Make your own free website on Tripod.com

betjeman

index
literary theory
classics
victorians
moderns
reading women's writing
the novel
modern american literature
postcolonial
romantics
decoding advertisements
augustans
medieval
renaissance

Acessibility in Poetry?

A Funny Poet?

Betjeman’s poetry is unusual in that it is often difficult to characterize. Lord Birkenhead, in his introduction to the Collected Poems (1958) argued that ‘Betjeman is not a funny poet and resents being regarded as one’ although he conceded that ‘he often writes supremely funny poets because solemnity is not in his nature.’

The subject matter of Betjeman’s poems varies enormously. Some deal with religious topics, in particular the life of the Church and it’s decline, while others deal in a comic manner with themes of upper middle class romance. Many of his poems are also preoccupied with the spread of suburbia, 19th century architecture, the niceties of social usage, and details of upper class domesticity. However, Betjeman also writes very sensitively but disturbingly of pain, death and old age.
The one thing all his various poems have in common is their accessibility. It is this same accessibility that has invited the charge that his poems are superficial, hardly rising above lyrics at times, and that he is ‘just’ a funny poet. Yet for others it is the main attraction of his work. Larkin for example has noted that ‘he goes further than anyone else towards summarizing England…because no one else has his breath of public reception.’

Lord Birkenhead’s remarks highlight some of the difficulties of characterizing Betjeman’s work, and indeed, underline the ambiguity of the poet’s position. How should Betejman be regarded? As an entertainer, as he asked in the Last Laugh, or as a ‘serious’ literary artist?

Light Verse/Serious Verse

In one sense, part of this problem lies in the dividing line drawn between what is called ‘light verse’ and more serious verse, a line which has been in place since the Romantic Revival, and has left us with a largely artificial distinction between two styles, to the extent that some believe that the ability to combine the two, to be ‘lyrically funny’ and write with both humor and beauty has been lost forever.

Perhaps Betjeman has rediscovered this ability, for although obviously he is not a ‘great’ poet in the sense of Yeats or Auden, many of his comic poems are sensitively written and cannot be dismissed as meaningless or ‘second rate’.

For example in ‘Before the Anesthetic’:

Intolerably sad, profound,
St Giles’ bells are ringing round…

Bells ancient now as castle walls,
Now hard and new as pitch pine stalls
Now full with help from ages past
How dull with death and hell at last
Swing up, and give me hope for life
Swing down and plunge the surgeon’s knife.
I, breathing for a moment see
Death wing himself away from me…

Not yet, thank God, not yet the night
Oh better far those echoing hells
Half threatened in the pealing bells
Than that this ‘I’ should cease to be
Come quickly, Lord, come quick to me.

The man who smiled alone, alone
And went on his journey on his own
With: “will you give my wife this letter
In case of course I don’t get better.”
Waits for his coffin lid to close…

Intolerably long and deep,
St.Giles’s bells swing on in sleep
But still you go from here alone
Say all the bells about the throne.


This is a fairly typical example of Betjeman’s poems – characteristically it is concerned with death, but it is also a quiet satire of the bleak impersonality of people’s attitudes to it. The theme is anything but conventionally comic, in fact, it is strictly serious, and the compassionate tone of the poem reflects this, yet the poem as a whole cannot be described as anything but light verse.

Serious Themes

Like T.S. Eliot said of Webster, Betjeman is much ‘possessed by death.’ Many of his poems are infused with elements of the macabre, preoccupied with themes of loneliness and despair and old age, the sense that death is inevitable and often meaningless but that we still yearn for it to have meaning.

The Return

My speculated avenues are wasted
The artificial lake is choked and dry
My old delight by other lips is tasted
Now I can only build my walls and die…

I’ll fill your eye with all the stone that’s by me
And live four-square protected by my fear.

Youth and Age on Beaulieu River, Hants

Evening light will bring the water
Day long sun will burst the bud
Clemency, the General’s daughter
Will return upon the flood
But the older woman only
Knows the ebb-tide leaves her lonely
With the shining fields of mud.


Perhaps then he is best described as a poet who uses the medium of light verse for a serious purpose, not only as a vehicle for satire and social commentary but also to express a form of emotion in which nostalgia, humour and beauty are equally blended.

Mock Heroic Treatment

Betjeman achieves this combination less by purely verbal means than by the juxtaposition of grandiose and humdrum images and by the mock-heroic romantic treatment of themes otherwise regarded as trivial or banal, rising to elevated language and than descending into bathos. As Larkin has said, Betjeman picks up on “all the vivid manifestations of snobbery and silliness.”

Hymn

O worthy persecution,
Of dust! O hue divine!
O cheerful substitution
Thou varnished pitch pine!
….
Sing on, with hymn uproarious
Ye humble and aloof
Look up, and oh how glorious,
He has restored the roof!


