John Betjeman

Poet Laureate John Betjeman’s penchant for specific places—beaches, sea cliffs, old churches, villages rendered in vivid topographical detail—make traveling with his Collected Poems (4th edition, 1979) a pleasant way to frame the view.  Consider the first stanza of “Trebetherick,” inspired by the village on the north coast of Cornwall, near Padstow, where he spent many boyhood holidays and to which he returned as an adult:

 

                        We used to picnic where the thrift

                                    Grew deep and tufted to the edge;

                        We saw the yellow foam-flakes drift

                                    In trembling sponges on the ledge

                        Below us, till the wind would lift

                                    Them up the cliff and o’er the hedge.

             Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea,

             Sun on our bathing-dresses heavy with the wet,

            Squelch of the bladder-wrack waiting for the sea,

            Fleas round the tamarisk, an early cigarette.

 

Many of his best poems are fond recollections of particular Cornish landscapes, but his self-consciously un-modern verse with its thumping meter and heavy rhymes caused him to be dismissed by some as “‘the low-brow’s middlebrow’” (qtd. in Hillier 599) and “a high Tory lyricist” (www.channel4.com/history).  Nonetheless two decades after his death, Betjeman remains a fundamentally accessible and popular poet, whose verses sometimes read like colorized postcards—light, cosy, nostalgic and familiar.

 

It is no wonder, then, that Betjeman thrived in his second career as the author of numerous guidebooks and the presenter, in the 1970s, of popular TV documentaries on “lost” West Country villages, the suburban “Metroland” west of London, and favorite churches. Perhaps his greater gift to the nation was in his role as conservationist, in which he championed the preservation of derelict parish churches, regency terraces,  and outmoded Victorian railway stations, including a campaign to save St. Pancras station in London which has only recently re-opened after extensive renovation.   

 

Betjeman, John.  Collected Poems. 4th Edition.  London:  John Murray, (1979) 1997.

Hillier, Bevis.  Betjeman:  The Bonus of Laughter. London:  John Murray, 2004.

 

 

© Copyright Kim McMullen 2007

 

Southwest Coast Path, CornwallSouthwest coast