A Triumphant Misfit
Popular poetry is no longer written. If a person, other than a salaried academic or the recent product of a university Eng. Lit. course, spontaneously quotes a line of poetry at you, the line is unlikely to be less than eighty years old. (In my experience, which to be sure is mostly with fellow conservatives, it will be a line from Kipling about fifty percent of the time.) Yeats, Frost, and Dylan Thomas made faint impressions on the popular consciousness, but after them — they died in 1939, 1963, and 1953, respectively — the rest is silence. The most highly regarded poets of the middle twentieth century were probably W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Bishop. I have never heard either quoted impromptu by a non-academic, even after the boost Auden got from the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. Popular poetry is dead, dead, dead. This is something to do with the age we live in. Just what, exactly, that something is, I leave you to discuss among yourselves.
All of that applies to these United States. In Britain, popular poetry lived on for one more generation, carried forward by two poets: Philip Larkin (1922-85) and John Betjeman (1906-84). I am rather out of touch with things over there now, but I can tell you that any educated British adult you were likely to meet in the 1970s or 1980s had at least half a dozen lines from these two poets in his head. One of the Larkin lines was certainly, if regrettably, "They f— you up, your Mum and Dad." Larkin was a bit of an oddity, and in some ways quite a "modern" poet, with obvious influences from (among others) Auden.
John Betjeman, whose centenary falls this week, is another story altogether. (I note before proceeding that Larkin and Betjeman were both, though in very different ways, profoundly conservative men.)
There is a sketch of John Betjeman's life in that Wikipedia article I linked to above. The best recent essay about him is Brooke Allen's long piece in the March 2005 issue of The New Criterion. I have attempted a couple of readings of his poems, here and here.
Betjeman is, unfortunately, difficult for Americans to read. The main reason is his Englishness. It would be hard to think of a poet more wrapped up in English life, English things, and English places. Places, especially: The fourth edition of Betjeman's Collected Poems (1979) includes an "Index of Places and Counties" running to five full pages. This index lists 370 place names, an average of nearly two per poem. Of the 370 places named, 301 are in England. The rest break down as: Ireland 19, Wales 11, Scotland 7, foreign 32. Everything else is English, too: the cars — Rovers, Cortinas, Aston-Martins; the stores — Timothy White's, Freeman's, MacFisheries; the pastimes — Morris dancing, hunter trials, bell-ringing; and rather especially the religion — Betjeman was a High Church (i.e. smells'n'bells) Anglican.
Aside from all this Englishness, and an engaging TV personality that made him widely known to people who would normally never read poetry at all, the main factor in Betjeman's popular appeal was the simple conservatism of his style. As Brooke Allen notes in her New Criterion piece:
Technically, Betjeman did not advance beyond Tennyson, Praed, or Newbolt. For him, as Philip Larkin wrote (admiringly), "there has been no symbolism, no objective correlative, no T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, no reinvestment in myth …" His subject matter was almost aggressively retrograde.
Practically all Betjeman's verses rhyme, scan, and yield up all their sense at a first reading, if you can get past the Britishisms. He ignored the "modern movement" in poetry altogether.
This is more shocking on this side of the Atlantic than on the other. With a few exceptions like Anthony Burgess (or A.N. Wilson, who is scathing about the matter in his book After the Victorians), literary modernism never got much of a foothold in England. There are all sorts of reasons why this is so. The usual explanation given by American literary professionals — basically, the ingrained philistinism of the English — doesn't quite cover it. Even those of us who think that the English were right on this point find ourselves wondering whether perhaps they were right accidentally.
It is hard to blame the poets. I happen to believe that the Modern Movement was all a ghastly mistake, like communism; and that, as with communism, it will take a century or so to clean up the mess. Now, there can be no forgiving Lenin; but what were poets supposed to do — go on turning out copies of "Snow-Bound" or A Shropshire Lad ? Lapse back into heroic couplets? In art and literature, new things must be tried, old habits challenged, eggs broken in the hope of making omelettes. It is just our bad luck that none of the things tried in the twentieth century worked very well, that the omelettes were all inedible.
— Me, writing about Longfellow
It follows from this that Betjeman is not really the sort of poet you can teach, and he is therefore of no interest to the academic Eng. Lit. clerisy. It is hard to imagine anyone getting a Ph.D. by "interpreting" Betjeman. There is nothing to interpret. Brooke Allen notes that:
The 1993 edition of The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics … made no mention of Betjeman in all of its 1,383 pages. Neither did the 626 pages of A Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature (2001).
