Mount Zion: Or, In Touch with the Infinite, 1931
Continual Dew: A Little Book of Bourgeois Verse, 1937
Old Lights for New Chancels: Verses Topographical and Amatory, 1940
New Bats in Old Belfries, 1945
Selected Poems, 1948 (John Sparrow, editor)
A Few Late Chrysanthemums, 1954
Poems in the Porch, 1954
Collected Poems, 1958, 4th edition 1979
Summoned by Bells, 1960
A Ring of Bells, 1962 (Irene Slade, editor)
High and Low, 1966
A Nip in the Air, 1975
Ten Late Chrysanthemums, 1975
Uncollected Poems, 1982
Ghastly Good Taste: Or, A Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture, 1933
An Oxford University Chest, 1938
Antiquarian Prejudice, 1939
Vintage London, 1942
English Cities and Small Towns, 1943
John Piper, 1944
First and Last Loves, 1952
The English Town in the Last Hundred Years, 1956
Collins’ Guide to English Parish Churches, 1958
English Churches, 1964 (with B.F.L. Clarke)
Betjeman’s Cornwall, 1984
John Betjeman: Letters, 1994-1995 (2 volumes)
John Betjeman: Coming Home, 1997
English, Scottish, and Welsh Landscape, 1944 (with Geoffrey Taylor)
English Love Poems, 1957 (with Taylor)
Altar and Pew: Church of England Verses, 1959
A Wealth of Poetry, 1963 (with Winifred Hudley)
John Betjeman (BEHCH-uh-muhn) became one of the most popular and widely read English poets of the twentieth century. HisCollected Poems, published in 1958, reportedly sold more than 100,000 copies, and he won many awards for his poetry. In 1972 he was named poet laureate.
Betjeman was born to a wealthy family who lived in the suburbs of North London. The family had many upper-class acquaintances, but Betjeman’s father’s Dutch origin and career in manufacturing prevented the family from forming any intimate ties within this class. From an early age Betjeman learned about the complex class divisions in English society, a theme that appears frequently in his poetry. As a child he decided he would be a poet, and his refusal to continue in the family business distanced him from his father. As a scholar at Highgate School in London, he had as a teacher T. S. Eliot, newly arrived from the United States. Betjeman later recalled giving Eliot a homemade book of his first attempts at poetry.
From 1917 to 1920 Betjeman attended the Dragon School at Oxford, where he developed an interest in architecture from one of his teachers, Gerald Haynes. His interest in places and architecture not only provided him with a steady income as a writer but also with subject matter for poetry. As a scholar at Magdalen College, Oxford, he neglected his studies, to the chagrin of C. S. Lewis, his tutor; during this time he joined a sophisticated group of undergraduates that included Evelyn Waugh, who would be one of Betjeman’s lifelong friends. Betjeman depicts his irreverent Oxford life in one of his best-known poems, “The ‘Varsity Students’ Rag,” written while he was a student.
Betjeman left Oxford without a degree and, after a short stint of teaching, became an editor for Architectural Review. At the same time he published his first book of poetry, Mount Zion: Or, In Touch with the Infinite. This collection, an extension of Betjeman’s Oxford life, is characterized by aestheticism, irreverence, and wit. It also contains many of the themes that preoccupied Betjeman throughout his life and his career as a writer: a fear of death, a sensitivity to social class, and an interest in places and architecture. This first collection shows Betjeman’s particular talent for light verse and satire.
In 1933 Betjeman left the Architectural Review to edit the Shell guides to English cities. He also crossed class boundaries to marry Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of Sir Philip Chetwode, who was commander-in-chief for India. In 1937 Betjeman’s second collection of poetry, Continual Dew: A Little Book of Bourgeois Verse, appeared. This volume focuses directly on issues related to social class, and in it the poet gently satirizes the manners of upper-middle-class London society. Although he thought of himself primarily as a poet, Betjeman also became well known during this time for his books on topography and English architecture. In these works he criticizes the thoughtlessness of English architecture, and he analyzes everything from churches to railway stations, arguing that architecture does not merely apply to particular buildings but to the complete and complex relationships between people and the places in which they live. English Cities and Small Towns and First and Last Loves are the most popular of his works on places and architecture.
During World War II Betjeman worked in radio as a broadcaster for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and, later, for the books department of the British Council. After the war he became an extremely popular broadcaster for BBC television. During the war years Betjeman also completed two more books of poetry, Old Lights for New Chancels: Verses Topographical and Amatory and New Bats in Old Belfries. These collections demonstrate greater maturity in theme and style than the earlier collections as well as showing Betjeman’s indebtedness to Victorian and Romantic writers such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson; George Crabbe; and Thomas Hardy.
Betjeman’s later collections increasingly show personal introspection and a nervousness about death. These themes are particularly evident in A Few Late Chrysanthemums, a collection that many critics consider Betjeman’s most artistic. In 1958 Betjeman’s tremendously popular Collected Poems was published, followed by a blank-verse autobiographical poem Summoned by Bells, which covers Betjeman’s childhood and adolescence to the point when he left for Oxford. After the success of his collected poems, Betjeman published two further collections, High and Low and A Nip in the Air and continued his popular works on architecture. He died in 1984 in Trebetherick, Cornwall, where he had vacationed as a boy, and is buried in the village churchyard, near the sea.