By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984) was UK Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death, and became one of Britain’s best-loved poets of the twentieth century. When his Collected Poems was published in 1955, it was a bestseller. Below is our selection of Betjeman’s best poems, along with a short summary of each poem and a link to where you can read it. Do you agree with this list?
We’ve arranged them in roughly chronological order, rather than attempting to rank them in a ‘best to worst’ or ‘worst to best’ order. What would you pick as Betjeman’s best poem?
This was one of Betjeman’s first published poems, appearing in the 1932 volume Mount Zion, Betjeman’s first collection.
It describes the lonesome death of an old lady in the English midlands spa town (presumably to suggest its ordinariness: death, like Larkin’s nothing, happens anywhere), and, even though it’s an early poem, it already displays Betjeman’s eye for small everyday details, such as the tea-things and the landlady turning down the gas in the hall.
This poem was published in Betjeman’s second volume of poems, Continual Dew, in 1937. As the title suggests, it describes Wilde’s arrest at the London hotel following his failed attempts to sue the Marquis of Queensberry for libel.
Wilde would subsequently stand trial for ‘gross indecency’; he would be found guilty and condemned to two years’ hard labour. Watch out for the Cockney speech of the two plain-clothes arresting officers.
The opening lines of this poem are probably Betjeman’s most famous. Like ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’ it appeared in Continual Dew.
Because of its blistering attack on the industrial trading estate that Slough became in the 1930s, many residents of the Berkshire town have objected to Betjeman’s tone in the poem, especially the notion that bombing Slough may be the best thing for it (it proved oddly ominous, since two years after the poem was published, when WWII broke out, Slough would be bombed by the Germans). Betjeman’s daughter publicly apologised for her father’s poem in 2006!
Published in 1940 in Betjeman’s third volume, Old Lights for New Chancels, ‘In Westminster Abbey’ reflects its wartime publication date. The poem pokes fun at the idea of believing oneself superior because one is a) upper-class, b) a good Christian woman, c) English, and d) white.
Bomb the Germans, the speaker of the poem entreats while praying to God – but keep the English safe. The poem is a fine example of how genteelly but powerfully satirical Betjeman could be.
No list of Betjeman’s best poems would be complete without this. One of Betjeman’s best-loved poems, this is the ‘Miss J. Hunter Dunn’ one (its opening line is more famous than its actual title). Published in 1945 in Betjeman’s fourth collection, New Bats in Old Belfries, ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ is a love song of a peculiarly English kind.
The Joan Hunter Dunn who inspired the poem was a real person, who died in 2008 – Betjeman met her during wartime in 1940 and was struck by her, and wrote ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ about what it might be like for the two of them to play tennis, fall in love, and get engaged (Betjeman was a married man when he wrote the poem, and the relationship with Miss J. Hunter Dunn remained a fantasy rather than a reality). A ‘subaltern’, by the way, is an officer in the British army below the rank of captain.
Betjeman wrote several poems about Christmas, and this one, from his 1954 volume A Few Late Chrysanthemums, is probably the best of them. Like Thomas Hardy‘s ‘The Oxen’ (which, along with Betjeman’s poem, we include in our pick of the best Christmas poems), Betjeman’s ‘Christmas’ sees the speaker of the poem yearning to believe in the story of the nativity.
Betjeman (who was a Christian, though a doubting one) seems to conclude that it is true.
This short poems sticks the knife into the pretentious world of the upper-middle classes. It appeared in A Few Late Chrysanthemums in 1954.
Betjeman wrote ‘How to Get On in Society’ as part of a competition in Time and Tide magazine in December 1951, where Betjeman invited readers to write another stanza for the poem. A short analysis of the poem, along with a parody of Betjeman’s poem (which he proclaimed to be better than his own!), can be found here.
A fine example of Betjeman’s Chaucerian style, ‘Diary of a Church Mouse’ (1954) is another piece of gentle mockery of a certain class of person – here, fair-weather Christians who use the church when it suits them but are nowhere to be seen for most of the year.
Betjeman uses animals to make his point, and it’s not hard to see why this has become one of Betjeman’s most popular poems – it appeals to people of all ages, and even those who miss the satire.
Archibald Ormsby-Gore was, according to Betjeman, the one person who never let him down. Archibald was also, famously, a teddy bear – and the inspiration for Sebastian Flyte’s teddy Aloysius in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
This poem reflects Betjeman’s fondness for his stuffed toy, and helps to explain why Betjeman became, for Britain, ‘the nation’s teddy bear’. Archibald, and Betjeman’s toy elephant Jumbo, were in his arms when he died in 1984.
This short poem was written late in Betjeman’s life and reflects the mixture of tender melancholy and humour that pervade his other work, though there is a deeper awareness of death and (like his friend Philip Larkin) a terror of dying lurking behind the poem.
We had to leave John Betjeman’s 1960 blank-verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells, off the list, but if you’ve feasted on the ten shorter poems listed above and are hungry for more of Betjeman’s quintessentially English loveliness, you can read Summoned by Bells, and all of his other best poems, in John Betjeman Collected Poems, published by John Murray.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.