on 15 November 2006
This was my first introduction to JB. I raced through the entire book in about 2 days and have re-read my favourites many times over since then.
Maybe it's because his views coincide with my own in so many ways, maybe the language he uses, maybe I'm just nostalgic for the rose-tinted past, but something in his writing is absolutely captivating.
I recently saw Joanna Lumley reading one of his poems (Myfanwy) on TV. It could have been written for her, and has become my favourite, perhaps taking me back to my own days at boarding school.
For me, that's the thing about Betjeman - he's so accessible to someone like me who doesn't know much about poetry that his writing allows me to feel as though I'm in the middle of it all, looking around me.
I know this review will be of little use to Betjeman aficionados, but perhaps it may serve as an encouragement for anyone who is not familiar with him to make an effort to get to know him better. It's a journey well worth taking (even if, like I do, you live not a million miles away from Slough).
on 22 November 2002
I was introduced to the original Collected Poems by my college room-mate circa 1960, and have loved the poems ever since. Several of them I learned by heart, and can generaly quote to this day. So much so that my son (now living on a different continent from me) must have heard the original so often, he brought to my attention the misquoting of 'Slough' in a recent International Herald Tribune article. My original paperback copy is now falling apart, and how can I resist getting a new one?
on 1 January 2013
This collection requires no praise from a mere mortal like myself. I keep it on my Kindle and have it there to dip into as required, something anyone who lives away from England, just to remind themselves of their heritage - times, places and people.
In a televised interview a little before his death, poet laureate John Betjeman was asked if he had any regrets. After a thoughtful pause, the above was his delightful and honest answer.
Delightful and honest are two words that can easily apply to his poetry and prose, both of which was prolific. In this excellent, comprehensive anthology we have his poetry, including, I'm glad to say, his long autobiographical sequence Summoned By Bells, which appropriately closes this 500-page volume.
John Betjeman was no cosy or (perish the thought) 'feelgood' poet, but rather a melancholy, resourceful, witty and unique voice. He may remind one of Larkin or Stevie Smith, or Wordsworth or even Blake at times, but the effect is illusory. He was very much his own man, and this valuable collection shows all aspects of his literary - as well as his personal - character.
Try the following opening lines from the short poem Fetlar 1973:
Fetlar is waiting. At its little quay
Green seaweed stirs and ripples on the swell.
The lone sham castle looks across at Yell,
And from the mainland hilltops you can see
Over to westward, glimmering distantly,
The cliffs of Foula as the clouds dispel.
Apart from perhaps the third line, I wouldn't have known this was by Betjeman. But then, many a poem here is little or nothing like the image we have of the elderly, plum-voiced roamer of hills and vales, hair awry, voice wry with regret or high on hilarity.
There's his beautiful and touching tribute to Oscar Wilde, the equally moving Death in Leamington (which opens the collection) alongside many poems extolling the glories and virtues of Cornwall, the Home Counties, tennis-playing gals, outer London suburbs - Chesterton, another lover of N London suburbs and of the strange allure of the mundane, might have liked these - and the cheerfully camp.
Andrew Motion offers an illuminating, pleasingly brief introduction, and the book should be on every poetry lover's shelf. Betjeman's was often the art that conceals art, but there are enough unknown or surprising gems in these pages to reward those for whom JB has hitherto proved resistible.
He was one person of whom it can justifiably be said that if he hadn't existed, he would have had to have been invented.
I wouldn't want a diet of Betjeman alone, but dipped into every now and then, his poetry - like his prose - is a tonic, and a frequently unsettling experience. For example, take the poem Late-Flowering Lust:
My head is bald, my breath is bad,
Unshaven is my chin,
I have not now the joys I had
When I was young in sin
I run my fingers down your dress
With brandy-certain aim
And you respond to my caress
And maybe feel the same
But I've a picture of my own
On this reunion night,
Wherein two skeletons are shown
To hold each other tight;
Dark sockets look on emptiness
Which once was loving-eyed [...]
There are many more where that came from. He could be macabre, doleful, and as bereft of solace as Larkin any day.
Cosy? I should cocoa!
It could almost be Poe.
on 15 April 2015
Betjeman’s poetry is sometimes frowned upon by poetry aficionados, as it is accessible, mostly metrical and rhyming and infused with a wistful nostalgia; all that modern poetry is very often decidedly not. Despite being frequently set in a Cornwall, Ireland or London’s metroland that has long ago passed, and must be unfamiliar to a contemporary younger reader, it has a timeless characteristic. It is mannered and genteel, and rather like Philip Larkin (who was also a huge admirer of Betjeman), the uncertainty and fear of death can often be seen in many of the poems, particularly his later ones. Betjeman’s poems seem to be easy to write – but their apparent simplicity and accessibility masks a superb art, and an ability to capture and see the world in a way that speaks directly and powerfully to the reader demonstrates just how excellent these poems are.
on 8 November 2012
All that I expected and more, this book gives a comprehensive insight into the works of Betjeman as well as a resume of his life, memories of a long gone era when things were definitely slower, the summers full of sunshine, people with character and most of all the architecture. His memory lasts on with his amazing bid to save Victorian gothic architecture, particularly St Pancras Railway Station, a place to visit in it's own right, no destination required, with the immortal statue of a man that saw so much of quintessential England and it's people that we miss nowadays in our busy lives, a must read for young and old, nostalgia and history. *****
on 13 May 2016
John Betjeman is one of our finest modern poets. He can be funny, wistful, challenging, and very moving. He has such a whimsical view of people and lifestyles that you can laugh with him at the pompous, see the beauty of the landscape and the buildings he loved, and weep with him at the deaths of people he admired or at his understanding of loneliness or deprivation. This is a very complete collection of his poems, at a very good bargain price. Pick it up, open it at random and be absorbed in his world. I guarantee that if you only intended to read one poem, you will still be unable to put it down an hour later.