Today is the birthday of Sir John Betjeman, a 20th century poet who actually wrote in verse. Not free verse but lines that rhymed.
Betjeman (August 28, 1906 – May 19, 1984) was popular in his time. His Collected Poems, published in 1958, has sold over two and a quarter million copies, according to Betjeman.com.
It doesn’t take a literary rocket scientist — or whatever brainy literature lovers are — to appreciate his poems. If you are occasionally wry, sardonic, wistful, nostalgic, fed up with progress and modernity, like a bit of open air and girls, you may enjoy some of his poems.
My favourite is A Subaltern’s Love Song, but here are a few more. The Olympic Girl is in a similar vein, and then there is the unpronounceable, adorable Myfanwy. In A Bath Teashop is short and sweet, Winter Seascape exhilarating. Very different is Loneliness. Then there is the social commentary. Born at the turn of the 20th century into a changing world, Betjeman found lots to rue and rail against, but in eminently readable verse. The lines rhymed, memorably.
The sort of girl I like to see
Smiles down from her great height at me.
She stands in strong, athletic pose
And wrinkles her retrousse nose.
Is it distaste that makes her frown,
So furious and freckled, down
On an unhealthy worm like me?
Or am I what she likes to see?
I do not know, though much I care,
xxxxxxxx…..would I were
(Forgive me, shade of Rupert Brooke)
An object fit to claim her look.
Oh! would I were her racket press’d
With hard excitement to her breast
And swished into the sunlit air
Arm-high above her tousled hair,
And banged against the bounding ball
“Oh! Plung!” my tauten’d strings would call,
“Oh! Plung! my darling, break my strings
For you I will do brilliant things.”
And when the match is over, I
Would flop beside you, hear you sigh;
And then with what supreme caress,
You’d tuck me up into my press.
Fair tigress of the tennis courts,
So short in sleeve and strong in shorts,
Little, alas, to you I mean,
For I am bald and old and green.
“Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another —
Let us hold hands and look.”
She such a very ordinary little woman;
He such a thumping crook;
But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels
In the teashop’s ingle-nook.
Kind o’er the kinderbank leans my Myfanwy,
White o’er the playpen the sheen of her dress,
Fresh from the bathroom and soft in the nursery
Soap scented fingers I long to caress.
Were you a prefect and head of your dormit’ry?
Were you a hockey girl, tennis or gym?
Who was your favourite? Who had a crush on you?
Which were the baths where they taught you to swim?
Smooth down the Avenue glitters the bicycle,
Black-stockinged legs under navy blue serge,
Home and Colonial, Star, International,
Balancing bicycle leant on the verge.
Trace me your wheel-tracks, you fortunate bicycle,
Out of the shopping and into the dark,
Back down the avenue, back to the pottingshed,
Back to the house on the fringe of the park.
Golden the light on the locks of Myfanwy,
Golden the light on the book on her knee,
Finger marked pages of Rackham’s Hans Anderson,
Time for the children to come down to tea.
Oh! Fullers angel-cake, Robertson’s marmalade,
Liberty lampshade, come shine on us all,
My! what a spread for the friends of Myfanwy,
Some in the alcove and some in the hall.
Then what sardines in half-lighted passages!
Locking of fingers in long hide-and-seek.
You will protect me, my silken Myfanwy,
Ring leader, tom-boy, and chum to the weak.
By Sir John Betjeman
I am a young executive. No cuffs than mine are cleaner;
I have a Slim-line briefcase and I use the firm’s Cortina.
In every roadside hostelry from here to Burgess Hill
The maitres d’hotel all know me well, and let me sign the bill.
You ask me what it is I do. Well, actually, you know,
I’m partly a liaison man, and partly PRO,
Essentially, I integrate the current export drive
And basically I’m viable from ten o’clock till five.
For vital off-the-record work — that’s talking transport-wise —
I’ve a scarlet Aston Martin — and does she go? She flies!
Pedestrians and dogs and cats, we mark them down for slaughter.
I also own a speedboat which has never touched the water.
She’s built of fibre-glass, of course. I call her ‘Mandy Jane’
After a bird I used to know — No soda, please, just plain —
And how did I acquire her? Well, to tell you about that
And to put you in the picture, I must wear my other hat.
I do some mild developing. The sort of place I need
Is a quiet country market town that’s rather run to seed
A luncheon and a drink or two, a little savoir faire —
I fix the Planning Officer, the Town Clerk and the Mayor.
And if some Preservation attempts to interfere
A “Dangerous Structure” notice from the Borough Engineer
Will settle any buildings that are standing in our way —
The modern style, sir, with respect, has really come to stay.
The sea runs back against itself
With scarcely time for breaking wave
To cannonade a slatey shelf
And thunder under in a cave.
Before the next can fully burst
The headwind, blowing harder still,
Smooths it to what it was at first —
A slowly rolling water-hill
Against the breeze the breakers haste,
Against the tide their ridges run
And all the sea’s a dappled waste
Criss-crossing underneath the sun.
Far down the beach the ripples drag
Blown backward, rearing from the shore,
And wailing gull and shrieking shag
Alone can pierce the ocean roar.
Unheard, a mongrel hound gives tongue,
Unheard are shouts of little boys;
What chance has any inland lung
Against this multi-water noise?
Hear where the cliffs alone prevail
I stand exultant, neutral, free
And from the cushion of the gale
Behold a huge consoling sea.
By Sir John Betjeman
Encase your legs in nylons,
Bestride your hills with pylons
O age without a soul;
Away with gentle willows
And all the elmy billows
That through your valleys roll.
Let’s say goodbye to hedges
And roads with grassy edges
And winding country lanes;
Let all things travel faster
Where motor car is master
Till only Speed remains.
Destroy the ancient inn-signs
But strew the roads with tin signs
‘Keep Left,’ ‘M4,’ ‘Keep Out!’
Command, instruction, warning,
The rockeried roundabout;
For every raw obscenity
Must have its small ‘amenity,’
Its patch of shaven green,
And hoardings look a wonder
In banks of floribunda
With floodlights in between.
Leave no old village standing
Which could provide a landing
For aeroplanes to roar,
But spare such cheap defacements
As huts with shattered casements
Unlived-in since the war.
Let no provincial High Street
Which might be your or my street
Look as it used to do,
But let the chain stores place here
Their miles of black glass facia
And traffic thunder through.
And if there is some scenery,
Some unpretentious greenery,
It does not need protecting
For soon we’ll be erecting
A Power Station there.
When all our roads are lighted
By concrete monsters sited
Like gallows overhead,
Bathed in the yellow vomit
Each monster belches from it,
We’ll know that we are dead.
The last year’s leaves are on the beech:
The twigs are black; the cold is dry;
To deeps beyond the deepest reach
The Easter bells enlarge the sky.
O ordered metal clatter-clang!
Is yours the song the angels sang?
You fill my heart with joy and grief —
Belief! Belief! And unbelief…
And, though you tell me I shall die,
You say not how or when or why.
Indifferent the finches sing,
Unheeding roll the lorries past:
What misery will this year bring
Now spring is in the air at last?
For, sure as blackthorn bursts to snow,
Cancer in some of us will grow,
The tasteful crematorium door
Shuts out for some the furnace roar;
But church-bells open on the blast
Our loneliness, so long and vast.
(See also Selected Poems)