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.

and

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

and

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.

Platitudes are, in fact, used instead as a way of pointing to the poem’s originality. And that is the only true function of comment in Betjeman’s poetry. A poem in which Betjeman imagines his own death – a much later poem – again acquires its chilling force from the way in which cliché and detail combine without having anything in common.

Say in what cottage hospital
Whose pale-green walls resound
To the tap-tap-tap on the parquet
Of inflexible nurses’ feet
Shall I myself be lying
When they range the screens around?

The imitation of poetic language (‘Say in what ...’) and of popular trench humour (‘When “They” range the screens ...’) does nothing to detract from the fact that this is a real nightmare place. Death, and the deaths of others, is a platitude, but one’s own death is something unique, singular with the same perfect singularity achieved by the poem.

No doubt the modish thing today would be to give Betjeman the same label that has been stuck on Gavin Ewart: ‘a deeply serious poet’. That is the mechanical accolade, the last infirmity of contemporary clichés. Its irrelevance consists in the fact that no good poetry can be other than serious, whereas poetry written to be serious today is seldom good. The word has been deeply tainted by post-Arnoldian use, and should be retired indefinitely. Seriousness in 19th-century poetry hangs out self-consciously, as even Keats’s does in ‘Hyperion’ and Tennyson’s in ‘Morte d’Arthur’ (‘Lest one good custom should corrupt the world’). Betjeman’s poetry is founded on these 19th-century models and on the atmosphere of the Victorian age, and he makes as idiosyncratic a use of its gravity as of its rhythms and metres.

The difficulty, of course, is that he cannot ‘hang out’ from his world: it is too much its own place for that. At times, this very fact can be used against itself, and to accentuate the note of Betjemanic comedy. In ‘Beside the Seaside’, a relaxed and rambling account of Cornish childhood holidays, the central ‘event’, which might have been got up in prose by almost any indifferent short-story writer, is the disillusion of Jennifer, aged twelve or so, when she finds that this summer she is no longer the little favourite on the beach.

And here it was the tragedy began.
That life-long tragedy to Jennifer
Which ate into her soul and made her take
To secretarial work in later life
In a department of the Board of Trade.

This parodies, and deliberately crudely, the pregnant psychological episode favoured not only by such stories, but by sombre or sentimental Victorian narratives as well, where the ‘blighted life’ is a favourite theme. The parody is of course ‘unserious’, and to find its frivolity gratuitous would be to make heavy weather. None the less, the tone is irritating just because it does ‘hang out’, presenting a deliberate challenge to the serious. The tone is too much one of interior understanding, of a joke shared with the reader. It is precisely because good poetry is never ‘serious’ that when here it deliberately chooses not to be so it brings up the whole irritating question and rubs it the wrong way.

Jennifer and her family are first presented in the poem with the same rapt attention and delight that looks into the Betjeman world and sees church interiors and Pams and Joan Hunter-Dunns. But metre and manner preclude those bursts of lyric magnificence: Betjeman essays the mock-sententious. He becomes knowing, over-conscious, collusive with the reader; the local and parodic tone invites a mockery of its own world, and of course the people inside it.

A single topic occupies our minds.

’Tis hinted at or boldly blazoned in
Our accents, clothes and ways of eating fish,
and being introduced and taking leave,
‘Farewell’, ‘So long’, ‘Bunghosky’, ‘Cheeribye’ –
That topic all-absorbing, as it was,
Is now and ever shall be, to us – CLASS.

Very true no doubt, or at least very likely. But the lines make a point of being pleased with the effect of their own complacency, and ask us too winningly to share the pleasure. Perhaps it is churlish not to join in, but the summons to togetherness is not the most attractive feature of Betjeman’s poetry. The really great poems – ‘A Subaltern’s Love-Song’, ‘Indoor Games near Newbury’, ‘Upper Lambourne’, ‘Spring Morning in North Oxford’, ‘Youth and Age on Beaulieu River’, and, most of all, ‘Love in A Valley’, are outbursts of erotic pleasure in the people that go with places. The adoration is classless, and the pleasure not only erotic but solipsistic. No togetherness there.

In these poems, Betjeman is a complete original: no other poet had perceived or expressed these things before, although the poetry is not concerned with being itself but is quite happy to be poetical and to borrow indiscriminately from poetic convention. In that, as in much else, Betjeman is like Wordsworth. The genuineness does not depend on a new style but on a new kind of perception, and in both poets there are ‘two voices’. Wordsworth enjoying and Wordsworth expatiating are very different things, and the same is true with Betjeman. He is versatile; he has many tones; but only the passion rings true. His satire, his erudition and descriptive passages, even his enthusiasm and his humour, have something not quite right about them. I suppose this is part of the camp effect, which his fans revel in as much as they revel in everything else about him; but at his best Betjeman is emphatically not a camp poet. He is, though, when in ‘Beside the Seaside’ he strikes the warm-hearted line about the holiday pursuits (this was in the 1930s) of the vulgar Brown family:

                               with allowances
For this and that and little income tax,
They probably earn seven times as much
As poor old Grosvenor-Smith. But who will grudge
Them this, their wild spontaneous holiday?
The morning paddle, then the mystery tour
By motor-coach inland this afternoon.
For that old mother what a happy time!

