John Betjeman: Collected Poems by John Betjeman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Almost exactly two years ago, in the summer of 2019, my wife and I travelled to Europe. One of our stops was the "booktown" of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, near the English border. We were staying in the Cotswolds and Wales was about 45 minutes away. I have some Welsh heritage (with rumors of some familial connection to Lord Tennyson, though I was never able to pin my mother down about details on this before she died), and I was DEFINITELY interested in buying books while I was over there, as my tastes run to the British and, well, those types of books are obviously more easily available in the UK.
After visiting I-don't-remember-how-many bookstores (there are over 20 of them in that village of under 2000 people!), we stopped in one last little shop, a little out of the way from the rest. I bought a copy of Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration that had caught my eye. That was the last book I bought in Hay-on-Wye before we left town for our AirBnB back in the Cotswolds.
But on our way out of that little shop, a book caught my eye for no particular reason other than that it was facing out from one of the shelves I was passing by and I wanted to soak in every tiny detail before I left this slice of heaven on earth, probably for the last time in my life. It was a copy (not the edition I'm reviewing here) of John Betjeman's Collected Poems. I had honestly never heard of the man. Yes, he was the Poet Laureate of United Kingdom until his death in 1984 (one year before I arrived in the country as a teenager for my three-year stay there) and I probably should have heard of him. But back then, I was more interested in Motorhead and marijuana than poetry, so . . .
I read the back cover, flipped through a couple of pages (under the watchful eyes of the shop owner, who was, I think, eager to get the store closed up, but too polite to kick this brash American out of her establishment) and was surprised to find *gasp!* rhyming poetry! I took a mental note of the name and left the shop, later adding the book to my Goodreads To Be Read list.
I don't rightly recall when I ordered the book, but I do recall ordering Major Poems and Selected Prose of Algernon Charles Swinburne at the same time (yes, through Amazon, I must admit, which I usually try to avoid, truth be told, but it was during Covid and it was a weak moment). This will become important later . . .
And not long after it arrived, I began reading. Yes, my memory had served me correctly, the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, against all academic protocol (possibly intentionally, given his tumultuous relation to the academy) wrote in rhyming verse . . . almost exclusively! Only one of the poems, "Before the Lecture," is not written in rhymed stanzas, until one comes to his epic biographical work "Summoned by Bells," which is written in free verse. Both "Before the Lecture" and "Summoned by Bells" cover his relationship with the academy (and his heartache about having to drop out of Oxford, more specifically - this shall also become important in a moment), so perhaps he wanted to speak "their language" so that they could understand exactly how he felt about them? We'll never know.
Despite the "quaintness" of the rhyming, and sometimes because of it, Betjeman shows an incredible breadth, depth, and power in his writings. For example, "Original Sin on the Sussex Coast" is an unsubtle reminder that childhood is not the age of innocence you might think it to me. Betjeman is a poet, but he's not naive. On the contrary, his slices of life sometimes cut deep.
"1940," a gut-wrenching poem about the horrors of war, demonstrates this quite well.
As I lay in the bath the air was filling with bells;
Over the steam of the window, out in the sun,
From the village below came hoarsely the patriot yells
And I knew that the next World War had at last begun.
As I lay in the bath I saw things clear in my head:
Ten to one they'd not bother to bomb us here,
Ten to one that they'd make for the barracks instead -
As I lay in the bath, I certainly saw things clear.
As I started to dry, came a humming of expectation;
Was it the enemy planes or was it young Jack
And the rest of the gang who have passed in their aviation
Setting across to Berlin to make an attack?
As the water gurgled away I put o a shirt,
I put on my trousers, and parted what's left of my hair,
And the humming above increased to a roaring spurt
And a shuddering thud drove all the bells from the air,
And a shuddering thud drove ev'rything else to silence.
There wasn't a sound, there wasn't a soul on the street,
There wasn't a wall to the house, there wasn't a staircase;
There was only the bathroom linoleum under my feet.
I called, as I always do, I called to Penelope,
I called to the strong with the petulant call of the weak;
There lay the head and the brown eyes dizzily open,
And the mouth apart but the tongue unable to speak;
There lay the nut-shaped head that I love for ever,
The thin little neck, the turned-up nose and the charms
Of pouting lips and lashes and circling eyebrows;
But where was the body? and where the legs and arms?
And somewhere about I must seek in the broken building
Somewhere about they'll probably find my son.
Oh bountiful Gods of the air! Oh Science and Progress!
You great big wonderful world! Oh what have you done?
Betjeman is not limited to the tragic, however, his work spans the full gamut of human emotion and experience. It's as if no corner of life goes unexplored, whether happy or sad, dark or light, private or public. I cannot fully explain the full breadth of the man's mind. Betjeman, as they say, contains multitudes.
