Wednesday, August 30, 2006

John Betjeman is not a Genius

I used to have no strong feelings about John Betjeman. He is a perfectly decent minor poet of the sort that tends to be much liked by people who don't read much or any poetry. But, of course, he falls miles short of Larkin and cannot be mentioned in the same breath as Auden. Over the last century, there have been dozens and, if we include the Americans, probably hundreds of better poets writing in English. But now, thanks to these perpetual anniversary celebrations, I cannot stand Betjeman. Here, for example, is a piece by a highly intelligent man, Charles Moore, trying to convince me that he is a great poet by describing techniques and devices that Auden would have regarded as little more than the serious poet's equivalent of learning how to spell. Can Moore be serious? Can A.N.Wilson, his biographer and another highly intelligent man, be serious in claiming him as a great religious poet? None of this, of course, is about poetry at all but about politics and cultural prejudice. Betjeman is a fragant figure to a certain type of imagination. And, to everybody else, he provides the illusion that they are reading poetry. I suppose, they are, but it's somehow not enough when they could be leafing through Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery or, come to that, Edward Thomas. But I suppose they are not "accessible".


  1. Until reading that piece by Moore I hadn't realised the wonder of Betjeman. His idea of rhyming words is indeed masterful. A real breakthrough for poetry.
    Being Irish, I haven't been subject to what does seem a bit of a national obsession with Betjeman across the water. For instance, I seem to have noticed more tv programmes on Betjeman over the years than practically all the other poets combined! I presume, judging from my very sparse knowledge of Betjeman's poetry, that it all amounts something of the Queen Mother phenomenon; Betjeman as a living embodiment of the cosy idea of Britain in an increasingly alien society etc.
    "Tweed coats and lemonade
    Absence of goats on the balustrade."
    Am I on the right track?

  2. Spot on, Andrew. We can submit it to A.N.Wilson as a lost JB couplet.

  3. The archive explains a lot, esp all those centenary TV/radio programmes - there's masses of it and he was a v good broadcaster (and brilliant self-publicist). I doubt if anyone actually reads his verse on the page. Is there much of it in print? I shouldn't think so - it doesn't need to be, alas.

  4. Just because he is accessible, doesn't mean he is no good. Keep an open mind old chap, not everyone is as intelligent as you think you are.