The Best of Betjeman

John Bayley

  • John Betjeman’s Collected Poems compiled by the Earl of Birkenhead
    Murray, 427 pp, £2.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 7195 3632 4
  • Church Poems by John Betjeman
    Murray, 63 pp, £5.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 7195 3797 5

In Anthony Burgess’s latest novel, Earthly Powers, there is a parody of a Betjeman poem.

Thus kneeling at the altar rail
We ate the word’s white papery wafer.
Here, so I thought, desire must fail,
My chastity be never safer.
But then I saw your tongue protrude
To catch the wisp of angel’s food.

In a brilliant piece of word play the angel food cake of the children’s tea-party becomes the Host: sex, worship and childhood come together on the tip of the darting tongue that demurely holds it. Essence of Betjeman, it would seem, compressed in a few workmanlike lines. But not so. Betjeman himself is never so explicit in his real poetry. It escapes, in fact, from its always apparently so intrusive subject-matter.

How this happens is itself a comment on the way a lot of poetry works, and the kind of world it creates and at times departs from. Burgess’s parody shows what Betjeman is not like, because he singles points and ideas out for treatment in the same way that his own prose makes points, is chatty, ingenious, witty, informative. Burgess, one might say, turns art into non-art, fascinating, energetic, even suspenseful non-art, rather as his novel about Shakespeare sought to turn the art into the man. In this, he is not unlike those actual Elizabethan writers – Hall, Nashe, Greene – who created a whole great literary Elizabethan world of non-art, hardly read today but still well worth reading. In any fertile age there is a great deal of it, and our own is no exception.

But Betjeman’s poetry is a particularly clear case of a poetry that does not contain its subject-matter. Never ‘of its time’, it has turned itself into a separate space-time continuum in which there is nothing but the poetry. This may seem so grotesque a point to make about the churchy, snobby, peopled, artlessly confiding and revealing world of Betjeman that it requires some clarification. Take the early poem ‘Death in Leamington’ – Betjeman’s ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’, as it has been called. The source of its amazing new reality is not at all easy to find. It is certainly not about death in any sense, though death and the fear of death are frequently emphasised in Betjeman’s poetry, offered us as a theme with a too insistent abandon. It is not even about architecture (‘From those yellow Italianate arches/Do you hear the plaster drop?’), or the sense of place, or all three things coming together. Its effectiveness, going with the new and awkward life put into the simple metre, is an entirely new way of seeing things, an abandonment so unlike anything else as to become impersonal, disconnected from the poet.

She died in the upstairs bedroom
          By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
          From over Leamington Spa.

The unexpectedness of plate glass in this context goes with the archaising laboriousness of the dropped trisyllable in ‘evening’. But neither is emphasised in a pantomimic or hammed-up way, as things so often are in less successful Betjeman, and in the Burgess parody. The thing is completely rapt and self-absorbed.

We meet the window again and learn something else about it.

She bolted the big round window,
          She let the blinds unroll ...

The nurse’s activities, soothingly purposive, ungracefully habitual, dominate the poem, sinking to a conscious hush in the last two lines.

And tiptoeing gently over the stairs
          Turned down the gas in the hall.

Before, she had moved into the room – ‘Breast high ’mid the stands and chairs’ – another line of deeply penetrative awkwardness, ‘breast high’ suggesting, among other things, the dense growth in some creature’s native haunt, which is being explored. And who but Betjeman would have written ‘over the stairs’ instead of ‘down the stairs’? Sensible laced black shoes are carefully picked up for the quiet negotiation of each riser.

The impact of the poem depends on the unseen but felt working of these actions – interrelations of actions and things – with the bald vulgar lines of nudging statement or exclamation, obviously arranged to be somehow offensive.

But the fingers that would have work’d it [the crochet]
  Were dead as the spoken word.


But nurse was alone with her own little soul
  And the things were alone with theirs,


Oh! Chintzy, chintzy cheeriness,
  Half dead and half alive!

Even as the poem takes him in, the reader notes and objects to the juvenile getting above-himself of those comments, but their feebleness as comments does none the less mingle with the deep singular art of the poem’s tone and movement. In depriving it of seriousness, they confirm its effectiveness as art. If the poem was what the American poetess Aline Kilmer, earnest disciple of Emily Dickinson, meant when she said in a poem that ‘things have a terrible permanence when people die,’ it would be banal. The world of the poem is so unusual that the platitude of death has no part in it.

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