Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Anglicanism and the Poetry of John Betjeman

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Anglicanism and the Poetry of John Betjeman

Article excerpt

The critical fate of John Betjeman is a sharply divided one. His work endures the dubious distinction of being enjoyed by millions of readers, many of whom would never read poetry. In spite of his popularity, which earned him the laureateship in 1972, Betjeman has been for the most part either ignored or disdained by critics, although this neglect is palliated by praise for Betjeman from many of his fellow poets, including W. H. Auden and Philip Larkin. (1) The astonishing paucity of scholarly attention to Betjeman is attributable in part to his popularity. It is an ugly truth, and one most critics prefer to hide, that there is an innate prejudice against a successful poet, and even more so against one who used the medium of television so adroitly to advance his favorite causes. (2) If the masses approve, the poetry must be inferior, or so goes a way of thinking since T. S. Eliot. Prejudice also exists against modern poets who so openly eschew the tenets of modernism, and Betjeman's verse is certainly traditional. Instead of innovating with meter and form, he preferred to cast his poems in molds successfully employed by Victorian poets and hymnodists. Although in structure Betjeman was an avowed anti-modernist, he was clearly engaged with his culture, and his language is informed by the sensibility of modernism. In tone Betjeman is frequently a prophet of doom. Like many of his fellow poets, Betjeman rejected the popular fantasy of endless progress and advancement, using poetry as a vehicle to excoriate society for its cultural, spiritual, political, and aesthetic failures.

A further explanation for his rejection by critics is that Betjeman was a religious man. Critics have little trouble coping with the religious poems of seventeenth-century writers, poets who lived in what was still an age of faith, but what should we do with a troublesome twentieth-century poet who persisted in believing the tenets of Christianity despite the overwhelming counter-claims of science and philosophy? Betjeman's faith was public knowledge, and he often spoke fervently of his beliefs, as in this letter written on Christmas Day, 1947, acknowledging his philosophical and theological distinction from other poets:

   Also my view of the world is that man is born to fulfil the purposes
   of his Creator i.e. to Praise his Creator, to stand in awe of Him
   and to dread Him. In this way I differ from most modern poets, who
   are agnostics and have an idea that Man is the centre of the
   Universe or is a helpless bubble blown about by uncontrolled forces.
   (qtd. in Hillier, John Betjeman 400)

Indeed, Betjeman was committed not just to Christianity but to the Church of England. His poems describe the perils of faith and the struggle to believe; they celebrate the social and cultural significance of the Church of England; they reveal the intersection of architecture and faith, of aesthetics and the spirit; and they also demonstrate the social and spiritual failure of the Church, particularly the snobbery and hypocrisy of its clergy and parishioners. Betjeman could be a brilliant ironist, but he could also be sentimental about the Church of England; and even though he was never an unabashed apologist for his church, his rejection of skepticism may be perceived by critics as an intellectual weakness. However, it is the remarkable fact of Betjeman's studied faith in an age of skepticism that makes him interesting and worthy of critical attention.

To appreciate Betjeman's complex and contrasting stances toward religion, let us consider "In Westminster Abbey" and "Sunday Morning, King's Cambridge." (3) These poems are set in two of the most aesthetically and socially important centers of Christian worship in England, though the former has political and the latter academic significance. Together the two poems epitomize the tonal are between outrage and affection that typifies his verse about the English Church. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.