernism holds no place for his kind. It would be—well, it is—a message acceptable to any thinking Tory. Opportunistic rapacity has done for the old order. But it is only lately, at the eleventh hour, that Betjeman has begun to examine the possibility of the old middle class and the new rapists being close kin. It would be a subversive conclusion to most of what he has always said, so it is no surprise that the conclusion is not quite reached….

'Let us keep what is left of the London we knew,' Betjeman sighs in 'Meditation on a Constable Picture', but by now he is more resigned than desperate…. Much of the energy has gone out of his theme: a poignant mark of the enemy's triumph. But for the greater part of his creative life the urge to preserve supplied him with his most important creative impulse. To him and the few writers in his league, the onset of chaos meant the necessity of turning recollection into art. For some time yet it will be an act of critical daring to call Betjeman or Osbert Lancaster anything more lofty than exquisite, but in fact they have transmuted a fleeting reality into a tangible fiction during the moment of its vanishing, and when the vanishing is completed will be easily seen to have performed a service. (p. 745)

Betjeman puzzled over the inscrutable doings of the hoi polloi formiculating in 'the denser suburbs' but never faced the genuine paradox of a civilised order hastening its own ruin. He identified himself with a class at a time when it was not yet fully clear that the class would fail to identify itself with him. They would buy his books while tearing down anything beautiful that stood in their way. Betjeman's audience are the developers. He was, from the beginning, in a historical fix. From Selected Poems onwards, the apocalypse began to roll in—the sea, which will send its waves for centuries to come, 'when England is not England'.

The sea, 'consolingly disastrous', recurred in his poetry all through the Fifties and is loud in this volume, rustling with campers' jetsam. Betjeman doesn't see a future: he is elegiac to the end of the line—elegiac where his admirer Larkin is tragic, since at least Betjeman is longing for an existence he once led. The past is gone and the future is not worth having—it would be a hell of a message if message were all there was. But the poetry is a cornucopia of cherished things, and the pessimism is all too easily traceable to its author's personality. He fears the loss of his life as he feared the loss of his way of life—he feels unprotected. Death is all through this new book but it was all through the old books too, as vivid as the sadistic threats of his bent nurserymaid. He can be called light-minded only by the thick-witted, and this remains true even though the well-placed find him comforting. (p. 746)

Clive James, "Supplier of Poetry," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 22, 1974, pp. 745-46.

Even on the printed page the ease and warmth of Betjeman's conversational style carry the reader along, holding his attention from start to finish, giving him a sense of listening to an intimate, friendly voice talking in a relaxed tone. Betjeman's prose works are almost all topographical essays, or guides to certain aspects of English architecture. It would be unrewarding to attempt a summary of these works, especially as they advance no formal thesis and put forward no systematic aesthetic doctrine. Betjeman is not primarily an art historian, nor does he pretend to be a detached observer, recording in a tone of dry neutrality the evolution of architecture in these islands. He is a partisan, passionately involved in his theme, celebrating what he loves, excoriating what he detests. It is significant that the title of his most substantial book should be First and Last Loves (1952). (p. 10)

Popular and superficial accounts of Betjeman portray him as an idolater of the past, with a special fondness for Victorian buildings even when they are third-rate; as a compulsive protester who leaps into action whenever any kind of ancient relic is threatened with destruction. It is alleged that he is out of touch with the realities of contemporary life; that he takes little interest in the housing of the masses; that his attacks on bureaucracy are vitiated by his failure to understand the necessity of large-scale governmental planning in town and countryside. He is, on this view, a romantic individualist steeped in nostalgia for the hierarchical society of earlier ages, a sophisticated modern version of a Victorian aesthete.