This can be taken as either straight or not straight, but either way it is no more satisfactory than the end of ‘Margate 1940’:

And I think, as these fairy-lit sights I recall.
It is these we are fighting for, foremost of all.

The Poet Laureate would have no bother writing in the Soviet Union, because his fervent celebration of the Gleaming Heights of Socialism or kind hearts at the Kolkhoz could be taken according to taste. But banality in ‘Leamington Spa’ and other masterpieces is doing a real job, not hanging out, but integral with the intensity of the perception. Betjeman at his best (‘The Best of Betjeman’, as we learn from Summoned by Bells, was a work the author dreamed up at school in Highgate and submitted to one of the temporary masters, T.S. Eliot, who made no comment) has the totality of childhood, or rather of adolescence, when emotional ecstasies find their consummation in the sight of a packet of Weights pressed in the Surrey sand, in the makes of Rovers and Austins and Lagondas, in rhododendrons (‘Lucky the rhododendrons’) casually swiped at by the tennis racquet of a girl with an arm ‘as firm and as hairy as Hendren’s’. Surprised by these joys, the reader is swept into them as if with Kubla Khan in Xanadu, or in Keats’s castle on the Eve of St Agnes.

Betjeman’s joys and sorrows go straight back to the early Romantics. He is not a bit like Hardy and Philip Larkin, who are often associated with him. No comparison could be more misleading. Their idiom is one of deprivation, of that pleasure in things going wrong, or never having been right, which has become so much a part of English culture and consciousness. But Betjeman’s gaiety, like his sense of glory, is the most genuine thing about him. Hardy and Philip Larkin cheer us up, and themselves, by the tender scrupulousness with which they couple the unshapely ills of existence with noticings and perceptions that reconcile us to those ills. Deprivation is associated in them with the hiding-places of comfort. Their poems are not out to please or to exhibit pleasure, and they have no social sense at all. Betjeman’s poems are not exactly about ‘How to get on in Society’ (the title of the famous one that starts ‘Phone for the fish-knives, Norman’), but they reflect the personality of someone who is obviously getting on very well indeed.

Laugh the Betjeman way and the best people will laugh with you. D.H. Lawrence had a comparable power, the jester’s vitality that attracts the upper crust, and the social ‘feel’ in his verse has odd affinities with Betjeman’s: both are obviously – in their works and out of them – the life and soul of a ‘set’. There is of course no more to it than that – Betjeman’s preoccupations having nothing of Lawrence in them – but the butterfly moods and the inspired mimicry have a curious relation: Betjeman’s world of things is as authentic as Lawrence’s beasts, birds and flowers. There is a sharp distinction in both writers, too, between the solitary and the social personality, and the real poet in each is the solitary one.

In such cases, no doubt, the social comes in the end wholly to preponderate. To be in Betjeman’s ‘set’ now, and for the last twenty years or so, is to enjoy the things he enjoys, the churches, the architecture, the nostalgically or exuberantly self-mocking Anglican emotions.

Dear old, bloody old England
Of telegraph poles and tin ...

That struck the right note, but anything graver and more satirical is apt to fall flat. Larkin has, rather oddly, referred to Betjeman as a ‘committed writer’, an adjective which might seem as beside the point as ‘serious’ would be. And yet perhaps not. A committed writer is more concerned with what he says than how he says it, and that, oddly enough, is both what impresses about the bulk of Betjeman’s work, and what goes wrong. It takes a committed poet to express his convictions and feelings with such forcible flatness. That, after all, is an aspect of Betjeman’s Wordsworthian side, and Wordsworth wrote a hundred or so ‘Ecclesiastical Sonnets’ which are pretty unreadable today.

Readable Betjeman always is, though his Anglican ditties and ‘Poems in the Porch’, now reprinted with others as Church Poems, do not go very far back in terms of Anglican tradition. There is nothing Elizabethan about them, nothing of the sharpness of Donne or the mysterious sweetness of Herbert. He does not think in his poems, as they did or seemed to do; he does not even ruminate, as Philip Larkin so impressively does in his poem ‘Church Going’. But why should he? His faith is in the ongoing power of Church – necessities, restorations and revampings of prayer-book notwithstanding.

