It has been suggested in an earlier section of this essay that the hard and fast distinction between 'light' and 'serious' verse is a comparatively modern phenomenon, scarcely to be encountered, in the sense in which we understand it, before the beginning of the nineteenth century. When we speak of light verse nowadays we are likely to have in mind such popular rhymesters as A. P. Herbert and the late A. A. Milne: inheritors of a tradition which goes back through W. S. Gilbert to R. H. Barham and Thomas Hood. John Betjeman, however, can hardly be fitted into this category; on the other hand, he is quite obviously not a 'serious' poet in the sense that we regard Yeats, Eliot or Auden as such, and the recent tendency (exemplified by Lord Birkenhead's preface) to treat him as though he were can only lead to confusion.
In this connection, the 'Variations on a Theme' quoted above is perhaps worth a second glance. If not one of Betjeman's best poems, it is a fairly typical one: characteristically, it is concerned with death; it is also a quiet but devastating satire upon the bleak impersonality of bureaucratic methods; it is, moreover, very much a poem of its time — the post-war period of rationing, coupons, Food Offices and so forth, and its effect depends largely upon these topical references, as well as upon the shop names, Timothy White's, McIlroy's etc. The theme is serious, the tone compassionate, yet it cannot be described as anything but light verse. How, then, is Betjeman to be classified? Is he a mere entertainer, a writer of parodies and pieces "d'occasion", or is he to be regarded as a serious literary artist?
One is tempted to answer 'yes' to both questions, for at this best Betjeman is a poet of true originality who has extended the range of our perceptions and sensibilities; on the other hand, his verse is 'light' in the sense that it is unfailingly readable and entertaining. Perhaps he can best be described as a writer who uses the medium of light verse for a serious purpose: not merely as a vehicle for satire or social commentary, but as a means of expressing a peculiar and specialized form of aesthetic emotion, in which nostalgia and humour are about equally blended. In this respect, he may be compared with Firbank, whose nostalgic passion for the 'fin de siege' was balanced by his capacity for poking fun at it. Betjeman, it should be emphasized, is, like Firbank, a pure aesthete, and some of his more eccentric enthusiasms recall the perverse and often quasi-masochistic tastes of Huysmans's des Esseintes: the frisson which, for example, he obtains from the station buffet at Baker Street is comparable with that experienced by Huysmans's hero at the English 'Bodega' in the Rue d'Amsterdam.
Betjeman's particular blend of fun and nostalgia, of irony and romantic feeling, is not wholly a novelty: it is already implicit in other, earlier writers of this century, in Firbank, for example, or the early T. S. Eliot, and is perhaps peculiar to — and symptomatic of — our age. What is really remarkable about John Betjeman is his capacity to pin down, to codify as it were, this ambivalent state of mind, and to give expression to it in terms which are not only subtle and precise, but easily intelligible to a wide public.
Betjeman is an unequal poet, not only in his prosodic technique, but in the quality of his imagination. On the whole he is least good when he is trying to be most serious; some of the 'funny' poems, on the other hand ('Sun and Fun', 'How to get on in Society'), hardly rise above the level of the more sophisticated kind of revue lyric. A poem such as 'Seaside Golf' might well have been the work of some anonymous Punch contributor in the twenties or thirties: it is good light verse, and that is all one can say for it — or almost all, for the joke of the poem (which is not in itself particularly funny) lies, for the addict, in the mere fact that John Betjeman, that arch-aesthete, should play golf at all, much less write poems in praise of it. Esotericism in literature could hardly, one feels, be carried further.
In the early poems the occasional awkwardness of scansion can be rather endearing; in the later pieces such lapses, when they occur, are inclined to jar, because we have learned to expect a greater technical proficiency:
I pulled aside the thick magenta curtains
— so Regency, so Regency, my dear —
And a host of little spiders
Ran a race across the ciders
To a box of baby 'pollies by the beer.... — ('Sun and Fun: The Song of a Nightclub Proprietress')
Here the final line spoils the effect of the stanza, for 'beer' is plainly put in for the sake of the rhyme, and blurs the visual image evoked in the previous couplet; since we do not know where the beer was standing, we are no wiser as to the exact position of the 'baby' Collies' in relation to it. Such criticism may seem pedantic, but such verses as these, if they are to be fully effective, demand the impeccable neatness of execution which one finds in a good limerick.
Betjeman's latest work is a long autobiographical poem covering his childhood, his schooldays and his career at Oxford. Summoned by Bells is in blank verse, and on the whole he manages this difficult form with great success: the scansion is above reproach, and the diction adequate if a little flat. As always, the poem is continuously entertaining, but one cannot help feeling that Betjeman works best on a smaller scale, and one misses (apart from a few interpolated poems) the complex stanza-forms and rhyme-patterns of the shorter pieces. Since, moreover, most of his earlier work is autobiographical, the book strikes one, here and there, as being a trifle repetitive.
John Betjeman, as we have seen, cannot conveniently be fitted into any literary category, yet if one were compelled to name some other poet with whom he might be compared, one's choice might well fall — improbable though it seems — on Rudyard Kipling. Poles apart though they are in the quality and range of their sensibility and in their attitudes to life and literature, both are poets who have written light verse in a manner which transcends the limitations of their medium. Both, moreover, are conservative by temperament and, in their very different ways, extremely patriotic; both, too, are totally independent of — and largely indifferent to the avant garde writing of their respective periods. Both, finally, have achieved an enormous popularity among the sort of people who would never, in the ordinary way, think of opening a book of verse.
John Betjeman has been compared, in the course of this essay, with Firbank and Huysmans on the one hand, with Kipling on the other; the very fact that he should suggest comparisons so disparate and apparently so incongruous, is perhaps the measure of his originality, both as a social phenomenon and as a writer.