Westgate on Sea

For me in my timber arbour
You have one more message yet:
Plimsolls, plimsolls in the summer
Oh galoshes in the wet.

Oxford: Sudden Illness at the Bus-stop

What forks since then have been slammed in places?
What peas turned out from how many tins?
From plate-glass windows, how many faces
Have watched professors hobbling in?

One poem in particular that employs this technique is In Westminster Abbey:


In Westminster Abbey

Let me take this other glove off
As the vox humana swells
And the beauteous field of Eden
Bask beneath the Abbey bells
Here where England’s statesmen lie,
Listen to a lady’s cry.

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans
Spare their women for Thy sake
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake
But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be
Don’t let anyone bomb me.

Techniques of Personification

Betjeman uses other techniques, which he adapts to suit his own purposes, notably personification, investing inanimates with human qualities to create images like ‘an intimate roof’ and ‘a questing sun’, which are beautiful and striking while being humorous.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts
And the cream-coloured walls are be-atrophied with sports
And westering-questing settles the sun
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn…

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar
Above the intimate roof of the car…

Here, Betjeman’s technique of paying loving attention to what may seem to be inconsequential details is clear, and this technique, together with the poems swift rhythms, furthers his style of story-telling.

Influences

However, Betjeman’s particular blend of fun and nostalgia, irony and romantic feeling is not wholly a novelty. It was already implicit in earlier writers for example Firbank and Edward Lear. Like Lear, Betjeman is fond of imitating Tennyson – in fact his verse has often been called Near Tennysonian for it’s rhythms, and like the earlier poet laureate he has the ability to slip into rhymes with ease, the scansion of his poems hardly ever jars, fitting together neatly:

By roads ‘not adopted’, by woodland ways
She drove to the club, in the late summer haze
Into nine o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Much of his verse carries echoes of minor Victorian verse, for example his poem Love in a Valley which adopts the meter of Meredith’s poem of the same title although the Surrey Betjeman depicts is hardly that of Meredith. One of his habitual mannerisms is the use of contractions such as ‘ev’ry’ and ‘work’d’ which carry a strong echo of earlier poets.

Death in Leamington

She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star…

However, in his choice of metre and stanza form he is anything but traditional, his originality is a matter not of technique, which he largely borrows from others, but of thought and sensibility – in his parodies of Victorian poets, such as Huxley Hall, a skit of Tennyson’s Locksley Hall, his purpose is not so much to poke fun at his models as to point out the contrast between their world and his. So while it would be almost true to say that Betjeman has never written a wholly original poem, his verse often seems highly individual as Sir Kenneth Clark pointed out when he praised his originality and his ‘sensitive response to everything that expresses human needs and affections.’


Particularisation

One of his individual traits is his intense preoccupation with topographical detail. Many of his poems have a place name for a title, and if not contain some specific references to towns, villages or suburbs. One almost feels that he finds it difficult to think of any place in the abstract sense; the concept of any English Village is meaningless. It is how precisely he catches the atmosphere of the place he describes which is remarkable.

This habit of particularization is not confined to topography however. It has been said of Betjeman that he never calls a spade a spade if he can help it, but refers to it rather by the name of the manufacturer, in the same way, he seldom refers to a car but speaks instead of Rovers and Austins as with food and clothes ‘second hand from Daniel Neals/party clothes made of stuff from Heal’s.’ This of course helps to date the poems but also often indicates the social status of people referred to.

Whether his particular individual technique is justifiable is a debatable point – previous writers, including Shakespeare for example, have been free with local and topical references yet we do not see this so often in more modern poetry.

However in certain poems such as False Security and particularly Original Sin the method seems to be successful:

When the Post-Toasties mixed with Golden Shred
Make for the kiddies such a scrumptious feast
Does Mum, the Persil-User, still believe,
That there’s no devil and that youth is bliss?

Here the reference to brand names give a sense of contrast between the two moods in the poem, between ‘so trivial and so healthy’ and ‘blackness and breathlessness’.

Ambivalent Attitude

Betjeman had a strangely ambivalent attitude towards the subject matter of his poetry. With many if not most of the people, buildings, places which his poetry celebrates he seems involved in what can only be termed a love-hate relationship and it is this habitual, if somewhat puzzling ambiguity which make him an original writer, as he writes for example, ironically but with friendly mockery in describing the Executive using a breezy quick-paced monologue to capture the image of the yuppie to perfection, a comically boastful tone used in an often hilarious parody of corporate speech.

Executive

I am a young executive. No cuffs than mine are cleaner
I have a Slimline brief-case and I use the firm’s Cortina…

You ask me what it is I do. Well, actually, you know
I’m partly a liason man and partly P.R.O
Essentially I integrate the current export drive
And basically I’m viable from ten o’clock to five.

