Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1352

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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 Romantics, finding the world too much with them, made poetry introspective and moody when they turned to private areas of imagination and sensibility.

During the nineteenth century light verse was directed toward more specialized ends—parody, vers de societe, satire, nonsense rhymes, even fantasy—without losing its value as a reflection of contemporary reality. At the same time it preserved advantages lost to serious poetry. Today the writer of light verse is free to exercise his talent with traditional techniques, incongruous imagery, contexts of bravura and wit. Its practitioners demonstrate that this kind of poetry may be frivolous but need not be trivial. At its best its effects are those of realistic temper, humor, and satire.

John Betjeman often walks a narrow line between parody and his own brand of wild originality. Part of the fun in reading him comes from the spectacle of twentieth century vulgarity and materialism set jigging to old tunes. For example, “A Subaltern’s Love-song” to that strapping games-girl, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, is written in the meter of Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib.” In much the same way the twilight mood of Tennyson’s lyric beginning “Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white,” has been transmitted into a sunset scene at a middle-class beach resort. The Scottish braes of “Annie Laurie” become a tidy suburb in “May-Day Song for North Oxford.” And Kipling’s rhythms echo brassily in “Longfellow’s Visit to Venice.”

But such examples are not intended to present John Betjeman merely as a parodist of distinction. He is capable of structures and rhythms that are unmistakably his own. The simple but effective musicality of a poem such as “Wantage Bells” reveals the true poet.

Nor does his skill in parody help to account for the complexities and ambiguities that lie at the center of his writing. It is easy enough to trace out the main strands of his poetry—local associations, a sense of class structure, Anglicanism—but difficult to explain them. Of these, landscape, along with the memories it evokes, is the most accessible. He is a poet of place as Crabbe was and Wordsworth was not; no pantheistic coloring clouds his pictures and the scene is presented in every recognizable detail. His sense of attachment extends also to old parish churches, inns now threatened by neon lighting and cocktail bars, Victorian railroad stations, and crenelated town halls. But from these poems it is clear that the place which moves him most is Cornwall with its boyhood memories. “Trebetherick” reflects that period of his life.

Against his varied country, suburban, and city backgrounds the poet gives full play to his strong sense of social fact. It is plain that he reverences the class structure as a heritage of the English past, but at the same time he views its hierarchical distinctions with an amused and critical eye. This mixture of love and irony will be incomprehensible to most American readers. It is, however, an aspect of Betjeman’s Englishness that must be taken for granted. His own sympathies are clearly on the side of the Establishment. But if he has found much to admire in its way of life—and “Death of King George V” is a moving expression of his point of view—he has also found within the system objects for his satire and malice. Think of our nation’s position and its meaning says the feminine worshiper in Westminster Abbey during the 1940 blitz.

“How to Get on in Society” was Betjeman’s contribution to the U-non-U controversy before that heated debate began. Social pretense has seldom been more cruelly revealed than in this poem.

John Betjeman’s reverence for tradition is revealed also in the Anglicanism which pervades his poetry. He is not a religious poet in the seventeenth century sense. Rather, he sees the Church of England as a symbol of the everlasting, captured in its beautiful glass and by time. This view seems to explain his interest in ecclesiastical history and architecture; they are the Presence made real in ritual and stone. Betjeman is a poet of dark and disturbing moods which seem to spring from the terrors of time’s ravages and the prospect of death. These also are centered in childhood memory. For the man the Sacrament is the consoling fact for his own mortality.

Nostalgia, wry compassion, social satire, the mystery of faith—these are mirrored in John Betjeman’s vision of the world. Insular in his themes and outlook, he is nevertheless challenging in his presentation of what Lionel Trilling has called “a culture’s buzz and hum of implication.” In his pictures of modern society he has restored to light verse its function as commentary on manners and morals. That is the reason for his interest and importance to both English and American readers.