John Betjeman

1906–1984
John BetjemanMark Gerson

John Betjeman, poet laureate of the United Kindom from 1972 until his death in 1984, was known by many as a poet whose writing evoked a sense of nostalgia. He utilized traditional poetic forms, wrote with a light touch about public issues, celebrated classic architecture, and satirized much of contemporary society for his perception of its superficiality. "Modern 'progress' is anathema to him . . . ," Jocelyn Brooke wrote in Ronald Firbank and John Betjeman prior to Betjeman's death: "though fortunately for us [he] is still able to laugh." Brooke continued: "Perhaps [Betjeman] can best be described as a writer who uses the medium of light verse for a serious purpose: not merely as a vehicle for satire or social commentary, but as a means of expressing a peculiar and specialized form of aesthetic emotion, in which nostalgia and humour are about equally blended."

Betjeman's poetry was considered something of a "phenomenon"; it was read by a large audience and was also praised by literary critics. As Ralph J. Mills pointed out in Descant, "Betjeman is a phenomenon in contemporary English literature, a truly popular poet. The sudden fame won by his Collected Poems . . . brought him a wide reputation and made him quickly into a public personality." Betjeman was also admired by such poets and critics as Edmund Wilson and W. H. Auden, who dedicated his own The Age of Anxiety to his fellow poet. "Certainly it is very rare in our day to see much accord between distinguished critics and poets on the one hand and the general public on the other," Mills would add; "but the very complexity of Betjeman's personality and feelings beneath the skillful though apparently simple surface of his verse probably unites, in whatever different kinds of levels of appreciation, the otherwise remote members of his audience."

1958's Collected Poems first brought Betjeman into the popular limelight. Displaying the poet's skillful use of nineteenth-century poetic models, the collection was enthusiastically received by many critics. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer, for example, stated that Betjeman's poems were "a pleasant change from the shapeless and unarticulated matter . . . offered us by so many of his contemporaries. For Mr. Betjeman is a born versifier, ingenious and endlessly original; his echoes of Tennyson and Crabb, Praed and Father Prout, are never mere pastiche; and he is always attentive to the sound of his words, the run of his lines, the shape of his stanzas." T. J. Ross, however, found that although "his ear is as flawless as Tennyson's and his effects sometimes as remarkable, Betjeman creates a world which, unlike the Victorians', is a miniature." Ross believed that when Betjeman involved the reader completely with his subject "the result [was] poor." Only when he kept the reader at a distance did he bring his work up to the level of "first-rate minor art." But Louise Bogan had high praise for Betjeman's work: "His verse forms, elaborately varied, reproduce an entire set of neglected Victorian techniques, which he manipulates with the utmost dexterity and taste. His diction and his observation are delightfully fresh and original. And it is a pleasure to let down our defenses and be swept along by his anapaestic lines, with their bouncing unstressed syllables, and to meet no imperfect or false rhymes in the process; to recognize sentiment so delicately shaded, so sincerely felt, that it becomes immediately acceptable even to our modern sensibilities, grown used to the harsh, the violent, and the horrifying."

In Summoned by Bells, Betjeman recreates his personal past in richly-detailed poems. Because the poet was able to recreate so accurately the time and place of his own childhood, Mills attributed to Betjeman "an almost Proustian memory." Walter Allen, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called Summoned by Bells an autobiography. But the collection, Allen explained, "can't be judged simply as the equivalent of an autobiographical novel. Whatever the final verdict on it may be, it is an extraordinarily accomplished, sustained exercise in narrative verse." Philip Larkin, in his review of the book for the Spectator, found that, although all the poems in the collection tell the poet's life story, Betjeman "is not an egoist: rather, he is that rare thing, an extrovert sensitive. . . . [Time] and again in scenes where interest might be expected to focus on the author's feelings we find it instead shifting to the details." Larkin concludes that "Betjeman has an astonishing command of detail, both visual and circumstantial."