Such a portrait of Betjeman is a mere caricature. His favourite architectural period is not the Victorian age but the first quarter of the nineteenth century. (pp. 11-12)

Betjeman has always responded to architecture as the visible manifestation of the spiritual life of a society. When, in Vintage London (1942), he laments the passing of old London it is the inhabitants of that vanished city whom he celebrates…. Betjeman wants to preserve old buildings for a variety of reasons, but mainly because of their human associations, which are indeed inseparable from their aesthetic power and beauty. (p. 13)

Betjeman writes admirable prose, which is always beguilingly readable, and which at times commands an effective polemical force. His range is wide: he can describe with mocking and merciless accuracy a landscape devastated by greed and insensitivity; he can portray with a wealth of loving detail a vanished way of life; he can evoke the harmonious pattern of the English countryside where man has enriched the bounty of nature; he can bring before our eyes the architectural richness and uniqueness of our cathedrals. (p. 15)

Although he is never pedantic or over-solemn, Betjeman is a consistently serious writer, whose books and essays on architecture display firm moral and social principles no less than a penetrating and highly individual aesthetic perceptiveness…. [He] has probably done more than any other single person to bring about the decisive change in our attitude to the Victorian achievement in the visual arts. (p. 17)

Although Betjeman's prose writings are more substantial than is often supposed he is first and foremost a poet. While his books and essays have expressed strongly-held convictions, and even his gifts as a public entertainer have been employed to open people's eyes to their surroundings, Betjeman has said that his prose has been 'primarily a means of earning money in order to buy the free time in which to write poetry'. (p. 18)

It is a mark of his originality and authenticity as a poet that he has always remained indifferent to changes in poetic fashion and to dominant critical shibboleths…. [He] remained unaffected by the modernist movement in poetry, which was all the rage in his undergraduate days. The heritage of Symbolism, the revolution inaugurated by Yeats, Eliot and Pound, even the discovery of Hopkins, seem to have influenced him not at all. He resembles the mythical figure who prefers Dekker, Hawker and Flecker to Rilke, Kafka and Lorca. From the very start he has written unashamedly about the themes which evoke his love, his interest, his hatred and his amusement, and like Wordsworth's true poet he has created the taste which now enjoys him. (pp. 18-19)

The part played by topography in Betjeman's poetry is so important that we must pause to consider its nature and significance. As an architectural historian, Betjeman delights in portraying with the utmost precision the minutest details of places and buildings, just as he relishes the subtlest inflexions of accents and modes of speech, and the intricate gradations of class and social hierarchies in English life. W. H. Auden's introduction to Slick but not Streamlined (1947), a selection of Betjeman's verse and prose, [terms this predilection] topophilia…. (p. 19)

There is one aspect of Betjeman's topophilia and of his fondness for exact description which has not received much attention from his readers. We may approach it by considering certain qualities in the work of Tennyson, who is in many ways closer than any other poet to Betjeman. In a broadcast colloquium on Tennyson early in 1973 Betjeman referred to Tennyson as holding 'a very vague faith such as is mine'. Both poets find in the sea and in their childhood an immensely rich source of emotional power and resonance, and both are at times overwhelmed by an instinctive terror of death and a stifling horror aroused by the contemplation of eternity. Some of Betjeman's blank verse has a Tennysonian movement which may reflect more basic affinities. (p. 20)

It would be inappropriate in a brief essay to devote much space to the elements of parody, pastiche and allusion in Betjeman's poetry, and only a patient researcher endowed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of recondite poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could hope to track down all the references and echoes interwoven in the texture of Betjeman's verse. Yet this kind of device is [both] pervasive in his poetic corpus and affords [great] pleasure….

