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John Betjeman by Jocelyn Brooke

ONE is tempted to say of John Betjeman that he is an architect masque and a poet only by accident, for architecture has always been his chief preoccupation, both as a man and as a writer, and his various books and articles on the subject far exceed, in mere bulk, his output as a poet. Since, however, he describes himself in Who's Who as 'poet and hack', we must assume that he regards architecture as a mere side-line, subsidiary to his poetry (upon which, nonetheless, it has exercized a fertilizing influence). To be a poet, moreover — as he tells us in Summoned by Bells — was his earliest ambition:

I knew as soon as I could read and write that I must be a poet,

and farther on, describing his early attempts at verse, he writes:

The muse inspired my pen:
The sunset tipped with gold St.Michael's Church,
Shouts of boys bathing came from Highgate Ponds,
The elms that hid the houses of the great
Rustled with mystery, and dirt-grey sheep
Grazed in the foreground;
but the lines of verse Came out like parodies of A and M.

The confession is significant, for the influence of Hymns Ancient and Modern survives in much of Betjeman's mature work, and at least one of his poems is a direct parody of a popular hymn in that famous collection. If his childhood ambition has been fulfilled, his present celebrity as a poet is hardly, perhaps, of the kind which he envisaged in those summer evenings on Hampstead Heath fifty-odd years ago. Lord Birkenhead, in his introduction to the Collected Poems (1958), asserts that 'John Betjeman is not a "funny" poet, and resents being regarded as one', though it is conceded that ' he frequently writes supremely funny poems because solemnity is not in his nature'. But this is surely to beg the question, for nearly all Betjeman's poems are funny, though the nature and quality of the fun vary enormously. If a writer of verse makes one laugh almost continuously, how is he to avoid being regarded — resent it though he may — as a funny poet?

The trouble is that, since the Romantic Revival, we have tended to draw an arbitrary and largely artificial distinction between 'serious' and 'light' verse. It is arguable, indeed, that this dichotomy had its origins at an even earlier date, and Aldous Huxley considers that ' the secret of being lyrically funny, of writing comic verses that are also beautiful' died with the Elizabethans (Texts and Pretexts). He quotes the following lines, by an anonymous Tudor poet, as an example:

He tickles this age that can
Call Tullia's ape a marmosite
And Leda's goose a swan.

It might perhaps be said of John Betjeman that he has rediscovered this long-lost faculty for being 'lyrically funny', though with him the blend of fun and lyricism has little in common with its Elizabethan counterpart. His affinities are rather, one would say, with Edward Lear, who for that matter has a better claim to have revived this particular genre. Lear's Nonsense Songs are funny, but are also (as in the 'Yonghy-Bonghy Bo' or 'My Aged Uncle Arly') hauntingly beautiful. The Elizabethan poem quoted above depends for its effect largely upon its sheer verbal felicity; with Betjeman the combination of beauty and humour is effected less by purely verbal means than by the juxtaposition of grandiose and humdrum images, by the romantic or mock-heroic treatment of themes commonly regarded as banal or trivial, by pastiche (like Lear, again, he is fond of imitating Tennyson), and above all by his strangely ambivalent attitude towards the subject-matter of his poems. With many if not most of the persons, places, buildings and so forth which his poetry celebrates, he seems involved in what can only be termed a love-hate relationship, and it is this habitual (and sometimes puzzling) ambiguity which, more than anything else, makes him so original and so fascinating a writer.

Reading his earlier poems, in the nineteen-thirties, the average reader was apt to conclude, when Mr. Betjeman waxed enthusiastic over some Victorian-Gothic church of more than ordinary ugliness, that he had his tongue in his cheek; later poems, however — quite apart from his prose-writings — seemed to suggest that so simple an explanation was less than adequate. Could it be that Mr. Betjeman's tongue had become so firmly implanted in his cheek that he was unable to get it out again or had he, perhaps — as one was tempted to infer from his growing interest in the Anglican liturgy — 'gone to mock and stayed to pray';

Here perhaps we are nearer the heart of the matter, though Mr. Betjeman seems always to have possessed a strain of natural piety, and it might be truer to say that he went to pray and stayed to mock. This is to cast no reflection upon the genuineness of his religious beliefs, for where church matters are concerned his mockery has seldom been anything but affectionate: he never mocks at Christianity itself, only at its outward forms, as expressed in church furnishings and the nice distinctions, within the Anglican Communion, between 'High', 'Low' and 'Broad'.

This note of affection is notably lacking, however, in certain poems dealing with other subjects, for example the one which begins 'Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough'. Here it is plain that he genuinely and unequivocally loathes this squalid riverside town on the fringes of London, with its:

air-conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Such 'hate' poems, though, are exceptional, and his more characteristic pieces are marked by that emotional ambivalence which has already been noted. Thus, though he hates Slough, he will write lovingly (if ironically) of such towns as Swindon, Camberley or Westgate-on-Sea, which to many people would seem hardly more attractive or enlivening than Slough itself.

But if his dislikes often strike us as inconsistent or merely incomprehensible, it will be seen, on examining his work as a whole, that his prejudices have after all a certain logic and consistency of their own, though of a nature wholly personal and often, as many readers must think, perverse if not positively anti-social.

The truth of the matter is that Betjeman is, above all, the poet of nostalgia: any landscape, building or social custom which has survived from his childhood or young manhood evokes in him an emotion comparable with that evoked for Proust by the madeleine dipped in tea. The past, that is to say, acquires a value for him by the mere fact of being the past; Betjeman, one feels, would not really have much enjoyed subalterns' dances and tennis-parties at Aldershot or Camberley in the nineteen-twenties, but distance lends enchantment to his view of them. one might even hazard a guess that his admiration for Victorian church architecture has its roots — despite his learned disquisitions in defence of such architects as Gilbert Scott, J. L. Pearson, Butterfield, etc. — in his memories of those smoke-grimed Ruskinian turrets and pinnacles which loomed through the misty Highgate evenings of his childhood. Perhaps, for that matter, taste in the visual arts is never really 'pure', and is always traceable, to a greater or lesser degree, to personal sentiment. However that may be, it is the Past — the Lost Paradise of childhood and adolescence — which is the primal inspiration of Betjeman's poetry; modern 'progress' is anathema to him, he loathes 'processed' food, plastics, vita-glass, the Welfare State and (one may infer) democracy, though fortunately for us he is still able to laugh at them.