The poems from both High and Low and A Nip in the Air were included in the fourth edition of Betjeman's Collected Poems. Larkin, writing in his introduction to the volume, explained that Betjeman was a difficult poet for many critics to approach. "Betjeman," he explained, "constitutes a kind of distorting mirror in which all our critical catch-phrases appear in gross unacceptable parody. He is committed, ambiguous, and ironic; he is conscious of literary tradition (but quotes the wrong authors); he is a satirist (but on the wrong side); he has his own White Goddess (in blazer and shorts). And he has done all those things such as forging a personal utterance, creating a private myth, bringing a new language and new properties to poetry, and even . . . giving poetry back to the general reader, all equally undeniably, yet none of them in quite the way we meant. No wonder our keen critical tools twitch fretfully at his approach."

Additional verses, which Betjeman had chosen to omit from previous volumes and which some critics noted were of uneven quality, were collected as Uncollected Poems. This work was published in 1982, two years before the poet's death. While noting in a review of the work for the London Sunday Times that Uncollected Poems contained some "duds," John Carey added that it also included "poems no sensible reader will miss. The best of them touch on dying, that undying Betjeman bug-bear. Whatever his relations with contemporary life, he is unchallengeably the laureate of contemporary death, and has traced, in poem after poem, its horribly normal advance from the preliminary twinge . . . to the fatal X-ray photographs and the hospital bed, conveniently placed for you to hear your relatives, in the car park below, making off cheerily to tea and telly."

A sociable man who developed numerous close friendships with a variety of people over the years, Betjeman wrote many letters. His voluminous correspondence was collected in the two-volume Letters, published posthumously beginning in 1994. Edited by his daughter, Candida Lycett Green, Letters traces the poet's life through two periods: 1926 through 1951, and 1951 through 1984, the year of Betjeman's death. "Somewhere in these two thick volumes," friend and critic Mark Girouard commented in the Times Literary Supplement, "John Betjeman remarks that he wrote letters in order to avoid writing poems. . . . To write letters . . . so that the reading of them brings the writer into the room with one, is a rare gift, but Betjeman certainly had it."

In the London Review of Books, Patricia Beer commented on the element of humor that runs throughout the collected Letters. Listing the poet's "apparatus of mirth" as "Oirish imitations, babytalk, spoof signatures, rustic voices, rebus writing, caricatures, doodles and so on," Beer noted that "it too often sounds as though it needed oiling. . . Some will in any case find the jollity very much to their taste. Those who do not will have many and various sorts of seriousness, even melancholy, to choose from in this protean collection."

Besides writing and editing several works on architecture, throughout his life Betjeman remained passionately involved in architectural preservation efforts. As he told Willa Petschek, he was most interested "in saving groups of buildings of towns that can be ruined by 'a single frightful store that looks like a drive-in movie. The only way to prevent more and more ugly buildings going up . . . is to draw people's attention to what's good in all periods.'" Betjeman made numerous appearances on television to promote preservation and became, as Petschek maintained, "a cherished national cult."

Betjeman championed such causes in his poetry as well; he wrote lovingly of the places of his childhood, of the buildings and monuments in danger of destruction. "Betjeman's approach to architecture (which he values second only to poetry) enabled him to recognize the 'living force' of 19th-century buildings, especially the Victorian Gothic," Petschek noted. "Partly through his verse and topographical writings, his guidebooks, poetry readings and TV appearances, but also through his warmth and peculiar genius for imparting enthusiasm for everything from rood screens to ladies' legs, he has made the public accept a rapid reversal in taste."

Career

Poet and travel writer. Worked variously as an insurance broker, a cricket instructor, and an English teacher in London; Architectural Review, London, assistant editor, 1930-33; United Kingdom press attache, Dublin, Ireland, 1941-42; held a post with British Admiralty, London, 1944; served in Books Department, British Council, 1944-46; appointed Poet Laureate of the United Kindom by Queen Elizabeth II, 1972-84. Member, Royal Fine Arts Commission; governor, Pusey House. MEMBER:Royal Society of Literature (fellow; Companion of Literature, 1968), Royal Institute of British Architects (honorary associate), American Academy of Arts and Letters (honorary member, 1973), Victorian Society (founder), Athenaeum, Beefsteak Club, Kildare Street Club (Dublin).

