IV Poetic Style
John Betjeman by Jocelyn Brooke

John Betjeman, one imagines, is bored by politics and by public affairs in general, except in so far as they help or hinder those causes which are nearest his heart (and for which he has done much useful work), such as the preservation of ancient—or not so ancient—buildings, and of the English countryside. By temperament he is a last-ditch Tory, far more deeply conservative than even the most right-wing member of the Party which bears that name today; yet this conservatism is almost purely aesthetic, and his hatred of 'progress' implies no inhumanity or class-prejudice on his part. What it does imply, one may suppose, is a profound pessimism, a deep-rooted distrust of the intellectual assumptions which govern our present way of life. Mr. Betjeman, one feels, wants people to be happy rather than not; but how (he would argue) can true happiness be achieved in a world growing daily uglier, a world of processed food and processed thinking, in which our natural responses become more and more inhibited, our capacity for enjoyment less keens Mr. Betjeman would say that our sole hope of regeneration lies in the Christian religion (he is himself a staunch Anglican), but it is fairly clear from his writings that he considers the hope a forlorn one, and that our increasingly materialistic society is un-likely to undergo any such change of heart. Certainly he is no earnest salvationist, and in his poetry his personal convictions are implied unobtrusively, often by means of ironic understatement:

Not the folk-museum's charting of man's Progress out of slime
Can release me from the painful seeming accident of Time....
Not my vegetarian dinner, not my lime-juice minus gin,
Quite can drown a faint conviction that we may be born in Sin.—('Huxley Hall')

This poem is of course a skit on Tennyson's 'Locksley Hall', and something should here be said about Betjeman's use of parody and his habitual borrowings from other poets. Not even his warmest admirers could claim that in his choice of metre and stanza-form he is anything but traditional, derivative and reactionary. The modern movement initiated by Pound and Eliot has passed him by, and it would be almost true to say that, formally speaking, he has never written a wholly original poem. His originality, in fact, is a matter not of technique but of thought and sensibility: thus, in his parodies of Victorian poets, his purpose is not so much to poke fun at his models as to point the contrast between their world and ours; just so did James Joyce, more pretentiously, attempt to portray modern Dublin in terms of Homer's Odyssey. Tennyson is a favourite, so is Longfellow, there are echoes of Kipling and Newbolt, and often, too, of minor nineteenth-century poets who have been all but forgotten. In 'Love in a Valley' he adopts the metre of Meredith's poem of the same title, though the Surrey he describes is hardly that of Meredith:

Take me, Lieutenant, to that Surrey homestead!
Red comes the winter and your rakish car,
Red among the hawthorns, redder than the hawberries
And trails of old man's nuisance, and noisier far.
Far, far below me roll the Coulsdon woodlands,
White down the valley curves the living rail,
Tall, tall, above me, olive spike the pinewoods,
Olive against blue-black, moving in the gale....

Characteristically, a footnote informs us that Coulsdon is reached by 'Southern Electric 25 mins. ', and this brings us to an important—perhaps the most important—aspect of Betjeman's work: his intense preoccupation with topographical detail. Turning the pages of his Collected Poems, one is struck by the fact that almost every other poem has a place-name for title, or if it has not, contains some specific reference to particular towns, villages or suburbs. Camberley, Croydon, Westgate-on-Sea, Slough, Bristol, Upper Lambourne, Harrow-on-the-Hill the list, if completed, would probably account for at least half of Betjeman's poetic output. One almost feels that, like primitive people and children, he finds it difficult if not impossible to think of any material entity in the abstract: such concepts as 'The English Village' or 'The Suburbs' would be meaning-less to him, he can only grasp them in terms of some particular village or suburb, with its own special atmosphere, its sights, smells, peculiarities of architecture and so on; and how precisely he catches those mysterious emanations of the genius loci which make a particular locality just a little different from other and outwardly similar ones:

Belbroaghton Road is bonny, and pinkly bursts the spray
Of prunus and forsythia across the public way,
For a full spring-tide of blossom seethed and departed hence
Leaving land-locked pools of jonquils by sunny garden fence.
And a constant sound of flushing runneth from windows where
The toothbrush too is airing in this new North Oxford air
From Summerfields to Lynam's, the thirsty tarmac dries,
And a Cherwell mist dissolveth on elm-discovering skies.—('May-day Song for North Oxford')

North Oxford, it may be said, is not a neighbourhood which has inspired many poets, but for anyone who has read this poem, Belbroughton Road will never be quite the dull respectable thoroughfare that it seemed before. Note, incidentally, the personal and semi-private references: 'Lynam's', for example, a boys' preparatory school called thus by its 'ex-alumni' after the first headmaster, but officially known as The Dragon School.

This habit of Particularisation is not confined to topography. It might be said of Betjeman that he never, if he can help it, calls a spade a spade: if he happened to be writing about spades, as likely as not he would refer to them by the name of their manufacturer. For example, he seldom speaks of a motor-car tout court: it is nearly always an Arrol-Johnston, a Hupmobile, a Hillman Minx and so forth. Similarly with clothes, shampoos, lemonade, marmalade etc., etc.: nearly all are given their brand-names or those of their makers—e.g., Windsmoor, Drene, Kia-Ora, Cooper's Oxford. This, of course, helps to date the poems, and is doubtless meant to: for instance, in Summoned by Bells Betjeman mentions Cook's Farm Eggs, a form of egg-substitute in use during the First World War and (so far as the present writer is aware) not obtainable since. Such names—especially those of cars—are often deftly employed, too, to indicate the social status of those who own or use the product referred to. Whether this device is justifiable is perhaps a doubtful point; but Betjeman might well argue that previous writers—including Shakespeare— have been free with their local and topical references. In certain poems the method seems wholly successful, as for example in 'Variations on a Theme by T. W. Rolleston', in which the names of chain-stores in the London Suburbs and the Home Counties resound like the muffled tolling of a passing-bell. The poem is perhaps worth quoting in full, if only because it is unaccountably missing from the Collected Poems (although it reappears in the recent paperback edition):

Under the ground, on a Saturday afternoon in winter
Lies a mother of five,
And frost has bitten the purple November rose flowers
Which budded when she was alive.
They have switched on the street lamps here by the cemetery railing;
In the dying afternoon
Men from football, and women from Timothy White's and McIlroy's
Will be coming teawards soon.
But her place is empty in the queue at the International,
The greengrocer's queue lacks one,
So does the crowd at Mac Fisheries. There's no one to go to Freeman's
To ask if the shoes are done.
Will she, who was so particular, be glad to know that after
The tears, the prayers and the priest,
Her clothing coupons and ration book were handed in at the Food Office
For the files marked 'deceased'?
« NEXT » « John Betjeman » « Biographies » « Library »