John Betjeman (1906-84)

   English poet. Born on August 28, 1906 in Highgate, London. His family had been cabinetmakers for several generations. The name Betjeman was originally ‘Betjemann’ with two ‘n’s, but during World War I John Betjeman dropped the second ‘n’ lest the name be considered German. Educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he met W. H. Auden (1907-73) and Louis MacNeice (1907-63). Left Oxford without taking a degree. After working as a schoolmaster for a short while, he started writing on various subjects. In 1931 he wrote for Architectural Review, and published his first verse collection, Mount Zion. He continued to publish several collections of verse; Continual Dew: A Little Book of Bourgeois Verse (1937), New Bats in Old Belfries (1945), the extremely successful Collected Poems (1958), a blank verse autobiography Summoned by Bells (1960), etc.

   His poetry had a wide public appeal. It is witty, urbane, and satiric. It has a light touch, incorporating comedy of manners, place names, and numerous contemporary allusions. Beneath such features, however, there are melancholy, fear, and religious hope. Philip Larkin (1922-85) praised Betjeman’s detailed observation of human beings: "The strongest and most enduring thread that runs through the contradictions of impulse in this puzzling dazzling body of work is a quite unfeigned and uninflated fascination by human beings." [The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, ed. Kenneth Allott (1950; 2nd ed. 1962) 176]

   Albert B. Friedman in The Ballad Revival: Studies in the Influence of Popular on Sophisticated Poetry (The U of Chicago, 1961) calls Betjeman the master of the ironical ballad: "The ostinato set up by the rhythms of street songs and Longfellow-reduced-to-doggerel creates an atmosphere of delightful quaintness. . . . This, of course, had been the comic strategy of Thomas Hood" (342).

   Knighted in 1969. Appointed Poet Laureate in 1972. Died on 19 May 1984. (H. N.)

1.The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel
2.Death in Leamington
4.A Subaltern’s Love-song