Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Note on Rereading John Betjeman's Poems

For my twenty-first birthday, my youngest brother Paul gave me a collected volume of John Betjeman’s poetry. Betjeman remains one of the most popular of the English poets and if every so often in the late summer I describe an acquaintance who looks especially sun kissed as “furnish’d and burnish’d” it is Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song that I am quoting.

There is undeniably a lovely specificity to Betjeman’s observations of people, and a rootedness in the distinctive English countryside. In describing Betjeman’s world and work the poet W H Auden coined the term topophilia. The word has its etymologically roots in the Greek philia meaning love and topos meaning place. We all, I suppose, find places to love, but Betjeman had a peculiarly acute visual imagination that Auden felt he had not. Auden felt himself to be too much of a “thinking type.” The value of reading Betjeman may be that his poems draw attention to something that we don’t notice missing in ourselves until we see it written down.  But a Betjeman poem does not, I think, merely alert us to our deficiency—for that would be sad—rather, it can coach us to be alert to the possibilities of place.

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