Collected Poems by John Betjeman9 March 2008
I ended up rewriting this review from scratch…which was hardly a loss, as it meant I had a much better chance to go back and revisit some of my favourites out of this collection.
Collected Poems by John Betjeman
John Betjeman (1906-1984) is one of those poets whose works are either loved or loathed. I’m fond of many of his poems, but I can see how other people would find them twee or overly sentimental — they tend to call upon a romanticised version of an England of the past, redolent of Ovaltine at bedtime and bicycles on country lanes and salt-stained lodging houses along the seaside. But there’s a faded sort of sadness to many of his poems, a sense that even this romantic past is seldom as lovely as we would like it be.
I believe that Betjeman himself spoke of his Collected Poems as being more ‘verse’ than ‘poetry’, and it is not difficult to see why. He has an ear for rhythm and rhyme that at times is more suited to a music hall than a formal poetry recitation, often bordering on outright doggerel. His personal tastes come through quite clearly, as in this excerpt from ‘May-Day Song for North Oxford’ which highlights his longstanding dislike of former tutor C.S. Lewis:
Oh! well-bound Wells and Bridges! Oh! earnest ethical search!
For the wide high-table λογος of St. C.S. Lewis’s Church!
This diamond-eyed Spring morning my soul soars up the slope
Of a right good rough-cast buttress on the housewall of my hope.
Betjeman’s distaste for redevelopment and modern planning show up in many poems in this collection, such as his semi-notorious call for ‘friendly bombs’ to fall on Slough and his sharp parodies of young executives and bureaucrats. Yet mixed in with the doses of vitriol are some of his brighter poems, such as the bouncing joy of ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’, and more sombre pieces like ‘Devonshire Street W.1’. The Collected Poems show off the range of Betjeman’s work, the silly and the sad together, and provide a fine single volume of most of the best-known poems of this popular Poet Laureate.
On my recent research trip, I stopped by the newly renovated St Pancras Station to take a photograph of the Betjeman statue that has a place of honour inside the station hall. Betjeman fought to preserve the station from being torn down in the mid-1960s, and the statue attempts to capture him, with a heavy bag in hand and his coat caught in the breeze from a passing train, as he stops to look up at the great vaulted ceiling of the station. I think my photograph came out rather nicely.