To put it another way, Betjeman is not, so far as the academic Eng. Lit. establishment is concerned, important. Presumably the million-odd people who made Betjeman's Collected Poems a best-seller agree with Kingsley Amis that: "In literature, importance is not important, only good writing is."
Betjeman the man was no more difficult to fathom than was his verse. The poet Louis MacNiece, who was at school with him, described him as "a triumphant misfit." He was hopeless as an employee: easily bored, and fundamentally uninterested in being productive or efficient at anything.
Nor was Betjeman at all intellectual. He left Oxford without acquiring a degree. (His tutor was C.S. Lewis, for whom Betjeman developed a strong dislike.) Betjeman belonged, in fact, to that great company of us who very rarely think in any connected way. Charles Moore noted this in his memorial tribute last week:
[Betjeman's] continuing failure to think exasperated his friend Evelyn Waugh, who wrote him brilliant, bullying letters about how his High Church Anglicanism ("a handful of homosexual curates") was "entirely without reason" beside the edifice of (Roman) Catholic truth. But while Betjeman's rather weedy, hand-flapping replies might be taken to prove Waugh right, it is not necessarily a bad thing for a poet to be bad at thinking. Milton could think, and so could Donne, but could Wordsworth, or Gray, or Tennyson? Not many of us are good at thinking …
Not many at all, though this fact must be very deplorable to the intellectuals who have now taken over our culture, our lives, and our society, and who believe themselves, sometimes correctly, to be very good indeed at thinking.
For an American reader who wants to give Betjeman's verse a try, I think the two poems I have attempted to read, and linked to above, are as good as any: "Norfolk," and "Late-Flowering Lust." I mean, if you don't like them, chances are you won't like much else of Betjeman's verse. The poet's entirely un-intellectual approach to religion, the approach that annoyed Evelyn Waugh so much, is on display in his poem "Christmas." (And note, in the first line of this poem, those bells Charles Moore alludes to. You can hardly turn a page of Betjeman's Collected Poems without hearing bells. At the end of one poem — "Bristol" — he actually appends the mathematical pattern of a campanological "plain course." His autobiography, which is in blank verse, has the title Summoned by Bells.)
"Christmas," than which it is hard to imagine anything more Anglican, is a great favorite across the pond. Other Betjeman pieces known by pretty much any educated English person are more "local." A perennial favorite is "Slough." This is the name of a town west of London. At the time the poem was written, in the mid-1930s, Slough was being transformed from the sort of sleepy Victorian country town Betjeman loved into a modern, industrialized outer suburb of the metropolis. The poet expressed his unhappiness in no uncertain terms:
Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!**
Next best known, I would guess, is "A Subaltern's Love-song," a celebration of romance among the upper-middle classes (which supply the British army with most of its subalterns).
Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament — you against me!
(Aldershot is a town in Hampshire, inhabited mainly by officer-class military families.) This poem also celebrates the kind of bossy, sporty, muscular woman that Betjeman himself was attracted to. He married one such, and Brooke Allen has a good anecdote about the marriage:
The German maid who worked for the Betjemans during their early days together initially assumed that John's Christian name was "Shutup," as that was how he was frequently addressed.
Well, there is no accounting for taste, certainly not in this sphere.
I never met Betjeman, though I am sure my colleague David Pryce-Jones did — David's father was a college friend of Betjeman's. I can recall the poet's TV appearances well enough. He seemed always to be laughing, or making others laugh, though there was a strong strain of melancholy in his later verse. One of his most famous utterances came in a TV interview, when he was asked whether there was anything he regretted about his life. "Not enough sex," replied the poet.
What is it about our civilization today, that we no longer produce, no longer can produce, a Betjeman? For centuries the Anglosphere turned out good poets with wide public appeal. Now production has completely dried up. Why? May I be forgiven for it, but sometimes I look out at the world through my computer screen, at the news stories and TV clips and movies and pop music, and find myself murmuring: Swarm over, Death! I suppose this is just the onset of grouchy geezer-hood. I've lost my innocence, of course; but it seems to me we've all lost something, our culture has lost something, this past few years. "How did the Devil come? When first attack?"
** I used the poem as a model for one of my own. Alas, the Betjemanian sentiments — I had applied them to Washington, DC — proved too strong for my editors at NRO.