Literary Criticism

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John Betjeman

Reading the Victorians

Greg Morse became interested in John Betjeman's work around the tenth anniversary of the poet’s death in 1994. Having devoured as much Betjeman material as possible, he eventually began reading for a D.Phil at the University of Sussex. John Betjeman: Reading the Victorians is the result of over ten years’ research. It is his first book, but will not be his last.

John Betjeman 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 nineteenth-century forebears. This book explores his identity through such Victorianism via the verse of that period, but also 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 conclusion of John Betjeman: Reading the Victorians looks 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. Larkin’s 1959 question ‘What exactly is Betjeman?’ then 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 us see the worth of our Victorian forebears. Greg Morse’s book highlights this important facet of his work.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-271-6
Hardback Price: £49.99 / $75.00
Release Date: September 2008
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-534-2
Paperback Price: £22.50 / $34.95
Release Date: March 2012
Page Extent / Format: 272 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Foreword by Norman Vance
List of Abbreviations (and Textual Note)

Chapter One

Teddy Bear to the Nation
A Question of Upbringing
Betjeman Today

Chapter Two The 1930s
The Opening World
Chapel and Spa
Bourgeois Verses
Architectural Revue
Onward and Upward

Chapter Three The 1940s
Home Fires
Flag Stones
A Poet for All?

Chapter Four The 1950s
Love is Dead
Over-work and Under Pressure
Church Matters
Campaign and Caveats
A Star is Born

Chapter Five The 1960s–70s
The Euston Murder
Live in Metroland
TV Personality
Past and Present
Faith and Doubt
Knight Bachelor

Chapter Six The 1970s–80s
Royal Rhymester?
Battling with Bulldozers
Autumn Chill
Belief . . . and Unbelief
Jubilee Jingle

Chapter Seven Summoned by Bells
Changing Horizons
The Epic
The Journey Begins
Chapter Eight Conclusion
The Identity of Betjeman

Appendix:?Glossary of nineteenth-century poets listed by Betjeman in the preface to Old Lights for New Chancels (1940)
Betjeman Filmography and Audiography

The cover image of Greg Morse’s book, depicting the new statue of John Betjeman gazing into the ceiling of St. Pancras Station, masterfully implies his theme: this icon of Englishness who welcomes international rail visitors into London metonymizes the vitality of Victorianism in contemporary English identity. In addition to his countless public campaigns to save nineteenth-century landmarks from the wrecking ball, Betjeman achieved equal fame and success as a poet. These achievements have not translated, however, into widespread scholarly recognition; other than a few general appreciation studies and a handful of critical articles, Betjeman has generally been ignored by the academic community. John Betjeman: Reading the Victorians, an analysis of the influence of Victorian writers in Betjeman’s poetry and of Victorianism more generally in his prose and his preservation campaigns, is therefore a welcome mitigation of critical neglect and will likely serve to enhance a wider scholarly appreciation and recognition of Betjeman.
... Morse reveals how Victorianism shaped Betjeman’s thinking and writing across the decades, how his understanding and appreciation of it evolved from an early playfulness to a profound, scholarly commitment, and how he used his status as a public figure to make his case for the relevance of Victorianism in a modern nation. Taking a decade-by-decade approach, Morse surveys Betjeman’s professional activities before exploring at length the Victorian influences and appropriations in his writings. He thoroughly analyzes the patterns of influence, especially of Tennyson, Hardy, William Morris, and, in the case of Betjeman’s epic autobiography, Summoned by Bells (1960), of Wordsworth. Morse also examines his prose, revealing that Betjeman’s obsession was not simply with obscure Victorian poets (Calverley, Prout, Austin, Henley, Lampson), but also with Victorian life and building: Nonconformist chapels, railway stations and branch lines, gas lights, seaside piers, terraced housing for labourers, and the vanishing ways of life associated with those threatened hallmarks of Victorian design. Indeed, it is not just Victorian poetry that Betjeman ‘reads’; it is a wider Victorian culture that infuses his thinking.
... In his analysis of how Betjeman “reads” the Victorians, Morse succeeds admirably. His own reading of Victorianism – and of Betjeman – is extensive, and the resulting book, which began life as a doctoral thesis, is an impressive piece of scholarship. His recourse to Betjeman’s largely uncollected prose is all the more admirable considering that he completed his research without the benefit of William Peterson’s masterful new bibliography, John Betjeman: A Bibliography (Clarendon Press, 2006), or Stephen Games’s new anthologies of Betjeman’s prose. With its chronological approach, this book will serve as an effective introduction to Betjeman, and Victorian scholars will surely want to read it for its account of the fate of Victorianism in the twentieth century. A thematic organization might have been a more useful structure, however, as some portions of the book may prove repetitive to readers already versed in Betjeman’s life and works; for instance, Morse’s second chapter, ‘The 1930s’, covers much of the same material entailed by Timothy Mowl in Stylistic Cold Wars: Betjeman Versus Pevsner (John Murray, 2000), and his attention to the production, design and reception of Betjeman’s books has been thoroughly covered in Bevis Hillier’s biographical triptych. However, Morse is the first critic to treat Betjeman’s laureate verse with seriousness, and he is only the second, following Dennis Brown’s brief but excellent monograph, John Betjeman (Northcote House, 1999), to treat Summoned by Bells with the seriousness that it deserves. Morse convincingly explains how Betjeman made Victorianism not merely palatable to English taste but central to English Identity.
English Studies

Morse teases out the Victorian roots of Betjeman (1906–84), celebrated as Britain’s most popular poet laureate since Tennyson. He follows the poet’s career decade by decade beginning with the 1930s, looking at such aspects as chapel and spa, flag stones, campaign and caveats, the Euston murder, faith and doubt, battling with bulldozers, changing horizons, and the epic.
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