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Sir John Betjeman

British, 1906 - 1984

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Poet, critic of architecture, journalist and broadcaster. He was born in Highgate and educated at Marlborough and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he came into contact with the group of young poets led by W.H. Auden without being influenced by their political and artistic stance. He became a schoolmaster and, during World War II, United Kingdom press attaché in Dublin before earning his living as a writer, journalist and broadcaster.

Betjeman's first volume of verse, Mount Zion (1931), was followed by Continual Dew (1937), Old Lights for New Chancels (1940), New Bats in Old Belfries (1945), A Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954), Poems in the Porch (1954), the autobiographical Summoned by Bells (1960), High and Low (1966), A Nip in the Air (1974) and Church Poems (1981), among others. His immensely popular Collected Poems (1958; revised 1962), edited by the Earl of Birkenhead, was reprinted many times and sold close to a million copies. He succeeded Cecil Day-Lewis as Poet Laureate in 1972.

Particularly after his success as a broadcasting personality, Betjeman's very popularity often stood in the way of serious recognition, though this came from fellow poets like Auden and Larkin. Technically conservative and deceptively simple in its reliance on regular rhythms and well-worn rhymes, his poetry creates a wry comedy of middle-class life and aspirations that is shot through with sadness. His sense of the smallness and superficiality of contemporary life, his melancholy Christianity and, above all, the abiding sustenance he took from English landscape and English architecture found a voice, too, in his large output of prose from Ghastly Good Taste (1933) onwards. His architectural writings were notable for their unfashionable advocacy of Victorian buildings, often in danger of obliteration, and their discerning eye for churches, perhaps best displayed in the introduction to Collins Guide to English Parish Churches (1958). The Best of Betjeman (edited by John Guest; 1989), an edition of Summoned by Bells illustrated by Sir Hugh Casson (1989) and Betjeman's Oxford (1990) are evidence of continuing interest in his writings. (Ian Ousby, The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Cambridge, England, 1993: 80-81.)

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