Archive for the ‘John Betjeman’ Category

I am not drawn to poetry.  I was never one of those sentimental adolescents who spends hours scribbling their feelings in verse and, aside from a brief infatuation with Tennyson, was never particularly drawn to the works of any major poet.  So what compelled me to pick up Summoned by Bells by John Betjeman, a memoir in blank verse from 1960?

I actually got on with it much better than I had expected.  I had liked what I had read of Betjeman’s work before – light verse being my only poetic preference – but really knew very little about his early life, except that his teddy bear had inspired Sebastian’s Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited.  Here, he covers the years leading up to his departure from Oxford (“failed in Divinity!”), which suits me perfectly: childhood memoirs are always my preference.

Betjeman is so good at creating very personal and very vivid images with his poetry, this passage about his beloved teddy bear (Archibald Ormsby-Gore) being a perfect example and one of my favourite excerpts from the book:

Safe were those evenings of the pre-war world
When firelight shone on green linoleum;
I heard the church bells hollowing out the sky,
Deep beyond the deep, like never-ending stars,
And turned to Archibald, my safe old bear,
Whose woollen eyes looked sad or glad at me,
Whose ample forehead I could wet with tears,
Whose half-moon ears received my confidence,
Who made me laugh, who never let me down.
I used to wait for hours to see him move,
Convinced that he could breathe.  One dreadful day
They hid him from me as a punishment:
Sometimes the desolation of that loss
Comes back to me and I must go upstairs
To see him in the sawdust, so to speak,
Safe and returned to his idolator.

Blank verse is an interesting format for memoir and I did learn a lot about Betjeman’s early life – there was a terrifying nanny, a father disappointed by his son’s disinterest in joining the family business, a few darling nursery school love affairs, and some miserable years at school – but I longed for more detail.  And in prose.  I cared far more about the facts that I did about the style in which they were conveyed, which has always been my problem with poetry.  Where the prose writer would indulge in expansive detail, the poet practices artful restraint.  It is an impressive skill but not one I can fully appreciate, not when I am so nosy as to long for more information!

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