Bibliography

VERSE

  • Mount Zion; or, In Touch with the Infinite, James Press (London), 1931.
  • Continual Dew: A Little Book of Bourgeois Verse, J. Murray (London), 1937.
  • (Under pseudonym Epsilon) Sir John Piers, Westmeath Examiner (Mullingar, Ireland), 1938.
  • Old Lights for New Chancels: Verses Topographical and Amatory, J. Murray, 1940.
  • New Bats in Old Belfries, J. Murray, 1945.
  • Slick but Not Streamlined: Poems and Short Pieces, selected and with an introduction by W. H. Auden, Doubleday, 1947.
  • Selected Poems, compiled and with an introduction by John Sparrow, J. Murray, 1948.
  • St. Katherine's Church, Chiselhampton, Oxfordshire: Verses Turned in Aid of a Public Subscription towards the Restoration of the Church of St. Katherine, Chiselhampton [Chiselhampton], 1950.
  • A Few Late Chrysanthemums: New Poems, Transatlantic, 1954.
  • Poems in the Porch, S.P.C.K. (London), 1954.
  • Collected Poems, compiled and with an introduction by the Earl of Birkenhead, J. Murray, 1958, Houghton (Boston), 1959, 3rd enlarged edition published as John Betjeman's Collected Poems, J. Murray, 1970, Houghton, 1971, 4th edition, J. Murray, 1980.
  • John Betjeman (selected poems), E. Hulton, 1958.
  • Poems, Vista Books, 1960.
  • Summoned by Bells (autobiography in verse), Houghton, 1960, new edition, J. Murray, 1976.
  • A Ring of Bells, selected and with an introduction by Irene Slade, J. Murray, 1962, Houghton, 1963.
  • High and Low, J. Murray, 1966, Houghton, 1967.
  • Six Betjeman Songs, with music by Mervyn Horder, Duckworth (London), 1967.
  • A Nip in the Air, J. Murray, 1975, Norton (New York, NY), 1976.
  • Betjeman in Miniature: Selected Poems of Sir John Betjeman, Gleniffer Press, 1976.
  • Metro-land, Warren, 1977.
  • The Best of Betjeman, selected by John Guest, J. Murray, 1978.
  • Church Poems, J. Murray, 1981.
  • Uncollected Poems, J. Murray, 1982.
  • The Illustrated Summoned by Bells, J. Murray, 1994.
  • The Illustrated Poems of John Betjeman, J. Murray, 1995.

WORKS ON ARCHITECTURE

  • Ghastly Good Taste; or, A Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture, Chapman & Hall (London), 1933, St. Martin's (New York City), 1971.
  • An Oxford University Chest, illustrated by L. Moholy-Nagy and others, J. Miles (London), 1938.
  • Antiquarian Prejudice, Hogarth Press (London), 1939.
  • Cities and Small Towns, Collins (London), 1943.
  • English Cities and Small Towns, Collins, 1943.
  • First and Last Loves, Musson (New York, NY), 1952.
  • The English Town in the Last Hundred Years (Rede Lecture), Cambridge University Press, 1956.
  • (Under pseudonym Richard M. Farren) Ground Plan to Skyline, Newman Neame (London), 1960.
  • The City of London Churches, Pitkin Pictorials (London), 1965.
  • Ten Wren Churches, illustrated by R. Beer, Editions Electo, 1970.
  • A Pictorial History of English Architecture, Macmillan (New York City), 1972.
  • London's Historic Railway Stations, Transatlantic, 1972.
  • West Country Churches, Society of Sts. Peter and Paul, 1973.
  • In Praise of Churches, John Murray (London, England), 1996.

EDITOR

  • Cornwall Illustrated in a Series of Views, Architectural Press, 1934.
  • (With Geoffrey Taylor) English, Scottish, and Welsh Landscape, 1700-c. 1860, Muller, 1944.
  • Watergate Children's Classics, Watergate Classics (London), 1947.
  • (With Taylor, and contributor) English Love Poems, Faber, 1957.
  • An American's Guide to English Parish Churches, Including the Isle of Man, McDowell, Obolensky, 1958, published in England as Collins Guide to English Parish Churches, Collins, 1958, revised edition published as Collins Pocket Guide to English Parish Churches, Volume 1: The North, Volume 2: The South, 1968.
  • Altar and Pew: Church of England Verses, E. Hulton, 1959.
  • (And author of introduction) Charles Tennyson Turner, A Hundred Sonnets, Hart-Davis, 1960, Dufour, 1961.
  • (With Winnifred Hindley) A Wealth of Poetry, Blackwell, 1963.
  • (And author of introduction and commentaries) Victorian and Edwardian London from Old Photographs, Viking, 1969.
  • (With David Vaisey) Victorian and Edwardian Oxford from Old Photographs, Batsford, 1971.
  • (With J. S. Gay) Victorian and Edwardian Brighton from Old Photographs, Batsford, 1972.