While in the midst of discovering Betjeman and marveling at his ability to work within the strictures of rhyme while teasing out some of the most evocative, emotive series of words I've read, I listened to my favorite podcast, Weird Studies, when they aired episode 103: On the Tower, the Sixteenth Card of the Tarot. As part of that discussion, JF Martel and Phil Ford talk about the "miracle" that poetry is, that enobling meaning can come from such an intentionally-constrained exercise as writing a rhyming poem. This miracle is plainly evident in Betjeman's poetry. I would say that it is Magic.
About Magic: say what you will about chance, but when a number of seeming "coincidences" line up in a row in strange, but seemingly intentional ways, you might see an interesting stochastic structure, but I see Magic.
Magic, for some reason I cannot define, often happens in "threes". This is how it manifested when I read the last section of this book, "Summoned by Bells," Betjeman's free-verse biographical sketch.
Now, I admit to feeling a bit of a kinship with the man, simply by connections - connections that only I know, but he does not (that I know of): We were both failed academics who had to drop out of school (this is why I have an MA and not a PhD, though I count my lucky stars that I never did become a professor, which sounds like Hell-on-Earth the more I learn about it). We were literary-minded and shared the same disposition when it came to school, sports, and being bullied as children. We both balked at our respective father's vocation while young, and in fact, a little older, rebelled against the person himself rather openly and brashly, until, later in life, we saw the honor of our fathers' careers and, I believe, the honor in our fathers.
I say this to make it clear that I don't come at this from an unbiased position. But I can't characterize the experience of reading this last section as anything less than Magic, or I would be a liar to myself.
"Summoned by Bells" is a chronological (I think - correct me if I'm wrong) recounting of Betjeman's life from early childhood in London, through a stay in Cornwall, school at Oxford, and time spent in the Cotswolds to the west.
The account isn't always flattering. In fact, it often shows Betjeman's weakest points of character. I love that in a couple of his biographical sketches Betjrman effectively says "Look what I got away with. I'm not proud of it, but I'm a clever coward." His candor is endearing. He was a brave man to share these experiences. I dont know that I'm as brave. A tip of the hat to a vulnerable trickster; deceptive, but self-effacing.
And yet, at times, serious. Maybe too serious. He recounts:
The smell of trodden leaves beside the Kennet,
On Sunday walks, with Swinburne in my brain
And it struck me: The Swinburne Connection. I was reading Swinburne and Betjeman at the same time. I had earlier noted the strong affinity between the two in their form of expression (though one was far more atavistic than the other). Here, I saw the connection explicit, direct.
You may call it self-suggestion, or perhaps my brain making the subliminal connection between the two in my subconscious until I saw the name "Swinburne" in the Betjeman book with my conscious mind and made a neurological connection.
I still call it Magic.
One of the reasons I so wanted to go to Hay-0n-Wye is because I am a fan of Arthur Machen, the Welsh author of The Great God Pan, among other works. In fact, I picked up a copy of The Hill of Dreams while there. In every bookshop we stopped in, the name I looked for was "Machen". I had hoped, nay, lusted to buy a Machen book while in Wales. Thankfully, and oddly enough in a town with over 20 bookstores, I eventually found this volume in a little horror bookstore, almost tucked behind the counter on a small round table quite hidden unless you moved a certain way around the counter. It was a quest halfway across the world to find this hidden book!
So, imagine my surprise when Betjeman mentions Machen's Secret Glory and it's obvious that it had a powerful impact on him. I liked this man even more. I was sad to know we would never meet. And, yet, through this Magic, we kind of do.
The day before my wife and I would leave the UK, flying for Germany and Austria, we took a long hike, twelve miles, through the English countryside, crawling the Monarch Trail through the Cotswolds. You can read about that whole "adventure" here. Little did I know, two years ago, that I was setting the world in motion for the next Magic connection between Betjeman and myself.
Toward the end of "Summoned by Bells," Betjeman mentions, quite out of the blue, I thought, and goes on at length about, Sezincote, a wonderful piece of architecture that my wife and I stumbled across on our grueling hike in the Cotswolds in 2019 (I even have a photo of Sezincote in my Cotswolds post).
And soon he mentions Bourton-on-the-Hill, which is the village where we stopped for lunch at a pub that we fell in love with. And he mentions Longborough. And Moreton-in-Marsh - the EXACT route of our widdershins trek through the Cotswolds. Again, so-called "coincidences" occurring one after another is, in my eyes, Magic. Reading this book of poetry is, for me, weaving a powerful spell! The more I learned about Betjeman, the more I felt like I had been unknowingly summoning his ghost my entire life.
I should like to one day meet John Betjeman in some kind of afterlife. We would have a lot in common, we would share similar stories with differing details, I would likely find him affable, likeable, perhaps even brotherly.
And yet, I shall never, ever be able to write as well as the man.
He is infinitely approachable and yet eternally untouchable.
View all my reviews