Monday, April 30, 2007

Betejeman Book Review

by John McCaughey

Dr. Ramsden cannot read The Times obituary
He's dead.
Let monograms on silk worms by other people
Thrown away
For he who best could understand and criticize
them, he
Lies clay
In bed.

Sometimes, actually, you can judge a book by its cover. The dust jacket of Andrew Wilson's new Life of the great English poet John Betjeman* far from employing the conventional image of the merry, gleeful, teddy-bear- hugging poet shows a middle-aged man slumped in a heavy overcoat and black felt hat with an expression glum and even despairful. It is a clever play on the clown-as-tragedian theme: a theme that Wilson often touches upon in his book.

Poet Laureate John Betjeman was by far the most popular English poet of the 20th century---more popular, certainly, than the great but more intellectual William Butler Yeats. Interestingly, both men were in effect foreigners: Yeats being Irish and Betjeman coming from German roots. But, unlike the rubbish that is peddled today, their poetry rhymed, scanned and made sense. Indeed, some of Betjeman's best poems are set in Ireland where, during World War II, he worked at the British Embassy in Dublin.

Many poets spend 60 years writing poetry and never produce a memorable line---even (as one would have thought probable) were they to have done so by accident. Betjeman rarely wrote anything bad and perhaps a third of what he wrote was exceptionally good. His work sold: two million copies of his Collected Poems, exciting the jealousy and rage of his pseudish and less-talented rivals.

And it was accessible. Still today there is hardly a drinker in the saloon bar of an English pub who could not recite the famous opening lines of one of his poems:

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough
It is not fit for humans now....

Even the inhabitants of that benighted London suburb enjoyed the joke. And people in pubs tend to enjoy a joke and a rattling good rhyme.

Architecture, English tradition, elegies of a vanishing past, the Church of England, wry humor and a certain gloom were the leitmotifs and the appeal of Betjeman's poems.

In architecture, he was a tireless defender of the great classic buildings (most especially churches) then being torn down in a vandalistic, profiteering frenzy of destruction after World War II, a frenzy which peaked in the 1960s.

In religion, he was a devout follower of High Church Anglicalism and such associated literary masterpieces as The Book of Common Prayer.

And the Anglican Church in its way paid him back. The book of Hymns Ancient and Modern was the source of some of his best poems. In a significant way as well, so was the old music hall. It was an interesting admixture.

Betjeman won national fame and relative prosperity by his early employment of television documentaries to save precious buildings and old churches. It was hard work: the making of TV documentaries is a far more time-consuming and difficult art than people realize. But he was a natural and, in effect, directed his own shows. Earlier, he had been a well-paid gossip columnist and film critic for the newspapers.

In melancholy, he strove never to show it but was privately tormented. Publicly, he practised mirth. He spoke for the best of an Old England that has now largely vanished in the tsunami of yobs and yuptrash, hoodies and hooliganism.

The body waits in Pembrooke College
Where the ivy taps the panes
All night;
That old head so full of knowledge,
That good heart that kept the brains
All right,
Those old cheeks that faintly flushed as the port
suffused the veins,
Drain'd white.

Crocus in the Fellows' Garden, winter jasmine
up the wall
Gleam gold.
Shadows of Victorian chimneys on the sunny
grassplot fall
Long, cold.
Master, Bursar, Senior Tutor, these, his three
survivors, all
Feel old.

Betjeman's love life was tempestuous but mainly a menage a trois : he loved his wife (although, to his deep grief, she later became a Roman Catholic). Penelope, the wife, was no respecter of persons. For a year, because she spoke no English, the German cook at the Betjeman home believed that John Betjeman's name was "Shut Up" because that was how his wife invariably addressed him.

But Betjeman also loved Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of a duke and a Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Margaret, the Queen's sister. In France, this would have excited little comment. In England, it was considered odd.

Both women were aware of the situation and from time to time they kicked a bit. His wife suggested divorce but Betjeman said that his religion forbade it. The poet could never be induced to choose between the two women and continued to patronise them both. He was, writes Wilson, "very nearly always in love, often unsuitably." He was in love with love.

They remember as the coffin to its final obsequations
Leaves the gates,
Buzz of bees in window boxes on their summer
Kitchen din.

Cups and plates,
And the getting of bump suppers for the long
dead generations
Coming in,
From Eights.

That poem honored Doctor Walter Ramsden of Pembroke College, Oxford University, who died on March 26, 1947. But Betjeman might just as well have been writing his own In Memoriam.

His was a curious life: more contradictory than most of us, deep into religious tradition, into architecture, into literature, publicly merry but privately melancholic and even timorous. Yet he was the finest poet of his generation---light years better than the hopeless rivals who denigrated his success as "coffee table" fame. All his life he inspired love and loyalty and he had a gift for maintaining friendships that few people possess.

*Betjeman: A Life by A.N. Wilson. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. $27.00.

(1000 words)


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home