Also editor, with Rowse, of Victorian and Edwardian Cornwall from Old Photographs, 1974, and of John Masefield's Selected Poems, 1978. General editor of "Shell Guides" series, Architectural Press, 1934- 64.

TELEVISION DOCUMENTARIES

  • The Stained Glass at Fairford, 1955.
  • (With Stewart Farver) Pity about the Abbey, 1965.
  • Metro-Land, 1973.
  • A Passion for Churches, 1974.
  • Vicar of This Parish, 1976.
  • Betjeman's Dublin, 1979.

OTHER

  • Shell Guide to Cornwall, Architectural Press, 1934, published as Cornwall Illustrated, Architectural Press, 1935, revised edition published as Cornwall: A Shell Guide, Faber, 1964.
  • Devon Shell Guide, Architectural Press, 1936, revised edition, Faber, 1955.
  • Vintage London, Collins, 1942.
  • John Piper, Penguin, 1944.
  • (And illustrator, with John Piper) Murray's Buckinghamshire Architectural Guide, J. Murray, 1948.
  • (And illustrator, with Piper) Murray's Berkshire Architectural Guide, J. Murray, 1949.
  • (With Piper) Shropshire: A Shell Guide, Faber, 1951.
  • The English Scene: A Reader's Guide (includes reading list by L. Russell Muirhead), Cambridge University Press for the National Book League, 1951.
  • (Illustrator) Basil Fulford Lowther Clarke, English Churches, London House & Markwell, 1964.
  • A Plea for Holy Trinity Church, Sloan Street, Church Union, 1974.
  • John Betjeman's Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Lord Mount Prospect, Tragara Press, 1981.
  • Betjeman's Cornwall, J. Murray, 1984.
  • The Golden Treasury of John Betjeman (recording), Spoken Arts, 1984.
  • Betjeman's London, edited by Pennie Denton, J. Murray, 1988.
  • John Betjeman: Letters, Methuen (London), edited by Candida Lycett Green, Volume 1: 1926-1951, 1994, Volume Two, 1951-1984, 1995.
  • (With Paul Hogarth) In Praise of Churches, J. Murray, 1996.
  • John Betjeman: Coming Home; an Anthology of His Prose 1920-1977, selected and introduced by Candida Lycett Green, Methuen (London), 1997.

Recordings by the author of his own work include Poems, Argo, and Summoned by Bells, Argo. Contributor to books, including, A Panorama of Rural England, edited by Walter James Turner, Chanticleer Press/Hastings House, 1944; The Englishman's Country, edited by Turner, Collins, 1945; Studies in the History of Swindon, [Swindon], 1950; Gala Day London, Harvill, 1953; The Twelfth Man, Cassell, 1971; and Likes and Dislikes: A Private Anthology, Tragara Press, 1981. Author of introduction to books, including Selected Poems, by Henry J. Newbolt, Nelson, 1940; William Purcell, Onward Christian Soldier, by William Purcell, Longmans, 1957. Book critic, Daily Telegraph, 1952, and Daily Herald (London); columnist, Spectator, 1954-58; film critic, London Evening Standard. MEDIA ADAPTATIONS: Donald Swann has set some of Betjeman's poems to music.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Bogan, Louise, A Poet's Alphabet: Reflections on the Literary Art and Vocation, McGraw-Hill, 1970.
  • Brooke, Jocelyn, Ronald Firbank and John Betjeman, Longmans, Green (New York, NY), 1962.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit), Volume 2, 1974; Volume 6, 1976; Volume 10, 1979; Volume 34, 1985; Volume 43, 1987.
  • Delaney, Frank, Betjeman Country, J. Murray, 1983.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 20: British Poets, 1914-1945, Gale, 1983.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1984, Gale, 1985.
  • A Garland for the Laureate: Poems Presented to Sir John Betjeman on His 75th Birthday, Celandine Press, 1981.
  • Hillier, Bevis, compiler, John Betjeman: A Life in Pictures, J. Murray, 1984.
  • Hillier, Young Betjeman, J. Murray, 1988.
  • Kermode, Frank, Puzzles & Epiphanies, Chilmark Press (New York City), 1962.
  • Press, John, John Betjeman, Longman, 1974.
  • Sparrow, John, Independent Essays, Faber, 1963.
  • Stanford, Derek, John Betjeman: A Study, Spearman, 1961.
  • Stapleton, Margaret L., Sir John Betjeman: A Bibliography of Writings by and about Him, Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, NJ), 1974.
  • Stem, Gladys, And Did He Stop and Speak to You, Regnery, 1958.
  • Wain, John, Essays on Literature and Ideas, St. Martin's, 1963.

