John Betjeman was born in 1906, the son of a well-off London merchant and manufacturer of Dutch origin whose firm had been established in 1820. Betjeman's childhood was mainly spent in London; he was educated at Marlborough and Oxford, but left the University without a degree. He worked for a time as a schoolmaster, and during part of the second world war was United Kingdom Press Attache in Dublin. He had early begun to make a name for himself as a writer on architecture, and up till the late nineteen-thirties was probably better known as an expert upon (and champion of) the nineteenth-century Gothic revival than as a poet. His earliest book of verse, Mount Zion, appeared in 1933, but attracted little attention; his second, Continual Dew (1937), incorporated many of the poems in the previous volume, together with a number of new ones. With this book Betjeman became known, as a writer of verse, to a somewhat wider circle, though his public remained a small one. The book was bound in a quasi-'devotional' style, like an old-fashioned prayer-book, with imitation gilt clasps; in startling contrast was the surrealist dust-cover (by McKnight Kauffer) depicting a severed human hand protruding from what appeared to be a cabbage. The pages were lavishly decorated with pastiches of Victorian designs, steel engravings, art nouveau, etc. Such details are worth mentioning only to suggest that Continual Dew was presented to the public as a humorous book: a fact which should perhaps be emphasized, in the light of Lord Birkenhead's later disclaimer, especially as the volume, in its original form, has long been out of print, though most of the verses have reappeared in the Collected Poems.
Further volumes appeared at intervals during the next fifteen years: Old Lights for New Chancels (1940); New Bats in Old Belfries (1945); Selected Poems (1948), containing several new pieces, and with an appreciative introduction by John Sparrow, Warden of All Souls' College, Oxford; A Fete Late Chrysanthemums (1954). Betjeman's reputation as a poet, during this period, was still restricted to a fairly small band of admirers, and it was not till the appearance of Lord Birkenhead's collection, in 1958, that he achieved a sudden and, in the circumstances, astonishing celebrity. This may have been partly due to a growing sophistication on the part of the reading public, but one cannot help suspecting that Mr. Betjeman's popularity as a television personality also played its part; so too perhaps did the poem 'How to get on in Society', a catalogue of social solecisms which, reprinted in a Sunday newspaper some years previously, had established him, along with Miss Nancy Mitford, as a kind of unofficial arbiter of elegance.
Before examining Betjeman's verse, a word must be said about his prose works. These include, apart from various articles and reviews in magazines, Ghastly Good Taste (1934); An Oxford University Chest (1938); the 'Shell Guides' to Cornwall (1935) and Devon (1936); and First and Last Loves (1952), a collection of previously published essays. This latter volume should be read as a kind of concordance to or commentary upon the poems, on which it casts a revealing light. As a prose-writer Mr. Betjeman has an offhand, conversational style, wholly unpretentious and excessively readable; he writes, indeed, almost exactly as he talks, and anyone who has heard him broadcast will know that, as a speaker, he has the virtue of being at once entirely self possessed and absolutely natural.
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