In many poems he is not so much imitating directly as fashioning a pastiche of minor poetry of the late nineteenth century. Or, to reverse the comparison, we may feel that a poem of that period appears to anticipate certain features of Betjeman's style. (p. 23)

It is sometimes difficult to know whether Betjeman is deliberately borrowing, and relishing the pleasure of counterpointing one idiom against another, or whether he has so thoroughly absorbed an earlier poet's work into his own sensibility that no question of conscious imitation arises. (pp. 23-4)

Betjeman is an example of a writer whose career shows no spectacular development, no sudden leap into a new dimension. His poetry has indeed grown steadily more assured, subtle and moving as his experience of life and the range of his emotions have widened and deepened. The man and the artist have gained in wisdom and maturity, but the subject matter and formal pattern of the poetry have undergone no dramatic transformation. Betjeman continues to take delight in the themes which have always aroused his interest, and his poems still fall into a few categories which can be readily defined: satirical and light verse; narrative and anecdotal poems, often set in the nineteenth century and based on a historical event; personal poems about childhood, love and death; topographical poems, especially those in which he portrays landscapes, townscapes or seascapes with figures. Nor has he felt the impulse to discover a new poetic language or to make formal innovations, but has been content to inherit the idiom of his predecessors, inventing a few more tunes and composing variations on familiar themes. (p. 25)

Betjeman's satirical and comic verses, which are dotted here and there throughout the Collected Poems, are the poems by which he is best known to the large majority of his readers. His satire is aimed at a wide variety of targets: profiteers, vulgar businessmen, progressives, hypocrites of every persuasion, bureaucrats, planners, brewers who modernize unpretentious inns. We have seen that some of his satirical prose is highly effective, and it is therefore disappointing that his verse satire is so comparatively feeble. Many facets of contemporary life arouse his keen dislike, and at times his irritation becomes intense; but he lacks the qualifications of a major satirical poet. The great masters of satire, such as Juvenal and Swift, exude an overpowering loathing of humanity, portraying men as monsters of cruelty and greed, depicting women as maenads given over to the pursuit of vicious luxury. Betjeman is incapable of viewing his fellow creatures as odious vermin, however nasty and stupid they sometimes appear to be. His natural kindness reinforces his Christian belief in the capacity of men to be redeemed, just as his awareness of mortality reminds him that we are all deserving of compassion because we are moving towards death. He cannot therefore follow the example of Yeats and study hatred with great diligence. It is impossible to believe that Betjeman genuinely wished Slough to be destroyed: one feels that he would have found it went against the grain to exult in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Even the neatest of his satirical poems are deficient in the touch of savagery, the clinching power, that lend such virulent force to Chesterton's 'Antichrist' or Kipling's 'Gehazi'. The figures whom he attacks in 'Group Life: Letchworth', 'The Planster's Vision', 'The Town Clerk's Views', 'Huxley Hall' and 'The Dear Old Village' are men of straw. Two of his early satires, 'Bristol and Clifton' and 'In Westminster Abbey', were taken by some to be anti-Christian poems, although they are orthodox Christian attacks on certain aspects of Anglican formalism and obtuseness. Their impact, however, is so feeble that their purport is largely irrelevant.

The galumphing comic poems, which have been described as New Statesman competition poems, lack the redeeming features of the satires, and are scarcely worthy of mention. They afford a harmless pleasure, but they are small beer. Betjeman himself is more aware of the weaknesses inherent in his comic and satirical poems than are the anthologists who continue to reprint them. Referring specifically to 'Slough', 'In Westminster Abbey' and 'How to Get On in Society', he has remarked that 'they now seem to me merely comic verse and competent magazine writing, topical and tiresome'.

Many of his good poems, of course, are enchantingly funny and exhibit delightful flashes of satire, but the wit and the satire are subordinated to the main design and mood of the poem. Betjeman is at his most characteristic and moving when he is dwelling with loving particularity on a landscape or on a quirk of human nature, when he is remembering his childhood, or contemplating the way in which past and present mingle. Irritation and frustration may spur him into satirical verse, but he is stirred to write genuine poetry only when affection and compassion arouse the lyrical impulse. (pp. 29-30)