PERIODICALS

  • Arizona Quarterly, spring, 1963, pp. 37-49.
  • Book Collector, winter, 1992, pp. 477-97.
  • Books and Bookmen, May, 1967.
  • Book World, September 15, 1968.
  • British Book News, February, 1983, p. 116.
  • Christian Century, February 22, 1961; June 5, 1963.
  • Commonweal, March 3, 1961.
  • Contemporary Review, May, 1960, pp. 286-89; July, 1994, pp. 39-41; August, 1994, p. 107.
  • Dalhousie Review, spring, 1976, pp. 112-24.
  • Descant, spring, 1969.
  • Horizon, April 13, 1946, pp. 221-38.
  • Listener, January 26, 1967; May 23, 1985, pp. 20-1.
  • London Magazine, March, 1967.
  • London Review of Books, December 8, 1994, pp. 22-3.
  • Los Angeles Times, June 1, 1984, p. 7.
  • New Statesman, December 3, 1960, p. 894; January 6, 1961; October 3, 1969.
  • Newsweek, November 28, 1960.
  • New Yorker, April 18, 1959; September 2, 1967; May 23, 1970.
  • New York Herald Tribune Lively Arts, December 4, 1960.
  • New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, September 14, 1947, p. 6.
  • New York Review of Books, May 18, 1967, pp. 31-4.
  • New York Times, October 11, 1972, p. 18.
  • New York Times Book Review, November 27, 1960, pp. 5, 30; September 24, 1967, p. 57; December 7, 1969.
  • New York Times Magazine, August 13, 1967.
  • Observer (London), April 24, 1994, pp. 18-19.
  • Poetry Review, summer, 1967.
  • Punch, April 29, 1970.
  • Review of English Studies, November, 1991, pp. 541-50.
  • Spectator, October 8, 1954, pp. 443-44; December 2, 1960, p. 913; April 18, 1970; April 23, 1994, pp. 30-1.
  • Sunday Times (London), May 20, 1984, p. 5.
  • Time, February 2, 1959; December 5, 1960; October 23, 1972; December 4, 1972.
  • Times (London), July 14, 1954, p. 10; October 11, 1972, p. 16; January 9, 1983, p. 43; May 22, 1984.
  • Times Literary Supplement, December 12, 1958, p. 720; November 10, 1966; May 21, 1970; March 27, 1981, p. 335; December 10, 1993, p. 13; December 8, 1995, p. 8.
  • Twentieth Century, February, 1959, pp. 130-37.
  • Western Humanities Review, summer, 1973, pp. 289-94.

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Poems by John Betjeman

Poems By JOHN BETJEMAN

Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION England

LIFE SPAN 1906–1984

John Betjeman

Biography

John Betjeman, poet laureate of the United Kindom from 1972 until his death in 1984, was known by many as a poet whose writing evoked a sense of nostalgia. He utilized traditional poetic forms, wrote with a light touch about public issues, celebrated classic architecture, and satirized much of contemporary society for his perception of its superficiality. "Modern 'progress' is anathema to him . . . ," Jocelyn Brooke wrote in . . .

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