Betjeman is one of the most enduring and endearing of Britain's poets. I have an old volume that regularly comes down from the shelf to both inspire and amuse me. His verse always has something to say, even on fifth, sixth or seventh reading.
There is a down-to-earth quality to Betjeman's poems and the themes he covers. He is realistic about love, faith, life and human beings. Some of his most amusing verses poke fun at characters that one gets the impression might easily be reflections of himself (see Seaside Golf, for example); his ability to laugh at himself certainly adds an air of ease and approachability to his work. Nevertheless, he is also able to deal with thorny subjects without trivializing the difficult questions they provoke, even if he often does so with a rather wicked sense of humour. For me, the most fascinating of his poems deal with God, faith and religion. Betjeman was an Anglican, and he is not shy about his faith, nor about acknowledging its shortcomings. In Westminster Abbey takes the form of a lady's wartime prayer, and is a brilliant and witty expose of religious hypocrisy; On a Portrait of a Deaf Man is a heartfelt psalmic reflection on the problem of God and evil; Senex is a hilarious confession of struggle with sexual temptation.
Elsewhere, Betjeman treats sexuality with a candour that shocks, and firmly dispells any lingering suspicions that he is merely a fat, jovial and reserved old Englishman (see Late-Flowering Lust). At other times, he offers playful reflections on love, lust, romance and courtship, as in A Subaltern's Love Song or The Olympic Girl.
His attempts at blank verse are delightful, and eminently readable, or preferably listenable (English readers will recall the documentaries he made for British television some twenty or thirty years ago, for which he recited many of his poems, including the charming Beside the Seaside, included here). He is at home musing on the things that he loves most: people and places. Many (probably most) of his poems received their inspiration, and take their titles, from places mainly in and around the English coast. He writes of them with an obvious affection.
It seems that Betjeman has not received the attention he deserves on this side of the Atlantic (US/Canada). His books are few and far between in second-hand bookshops, and my review of his collected poems seems to be the first to appear on Amazon. This is regrettable. I am sure that those who take the time to explore Betjeman's world will find they are richly rewarded; his enthusiasm for his subjects, and his gentle and avuncular manner, surely elicit an appeal that goes beyond national boundaries. This comprehensive collection comes highly recommended.