(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Summoned by Bells, a blank verse autobiography, recollects Betjeman’s childhood, marred by the abusive treatment of a nursery maid, Maud, who instilled in him the dread of damnation, more terrifying than any fiery rhetoric from any preacher’s pulpit. It was she who preached to him about hell, rubbed his face in his own messes, and punished him for his tardiness: “’You’re late for dinner, John.’ I feel again/ That awful feeling, fear confused with thrill,/ As I would be unbuttoned, bent across/ Her starchy apron.” Surprisingly, Betjeman’s choice of meter, unrhymed iambic pentameter, heightens, rather than diminishes, the tension of the scene. The regular iambic rhythm with which the nurse delivers her matter-of-fact remark exposes her inflexibility. Maud’s influence on Betjeman’s themes of guilt and fear of death should not be overlooked.

Though the abusive relationship with Betjeman’s nurse is easily discernible, more complex is the mental torment that the author suffered as a result of his relationship with his father. The poet admits that he could never please his “dear deaf father,” especially after refusing his request to continue the family business: “Partly it is guilt:/’Following in Father’s footsteps’ was the theme/ Of all my early childhood.” With each glance, Betjeman’s father’s eyes accused his son of failure. Even to his dying day, the elder Betjeman had a gaze that seemed to assail the poet,...

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Brooke, Jocelyn. Ronald Firbank and John Betjeman. New York: Longmans, Green, 1962.

Gibson, Walker. “Summoned by Bells.” Poetry 97 (1961): 390-391.

Hillier, Bevis. Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter. London: Murrary, 2004.

Hillier, Bevis. John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love. London: Murray, 2003.

Hillier, Bevis. Young Betjeman. London: Murray, 1988.

Stapleton, Margaret L. Sir John Betjeman: A Bibliography of Writings by and About Him. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974.

Wilson, A. N. Betjeman: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.