No poet can write a partial shelf of verse without gaining a following and some degree of reputation. John Betjeman is no exception. For more than a quarter of a century his witty and ruefully wise poems in celebration of the English way of life have been the delight of the nostalgic and the knowing, among whom they served as a password in those strata of British society represented by Kensington and Hampstead drawing rooms, country houses, and donnish university commons. It cannot be claimed, then, that JOHN BETJEMAN’S COLLECTED POEMS arrived unheralded on the literary scene and scored an overnight success for their author. It may be assumed, however, that neither Mr. Betjeman nor his publishers were prepared for the impact of this volume on critics and public alike.
In England, where his COLLECTED POEMS appeared late in 1958, the response of readers and reviewers was immediate and enthusiastic. Honors followed: a Home Service reading on Boxing Night, serialization in the London Daily Mail, two important literary prizes, and a word of approval from Princess Margaret. There had been nothing like this in poetry for generations, certainly not for a writer who deprecatingly styles himself “a poet and hack” and who once declared that he wrote chiefly for those who share his appreciation of the settings, attitudes, and moral feeling of the Edwardian past.
Such popularity and acclaim are in themselves an indication of excellence, but in the case of John Betjeman the relative values of his work have been made ambiguous by those who profess to admire him most. The chief difficulty in critical appraisal seems to be that he fits into none of the convenient categories by which modern poets are pigeonholed and judged. He is neither experimental nor obscure; he remains a traditionalist in forms and meters; maintaining a proper lightness of touch, he displays none of the solemnity with which his contemporaries fit serious language to serious themes. These aspects of his writing create confusion among his critics. He has been called a poet of the provinces, of the suburbs, of church architecture and history, of English class structure. By the same token he has been described as nostalgic, insular, flippant, devout, sensitive, fantastic, humorous, antiquarian, and sectarian. But within this confusion of category and epithet one point remains fixed: he is both the possessor of a brilliant comic sense and a profoundly serious poet.
This conjunction of the comic and the serious is important to an understanding of the whole body of his poetry. It explains, among other things, the tradition of light verse within which he works. W. H. Auden has stated the case for this type of poetry in his introduction to THE OXFORD BOOK OF LIGHT VERSE, which he edited in 1938. As he points out, in the more stable societies of the past most poetry tended to be “light” in that its sources were a common background of belief and custom shared by the poet and his readers, with the result that major poets as well as minor ones could express themselves in a familiar style and employ the images of everyday, familiar life. Auden sees the real break between the poet and his audience coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, which disrupted community knowledge and feeling. The...
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