Betjeman, John (Vol. 10)
Betjeman, John 1906–
Betjeman, an English poet, essayist, and critic, was knighted in 1969 and became Poet Laureate in 1972. His verse, which frequently warns of the dangers of technological development, is uncomplicated both in form and content. His prose writing is devoted almost exclusively to architectural criticism and history. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
G. M. Harvey
[Although] he writes from within the essentially middle-class tradition of English liberal humanism, Betjeman has been a consistently subversive force in modern English poetry, and it is clear from his latest poems that his criticism of English society has taken on an angrier tone. A second element in his writing is the increasingly powerful note of spiritual anguish, a deepening of the religious doubt and despair which was evident in an earlier poem, 'Tregardock', in his volume, High and Low (1966)…. In his later poems it is the urgency of Betjeman's social anger and spiritual anguish which seem to me to characterise his response to life as it really is, but the depth of his personal commitment does not hinder the poetry from exploring some of the fundamental issues of twentieth-century life and expanding into an accurate general statement of the human condition.
In an important sense, his subversive attack on the values of contemporary society is a corollary of his profound reverence for places. Betjeman insistently questions the validity of the notion of progress, in the headlong pursuit of which the modern world heedlessly destroys both the community and the natural environment. (pp. 112-13)
Betjeman's technique of contrapuntal points of view serves to stress once more the paradoxically dehumanising effect of human progress….
Betjeman's concern for the preservation not merely of fine buildings but the human frame of things which they represent is not reactionary but, ironically, in modern society with its commitment to size, growth and change for their own sakes, economically and politically subversive. (p. 114)
Betjeman's consistent, remorseless probing of the weaknesses of English social institutions includes the church. 'Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican' is a quietly whimsical poem, which on closer reading turns out to be subtly and powerfully subversive. Fundamentally it challenges not only the church's doctrines but the whole relevance of institutionalised religion. (p. 117)
[In 'Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican'], the poet's wise innocence and imagination quietly confound bureaucratically guarded knowledge, with its emphasis on mystery, the arduous search for God, the centrality of church ritual and the discipline of the instincts symbolised by Lent. For Betjeman the church provides quite inadvertently the context for worship of an instinctive and spontaneous kind. His God frankly embraces femininity, sexuality and emancipated modernity, and there is a subdued zest in his kicking over theological and ecclesiastical traces in order to illuminate a spiritual truth.
Most of his later poems which deal with religious themes are governed by his deepening...
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[Betjeman] is the poet of rus in urbe. A good thing, too: the inherent contradictions of the suburb (not to be confused with Academia) too seldom receive a hearing in contemporary literature, despite the number of writers who must live in one. Betjeman celebrates "old brick garden walls" and "the mist of green about the elms / In earliest leaf-time." Alas, mortar crumbles, and leaves fall, and though he's gentle or even affectionately comic in his recording of these changes, Betjeman's celebration is always a kind of elegy. There is a touch of something Roman in his poetry, as if he were a senator following the custom of releasing a dove for luck—and knowing it flies only for itself. Betjeman's great talent is to hold two opposing attitudes together without technical distress….
In the same way, he simultaneously eulogizes and scolds, pities and mocks and adores the people who inhabit his places…. Betjeman's deliberate rhythms reduce the poet's anger to a manageable wryness.
Readers who are interested solely in the unmanageable will know by now to bypass Betjeman: nothing in a Betjeman poem is ever out of control, and yet everything is more than likely to stray—by design—slightly off-course. (p. 325)
A Nip in the Air is a slight volume; a number of the poems are occasional pieces—souvenirs for royalty or memoranda to friends—and a few are little more than doggerel, but now...
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Sir John Betjeman is now England's Poet Laureate, and the recent brouhaha over his silver anniversary poem to the Queen is a sign of the dangers of being too public a poet (still, it always seemed to me that if he had to use an adverb to modify her blue eyes, "profoundly" would do as nicely as anything else). But A Nip in the Air proves him to be … an accomplished writer of light verse, with a gusto for ordinary life and an affection for odd angles of vision. Once again we have somber themes amiably treated. Hardyesque horrors rise from seasonal descriptions:
What misery will this year bring
Now spring is in the air at last?
For, sure as black thorn bursts to snow,
Cancer in some of us will grow.
Although contentment sometimes comes dangerously close to Tory smugness [Betjeman has been called too content], Betjeman redeems himself by nimbly mixing personal and public occasional poems. In "A Ballad of the Investiture, 1969," he confesses the difficulties of dealing with his subject: "For years I wondered what to do / And now, at last, I've thought it better / To write a kind of rhyming letter." The verse epistle is an ancient, honorable form; here, its informality counterpoints the solemnity of the occasion. In fact, the poem skirts its main subject by cunningly focusing on preparations, the scene, the surprising intrusion of television cameras, and by mentioning only in passing the somber moment itself. Betjeman's wisdom in so doing allows him not only to avoid the trap of self-satisfied mysticism or self-conscious patriotism, but also to emphasize the irreversibility of the single, transient moment….
The [volume's] longest and most serious poem, "Shattered Image," an internal dramatic monologue in blank verse, shows how Betjeman can turn his attention to social and moral dilemmas (in this case, an older man is charged with pederasty, and faces the hostility, condescension, and disbelief of friends and employers), without sacrificing the condensation of language which is poetry's sine qua non, and without succumbing to either preacherly moralizing or in-depth psychology which a "heavier" treatment of the subject might have demanded. Like all writers of light verse, Betjeman understands his limits. (p. 312)
Willard Spiegelman, in Southwest Review (© 1977 by Southern Methodist University Press), Summer, 1977.