Betjeman has for many years combined a genuine Anglican piety with a gnawing uncertainty about the truth of Christianity, and it is arguable that this fruitful ambivalence gives many of his poems a keen poignancy and a finely-poised delicacy which a more robust assurance would blunt and coarsen. His beloved Thomas Hardy disbelieved in the Christmas story yet hoped that it might be true; Betjeman affirms his faith in it while fearing that it may be false. Even in 'Christmas', one of his most serene and unaffected expressions of Christian devotion, the last three stanzas, which proclaim the wonders of the Incarnation, ask three times the question 'And is it true?' and answer in the conditional tense 'For if it is…'. (p. 40)

Many of the poems written between 1954 and 1966 record the poet's deepening awareness of change and decay, mortality and the passing of the old order. In 'Good-bye' and 'Five o'Clock Shadow' the physical horror of death is apprehended so fiercely that the artistic distancing and impersonality which an achieved poem requires are distorted and overwhelmed. Much more successful are the poems in which the recollection of beloved scenes and of past happiness counterpoises the lamentation and the fear. Yet in such poems the dominant note is still one of sadness, of regret that the modern world is more brutal and ugly than the one which it has superseded. (p. 41)

Summoned by Bells [a long autobiographical poem] suffers from the fact that it appears to be covering familiar ground, because the autobiographical element in the collected poems is so strong and vivid. Yet the verse autobiography contains a great deal of fresh material and goes into detail about a number of matters which are merely glanced at in the remainder of Betjeman's work. It is a measure of the book's merits and limitations that, although admirers of Betjeman will value it for its intrinsic quality as well as for the light which it sheds on the man and the poet, Summoned by Bells is not a volume that one would recommend to anybody unacquainted with the author's shorter poems. (p. 45)

Betjeman does not, for all his variety, and his keenness of social observation, give us a powerful and comprehensive vision of society, or a sustained argument about the nature of man. While it is not true that he is indifferent or unsympathetic to the poor, he shows little understanding of the political and social aspirations which animate large numbers of the working classes. Even his religious preoccupations are individualistic: he broods intensely on his own death and the death of his friends; he longs for salvation after death for himself and those he loves, rather than for the redemption of all mankind, the renewal of the creation.

Yet these very limitations, this fidelity to his temperament and to his experience, this refusal to pretend, give his poems a rare grace and authenticity. He is, moreover, a lyrical poet of singular purity, whose mastery of the singing line and of melodic flow enables him to compose a variety of enchanting tunes. (p. 47)

It is a fair criticism of much of his work to say that its appeal is limited to those who share its cultural background (although most good poets yield more pleasure if we are prepared to attune ourselves to their range of knowledge and sensibility)…. Betjeman's poems usually employ a traditional narrative or logical order, unlike poetry of the modernist movement which relies on the logic of images, the auditory imagination, the quasi-musical progression. (p. 49)

John Press, in his John Betjeman, edited by Ian Scott-Kilvert (© John Press 1974; Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council), British Council, 1974.

Except in his verse forms, which are strictly nineteenth century, Sir John echoes nobody. There is no poet alive more instantly recognisable. He has evolved for himself a personality—and he had already done so forty years ago—which exudes poetry as a tree exudes resin. It is not confected, not cut to formula, but totally natural, the result of a calculated exposure to the process of living.

His public appearances have made him not only familiar but almost a private friend to thousands. They will at once recognise him in his poetry. Romantic, yes, but not vaporous; funny; rather testy at times; playing, tongue ever so lightly in cheek, the card of lovability; a superb but vulnerable ham; learned but not academic. It must be annoying to poets of a different complexion that he writes with such apparent ease, even plumping for the easy rhyme at the expense of better sense, or tailing off, at the end of a poem, without the expected clinch. That is all part of the game. Like good conversation, his poetry seems improvised, but it is the product of subtle calculations, arrived at, I deduce, by an instinct similar to which enables skilled mathematicians to do complex sums in their head. It is no part of Sir John's plan to put on a purple cloak after the manner of his predecessor Lord Tennyson. He slips under the reader's guard, making what almost passes for talk slide cunningly into verse, sometimes memorably.

Alan Pryce-Jones, "Bonus of Laughter," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Hansom Books 1975), April, 1975, p. 45.