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John Betjeman: Reading the Victorians (Revised Second Edition)
by Greg Morse
Sussex Academic Press, 2022
eISBN: 978-1-78284-733-5 | Paper: 978-1-84519-534-2

John Betjeman (1906-1984) was undoubtedly the most popular Poet Laureate since Tennyson. But, beneath the thoroughly modern window on Britain that he opened during his lifetime lay the influence of his 19th-century Victorian forebears. This book - now available in paperback - explores Betjeman's identity through such Victorianism via the verse of that period, as well as its architecture, religious faith, and - more importantly - religious doubt. It was, nevertheless, a process which took time. In the 1930s, Betjeman's work was tinted with modernism and traditionalism. He found Victorian buildings 'funny' and wrote much in praise of the Bauhaus style, even though his early poetry was peppered with Victorian references. This leaning was incorporated into a greater sense of purpose during World War II, when he transformed himself from precious humorist into propagandist. The resulting sense of cohesion grew when the dangers of post-war urban redevelopment heightened the need to critique the present via the poetics of the past, a mood which continued up to and beyond his gaining the Laureateship in 1972. This duty proved to be a millstone, so the 'official' poems are thus explored by the author more fully than hitherto. The book concludes with a look back to Betjeman's 1960 verse-autobiography, Summoned by Bells, which is seen as the apogee of his achievement and a snapshot of his identity. Included here is the first critical appreciation of the lyrics embodied within the text, which are taken as a map of the young poet's literary growth. The book leads to a final appraisal of his originality, as evidenced by his glances towards postmodernism, feminism, and post-colonialism. The fact is that Betjeman never quite fits in anywhere. He is always a square peg in a round hole or a round peg in a square hole, often for the sheer enjoyment of so being. In a sense, his desire to be as non-conformist as a Quaker meeting house makes him a radical, rather than the reactionary that his interests imply. He was a champion of beauty and the British Isles, and clearly did much to make the British see the worth of their Victorian forebears.
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