The Church’s restoration
          In eighteen-eighty-three
Has left for contemplation
          Not what there used to be

No, where Betjeman is concerned it has left more, much more. He is identified with a new sort of revival, unserious but certainly committed in its own way, done with all the fervour of the 19th-century hymns but sending itself up at the same time. The dual response is important: it is because the hymn is so robustly absurd that we sing it with the delight that we do. A mutual admiration society perhaps, a ‘set’ again, but what else has the social side of religion, in its vitality and in its complex utilities, ever been? Betjeman relishes and reveres every historic and contemporary aspect, from ‘Undenominational/But still the church of God’ –

Revival ran along the hedge
      And made my spirit whole
When steam was on the window panes
      And glory in my soul –

to the elaborate Art Nouveau of Holy Trinity, Sloane Street:

The tall red house soars upward to the stars.
The doors are chased with sardonyx and gold,
And in the long white room
Thin drapery draws backward to unfold
Cadogan Square between the window-bars
And Whistler’s mother knitting in the gloom.

Church poems, like poems of plain topography, are never inspired Betjeman but the zestful craftsmanship here is none the less superb. ‘Without a church,’ he says in a preface, ‘I think a place lacks heart and identity.’ Increasingly people have come to agree with him: the church today plays not a smaller but a larger – even if self-consciously larger – part in ‘village life’, offering a ‘not too solemn’ Betjemanic package-deal of doctrine and devotion, architectural and ecclesiastical interest. The success of the late Barbara Pym’s novels, humorous, perceptive and accurate works of art with a sub-clerical interest and flavour, could hardly have occurred without Betjeman’s preparation of the ground.

In their poems Hardy and Larkin are natural dramatists. They intensify anonymous moods, invent situations; only the settings and the noticings are immediately and personally ‘true’. With Betjeman it is different. Although his imagination is so Victorian, he does entirely without the odd Victorian gift for disingenuousness, for pretence and concealment. Like a certain sort of church he fancies, with carved pilasters and gilt commandment boards, where

pre-Tractarian sermons roll’d
      Doctrinal, sound and dry,

his natural voice is that of the late 18th-century poets whose tones converge in the spacious decorum of Wordsworth’s Prelude and Excursion. Betjeman has no persona: he is simply himself. That explains the immense popularity of Summoned by Bells, the verse autobiography with real names in it, real parents and reactions to them, all the youthful experiences and impressions complete, up to the age of leaving Oxford without a degree and taking perforce a prep-school job where

Harsh hand-bells harried me from sleep
For thirty pounds a year and keep.

As in all the best autobiographies, from Edmund Gosse to Jocelyn Brooke, the flavour of personal experience is exactly caught.

All silvery on frosty Sunday nights
Were City steeples white against the stars.
And narrowly the chasms wound between
Italianate counting-houses, Roman banks,
To this church and to that. Huge office-doors,
Their granite thresholds worn by weekday feet
(Now far away in slippered ease at Penge),
Stood locked. St Botolph this, St Mary that,
Alone shone out resplendent in the dark.
I used to stand by intersecting lanes
Among the silent offices, and wait,
Choosing which bell to follow: not a peal,
For that meant somewhere active; not St Paul’s,
For that was too well-known. I liked things dim –
Some lazy rector living in Bexhill
Who most unwillingly on Sunday came
To take the statutory services.
A single bell would tinkle down a lane:
My echoing steps would track the source of sound ...

Such things are as authentic as the skating or climbing episodes in the Prelude, the singularity of the poet’s taste being substituted for the shock of recognition which surprises the reader of Wordsworth. Betjeman’s emotions are both intense and narcissistically self-aware.

’Twas not, I think, a conscious search for God
That brought me to these dim forgotten fanes.
Largely it was a longing for the past,
With a slight sense of something unfulfilled;
And yet another feeling drew me there,
A sense of guilt increasing with the years –
‘When I am dead you will be sorry, John’ –
Here I could pray my mother would not die.
Thus were my London Sundays incomplete
If unaccompanied by Evening Prayer.
How trivial used to seem the Underground,
How worldly looked the over-lighted west,
How different and smug and wise I felt
When from the east I made my journey home!

It has the same flat accuracy of tone, however effectively crafted, that will later tell us, after the author has been sent down from Oxford for failing in Divinity (of all things!), that

          Maurice Bowra’s company
Taught me far more than all my tutors did.

The personal Betjeman is compulsive, but the rare impersonal one – the one who has disappeared wholly into ecstasies of subalterns and their girlfriends, and the fir-dry alleys round Camberley bungalows, and the waste water running out into the dark – is even better. That is what I meant by the two voices in his poetry, and how one of them escapes from the humour and the injokes, from the idiosyncratic subject-matter, escapes beyond parody into a world no longer its own, one for which no reader of poetry could feel the incomprehension or distaste which might legitimately be felt for the personal Betjeman, the in-Betjeman. That world belongs to the ages.