John Betjeman's development as a poet has been slow and — since he writes in a number of contrasted styles, and is liable to revert, in his later work, to earlier techniques and mannerisms — not very easy to summarize. During a period of thirty years or so the quality of his sensibility has changed very little, though his verse as a whole shows a steady improvement in prosodic technique.
The first poem in the Collected Poems, 'Death in Leamington', is presumably one of his earliest, and may be assigned to the late twenties or very early thirties. This description of an old lady's death in a decrepit Victorian villa already foreshadows most of his later preoccupations: nineteenth-century architecture, the niceties of social usage and vocabulary and the details of English upper-middle-class domesticity; significantly, too, the poem has that element of the macabre which will recur frequently throughout his work, for Betjeman is — as T. S. Eliot has said of Webster — 'much possessed by death'.
She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev'ning star
That shone through the plate glass windows
From over Leamington Spa.
Beside her the lonely crochet
Lay patiently and unstirred,
But the fingers that would have work'd it
Were dead as the spoken word.
And Nurse came in with the tea-things
Breast high 'mid the stands and chairs —
But Nurse was alone with her own little soul,
And the things were alone with theirs....
And 'Tea! ' she said in a tiny voice
'Wake up! It's nearly five.'
Oh! Chintzy, chintzy cheeriness,
Half dead and half alive! . . .
The contractions — 'ev'ning', 'work'd' — are habitual with Betjeman, and like many of his other mannerisms carry an echo of minor Victorian verse. Later poems on similar themes tend to be less mannered, and it is interesting to compare 'Death in Leamington' with 'Remorse' (1954), of which I quote the first two stanzas:
The lungs draw in the air and rattle it out again;
The eyes revolve in their sockets and upwards stare;
No more worry and waiting and troublesome doubt again —
She whom I loved and left is no longer there.
The nurse puts down her knitting and walks across to her
With quick professional eye she surveys the dead.
Just one patient the less and little the loss to her,
Distantly tender she settles the shrunken head....
Here the slightly mocking tone of 'Leamington' has given place to a genuine compassion; the verse, moreover, is tauter and more firmly controlled, and the whole poem is a far more proficient piece of work, though some of Betjeman's admirers may regret the casual, rather amateurish quality which gave the earlier poems a charm of their own.
In complete contrast with 'Death in Leamington' is another very early poem, 'The Varsity Students' Rag', of which I quote the first verse and chorus:
I'm afraid the fellows in Putney rather wash they had
The social ease and warmers of a 'varsity undergrad,
For tho' they're awf'lly decent and up to a lark as a rule
You want to have the 'varsity touch after a public school.
We had a rag at Monico's. We had a rag at the Troc.,
And the one we had at the Berkeley gave the customers quite a shock.
Then we went to the Popular, and after that — oh my!
I wish you'd seen the rag we had in the Grill Room at the Cri.
This poem is, of course, in itself something of a 'rag', but it is a good satire upon the loutish behaviour of a certain type of undergraduate at that time. The slang and many of the incidental allusions have dated, and future students of Mr. Betjeman's poetry may well be puzzled by such abbreviations as 'Troc.' and 'Cri.', for Trocadero and Criterion — restaurants in or near Piccadilly Circus, much frequented in those days by the rowdier element. The poem exemplifies, in fact, Betjeman's habit of addressing himself to a private — or at any rate an extremely restricted — audience, and it is fairly safe to say that only a person of approximately the poet's own age and educational back-ground would be able to comprehend it in detail. Such locutions, for example, as 'varsity' and 'undergrad' were at that period frowned upon by the smarter kind of under-graduate; but if Mr. Betjeman's attitude seems here a trifle snobbish, it is only fair to point out that it is precisely the snobbery of the 'varsity' man — his ill-bred jeering at 'the fellows in Putney' — which is the main target of the satire.
Another early poem, 'The Garden City', is perhaps worth quoting in part (it was omitted by Lord Birkenhead from his collection); this too is broadly satirical, though here the mockery is less unkind:
O wot ye why in Orchard Way
The roofs be steep and shelving?
Or wot ye what the dwellers say
In close and garden delving?
'Belike unlike my hearths to yours,
Yet seemly if unlike them.
Deep green and stalwart be my doors
With bottle glass to fryke them.
'Hand-woven be my wefts, hand-made
My pottery for pottage,
And hoe and mattock, aye, and spade
Hang up about my cottage'....
A solemn footnote informs us that 'fryke' is a mediaeval word for deck, and the whole poem hits off splendidly that spurious and suburbanized 'arty-craftiness' which was one of the less fortunate by-products of the doctrines of William Morris.
Most poets write love-poems, and John Betjeman is no exception, though as a lover he appears to have somewhat recondite tastes:
The sort of girl I like to see
Smiles down from her great height at me.
She stands in strong athletic pose
And wrinkles her retrousse' nose....
Oh! would I were her racket press'd
With hard excitement to her breast
And swished into the sunlit air
Arm-high above her tousledhair.... — ('The Olympic Girl')
Elsewhere he writes appreciatively of a 'great big mountainous sports girl', with arms 'as firm and hairy as Hendren's', and the same slightly masochistic element is present in one of his most celebrated poems, 'A Subaltern's Love-song':
Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament — you against me!
The poem goes on to describe a drive:
Into nine-o'clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells,
and a dance in the town:
Oh! full Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl's hand!
the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park: till twenty to one
And now I'm engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.
Such poems have their closest literary parallel, perhaps, in Swinburne who, if he were alive today, might well find the charms of Miss J. Hunter Dunn no less stimulating than those of the famous 'equestrienne', Adah Menken.
For the most part these love-poems are linked with the poet's nostalgia for his childhood and adolescence; he seldom concerns himself with physical sexuality, and when he does tends to relate it to that macabre obsession with old-age and death which has already been noted:
. . I run my fingers down your dress
With brandy-certain aim
And you respond to my caress
And maybe feel the same.
But I've a picture of my own
Of this reunion night,
Wherein two skeletons are shewn
To hold each other tight;
Dark sockets look on emptiness
Which once was loving-eyed,
The mouth that opens for a kiss
Has got no tongue inside.... — ('Late-Flowering Lust')