For vital off the record work, that’s talking transport-wise
I’ve a scarlet Aston-Martin, and does she go, she flies!
Pedestrians and dogs and cats, we mark then down for slaughter
I also own a speedboat, which has never touched the water.


Often, it is impossible to identify the emotion behind the mockery. For example when Betjeman writes enthusiastically of some church of gothic ugliness ‘that ever increasing spire, bulges over the housetops’ we may conclude he means this ironically, however so simple an explanation seems inadequate as we read ‘only the church remains’ which seems more genuinely emotional.

St. Saviour’s, Aberdeen Park, Highbury, London, N.

And more peculiar still, that ever-increasing spire
Bulges over the housetops, polychromatic and high.

For over the waste of willow-herd, look at her sailing clear
A great Victorian church, tall, unbroken and bright
In a sun that setting in Willesden and saturating us here.

These were the streets my parents knew when they loved and won…
These were the streets they knew and I, by descent, belong
To these tall neglected houses, divided into flats
Only the church remains…

Many of his poems may indicate, considering the subject, that they are addressed to a private and restricted audience – his own class: for example Hunter Trails adopts completely the tone and mannerisms of the upper class stereotype, the rhymes deliberately impoverished and childish but the humour in the poem is blatant and unapologetic and successfully renders the poem accessible and entertaining. He lightly satirizes the snobbery and silliness but the poem is not a direct attack on it.

However, while his poems are often emotionally ambivalent, there are exceptions, and one particularly notable example is Slough – there is no friendliness here, no note of affection in the mockery.

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
It isn’t fit for humans now
There isn’t grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death

Come bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air-conditioned bright canteens
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town
A house for ninety seven down
And once a week a half a crown
For twenty years

And get that man with double chin
Who’ll always cheat and always win
Who washes his repulsive skin,
In women’s tears…

But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad
It’s not their fault that they are mad
They’ve tasted hell.

It’s not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio
It’s not their fault they often go
To Maidenhead

And talk of sports and makes of cars
In various bogus Tudor bars
And daren’t look up and see the stars
But belch instead.

In labour-saving homes, with care,
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough
The cabbages are coming now
The earth exhales.

Nostalgia

A noticeable aspect in all these poems is his intense dislike of new modernity. After all Betjeman was above all the poet of nostalgia. Anything which had survived from his childhood seemed to evoke in him a positive emotion, the past in his poems seems to acquire value by the mere fact of being past.

Distance lends enchantment to his view. His poems celebrate this, from tennis parties at Aldershot to his admiration for Victorian architecture; all the genuine emotion in his poems seems to have its root in childhood memories.

It is the Past, the lost paradise of childhood that is the inspiration of Betjeman’s poetry. Modern progress was thus clearly anathema to him – he loathes the idea of “tinned milk, tinned beans/ tinned mind, tinned breath” though he is still able to turn this hatred into humour.

Larkin argues that ‘the quality in his poetry called nostalgia is really that never-sleeping attention to note the patina of time…which is the hallmark of a mature writer.”

Betjeman’s hatred of progress implies no inhumanity or class prejudice but does indicate a pessimism and distrust of the new way of life. He feels that people should be happy but asks how happiness can be achieved in a world daily growing more ugly. He asks for “the rose of a world that has not withered away”.

Faith and Religion

Perhaps he concludes that the sole hope of regeneration lies in the Christian religion but it’s clear he considers that hope a forlorn one. Although religious, as a poet he is not an earnest believer. His personal convictions are mostly implied unobtrusively in his poetry often through irony or understatement.

Not my vegetarian dinner
Nor my lime juice minus gin
Quite can drown a faint conviction
That we may be born in sin.

Yet despite his proffered belief in Christianity, he becomes increasingly doubtful in later poems:

On a Portrait of a Deaf Man

You, God, who treat him thus and thus
Say: save his soul and pray
You ask me to believe in you
And I only see decay.


Betjeman was a believer in the cohesive force of Christianity in bringing the ‘true folk of England’ together, but perhaps in the end, he could not believe strongly enough.

Conclusion

At his best Betjeman is a poet of true originality who has extended our sensibilities and perceptions, using verse that is ‘light’ in the sense of being readable and entertaining. One of the great ‘minor poets’ of the modern movement, Betjeman remains significant mainly because of his unique talent for rendering his poems humourous, ironic, yet also sensitive and serious, his funniest poems alive with wit and dexterity while his more serious poems express sentiment without sentimentality.

As Larkin has said: “he brought back to poetry the sense of dramatic urgency”, because poetry to him , as it was to Wordsworth, was “not a moral or sociological argument but a spontaneous overflow of natural feeling.”


written: 2004
Creative Commons License