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Betjeman: A Life
by A.N. Wilson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pages, $27

John Betjeman was the most popular British poet of the twentieth century. Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984, he won the affection of the British middle classes, and his books were bestsellers at a time when poetry had generally ceased to sell.

He owed this success mostly to the fact that he was of the middle classes and spoke to them. Between the wars, in the Indian summer of the British Empire, when most people expected change and looked to the future with anxiety, he wrote without pretense or affectation about a vanishing world”as in “A Subaltern’s Love-Song,” one of his best-known poems:

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!
Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.
. . .

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till
twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

Last year was the centenary of Betjeman’s birth, which marked an upsurge of interest in his life and work”particularly with the new biography by the popular writer A.N. Wilson. Betjeman: A Life is a well-written book that follows no strict chronological sequence but captures and holds the reader’s interest throughout, painting a rich picture both of Betjeman and of Middle England in the last century.

Betjeman’s ancestors were cabinetmakers who emigrated from Holland to the East End of London in the eighteenth century and by the time of his birth were prosperous middle-class manufacturers. After public school at Marlborough, Betjeman went to Magdalen, most beautiful of Oxford’s colleges, where he liked to play the part of an aesthete. “He was,” says Wilson, “a melancholic introvert with an exhibitionistic ­compulsion,” and his frivolity and indolence did not endear him to his tutor, the ascetic C.S. Lewis. He was sent down without taking a degree, a source of much regret in later life.

Always aspirational, Betjeman married a social superior, Penelope Chetwode, daughter of the British commander in chief in India. They stayed married but lived mostly apart in later years after he took as his mistress Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of the tenth duke of Devonshire and lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret (who became another close friend).

Betjeman’s hunger for social acceptance did not, however, make him a snob. Throughout his life he cultivated a broad and ever-growing circle of friends, and his loyalty to them was striking when they disgraced themselves, as they were prone to do, by their sexual, social, or political misconduct. Even the fascist Sir Oswald Mosley was never abandoned.

Asked toward the end of his life what was his principal regret, he answered, “Not enough sex,” and Wilson must have been delighted to receive from Eve de Harben a letter from the poet to Honor Tracy, a lover during the war. Never very discreet in his conduct, Betjeman rarely incriminated himself in writing, always fearful, as he often observed, of “being found out,” a fear that perhaps extended further than his romantic affairs. “Love has given me a miss for so long, and now this miracle has happened. Sex is a part of it,” the letter explained. What biographer could resist?

Alas, the letter was a fake. It is an acrostic, the first letter of each sentence spelling out an abusive message, and Eve de Harben is an anagram of “Ever been had?” The perp was Bevis Hillier, an earlier biographer of Betjeman, whose work had been treated with insufficient respect by Wilson. So much for the maturity of the British literary establishment. Wilson has declared his intention of expunging all references to the offending letter at the first opportunity, so possibly this edition will become a collector’s item.

Throughout his life, Betjeman was a committed high-church Anglican, and his religious and social life were interconnected. He was devastated when his wife, encouraged by their friend Evelyn Waugh, converted to Roman Catholicism. He professed his love thereafter, but the marriage survived only in name, and in later years Elizabeth Cavendish was his real love.

His interests were wide-ranging. He edited the Shell Guides , early tourist guides to the English counties, and served on the staff of the Architectural Review , with a strong interest in conservation, particularly of Victorian architecture and especially of churches. In later life he became a television personality. But his main achievement was his poetry, and he was easily the most popular British poet of his time. He published about two hundred poems, and Wilson reckons about thirty of these were good, bravely naming them. For the rest, Wilson notes, “if most of Betjeman’s poems were suits, you would say that they needed at least two more fittings at the tailor’s.”

Betjeman could be both brittle and superficial, as in his often-quoted poem that begins: 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! Such sentiments did not endear him to the citizens of Slough, while Thomas Gray, slumbering in neighboring Stoke Poges, no doubt rotated ponderously in his grave as he contemplated this riposte to his Elegy .

Betjeman’s public poetry could be pretty awful, for example his verses on the investiture of the Prince of Wales: Then, sir, you said what shook me through / So that my courage almost fails: / “I want a poem out of you / On my investiture in Wales.” As Wilson points out, it reads like a job application. Nor”in common with most poets”did he find it easy to write well on subjects close to his heart. In Memory of Basil, Marquess of Dufferin and Ava , concerning the wartime death of a dear friend, is as bathetic in places as Wordsworth on a bad day.

Poets are rarely closely wedded to the truth, and Betjeman is often at his best when dealing with subjects that engage his fancy more than his heart”“In a Bath Teashop,” for instance:

“Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another”
Let us hold hands and look.”
She such a very ordinary little woman;
He such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
In the teashop’s ingle-nook.

It was a casual flirtation. He was no thumping crook, and she no ordinary little woman, or at any rate she objected to being so described; yet in this short poem he addresses the redeeming power of love, and what is left unsaid?

His voice is often compelling when he deals with doubts. Although religion was a defining element in his life, he was afflicted with great uncertainty and an extreme fear of death. He knew that doubt is a necessary counterpoint to faith, and the inner conflict inspired some of his finest work, such as his lovely Christmas :

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for
. . .

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with the single Truth compare”
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

His long autobiographical poem Summoned by Bells was a bestseller, with a first printing of eighty thousand copies; but, says Wilson, “the critics dipped their pens in vitriol.” Some dismissed him as lightweight and populist: “Tear-in-the-eye whimsicality is not poetry,” said Julian Symons, writing in Punch , while John Wain in the Observer saw Betjeman’s popularity as “merely one more sign that the mass middle-brow public distrusts and fears poetry.”

Betjeman’s friend Philip Larkin, however, admired the poem for its “splendid competence” and its “imaginative and precise evocation” of the past, and he upbraided the critics for their envy of Betjeman’s popularity.

Wilson cuts to the heart of the matter:

Larkin’s admiration for Betjeman was heartfelt, and it was reciprocated, Betjeman admiring the competence and control of Larkin’s own verse, as well, of course, as its relentlessly pessimistic content. It should not be supposed that Larkin merely liked Betjeman as part of his innate Toryism. He really admired him as a craftsman and saw how cleverly his poetry was made. At a time when confessional poetry such as Sylvia Plath’s was fashionable, and the Beat poets beginning to make their mark, while sour old hangovers, imitating the great modernists but having none of their skill, tried to produce their own slim costive volumes, Betjeman and Larkin stand out not simply as two poets who were intelligible, but as two poets who valued, as all the great poets of the past had done, form . Larkin could also see that what made Betjeman’s poetry live was an absolutely transparent sincerity.

Shy though Larkin was, Betjeman persuaded him twice to appear on television, and Wilson delightfully describes one of these appearances: “The scene of the two of them in a churchyard, seemingly vying with one another to see which could be gloomier, showed Betjeman just as keen to be a Larkin disciple as vice versa.”

Parkinson’s disease and finally a series of strokes cast a shadow over Betjeman’s last few years, and he was fortunate at the end to have the care of Elizabeth Cavendish. A.N. Wilson is probably correct in his assessment of his legacy: thirty-odd fine poems. Not a lot, but enough.

David Gwilym Anthony is a British businessman and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. His second poetry ­collection, Talking to Lord Newborough , was published in the United States by Alsop Review Press (2004).