Sir John B etjeman. Final poetry analysis. Biography.
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Sir John Betjeman (1906-84) was one of Britain’s best-loved poets during the 20th century. He was also a BBC broadcaster and preservationist whose love of old buildings and tradition informed much of his work. Betjeman was born and raised in London, but the time he spent in rural Cornwall was very influential to his writing as well. He attended Oxford, where he was tutored by C.S. Lewis, but did not receive a degree. His first book of poetry, Mount Zion, was published in 1931, and would go on to write nearly two dozen collections, as well as numerous works of nonfiction about history and architecture. He became a member of the Anglican Church at a young age, and the Church of England figured heavily in his poetry. So did his decades-long affair with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish (although Betjeman remained married and had two children). Betjeman became Britain’s Poet Laureate in 1972, and achieved even greater fame through a series of BBC specials he filmed in the 1970s that called attention to historic and endangered sites. He also recorded several albums of spoken-word poetry, reaching out to younger listeners through rock music-related arrangements. Betjeman, who always dismissed his poetry as the work of a “hack,” suffered from Parkinson’s disease and died in 1984, but his legacy survives in part through the patronage of many famous fans, including the singer Morrissey.
In the poetry of John Betjeman, imagery often takes the form of reverent depictions of nature and withering descriptions of the modern world. A good example of this contrast comes in the poem “Cornish Cliffs,” filled with images of freshness and light (“the shadowless, unclouded glare”) and an implied contrast with the man-made objects (the “gun emplacement of the last war,” which looks older than the timeless natural objects around it). Betjeman also casts a dubious eye at modernity in “Slough,” which gives us the image of everything – even thoughts and breath – being “tinned” today, and says that we’d be better off with “grass to graze the cow” and “cabbages.” And the imagery of “The City” also paints an unflattering picture of today’s businessmen, with their “awkward hips” and “plump white fingers.” In Betjeman’s poetry, this duality of images underscores one of his major themes: the superiority of the old ways, and the often-problematic nature of the new things replacing them.
Undoubtedly, one reason for Betjeman’s popularity was that he often wrote in rhyme and used regular metrical patterns. (It was also a reason he thought of his verse as “light” and considered himself a “hack.”) However, Betjeman used this combination and end rhyme and meter to create different effects in his poetry. Sometimes, as in “Cornish Cliffs,” these qualities lend the poem (written in iambic pentameter) an ease that compliments the relaxed setting. At other times, the rhyme and meter contrast with the serious subject matter (“The City,” and its tales of cheating businessmen, written mostly in iambic tetrameter, or “Slough,” which cheerfully wishes for annihilation of a modernized village, and is written in alternating iambic tetrameter and dimeter) to sweeten the bitter pill of Betjeman’s message. Betjeman sometimes wrote in formal styles, but more often he adapted them (“Slough”’s ballad-like structure) into his own forms, maintaining rhyme and meter to keep his poems accessible.
Betjeman frequently adopted the persona of radically different characters, often to offer views that contrasted sharply with his own. In “In Westminster Abbey,” he takes the persona of an impatient elderly woman, whom we learn believes she has a special status with God. In “Executive,” he adopts the point of view of a rising young businessman who is full of himself. And in “The Lift Man” and “The Retired Postal Clerk,” he speaks as those characters to get across thoughts about societal hypocrites (“Lift”), and to paint a picture of a widowed man’s family dilemmas. (“Postal Clerk”)
In many cases, when Betjeman adopts a persona, he does so to express a viewpoint we understand is the opposite of his own. In “Executive” and “The Town Clerk’s Views,” he takes on characters who wish to tear down old structures and take obvious pleasure in modernity. In “In Westminster Abbey,” meanwhile, the character he inhabits is deeply unpleasant and hypocritical in her religious views. In all cases, the views expressed are different than those Betjeman held, and we can see from the unflattering portraits he paints that we are to view these characters with scorn, not admiration.
In the poetry of John Betjeman, we see the use of imagery; meter and rhyme; persona and an ironic tone, all in support of Betjeman’s major themes: the importance of preserving the buildings and traditions of Old England, and the complicated relationship we often have with Christianity (the Church of England in particular).