Antony Wood on John Betjeman, Summoned by Bells and Collected Poems

No Swotting . . .

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I first heard the name of John Betjeman at university. One of the more adventurous dons, an aesthetically aware mathematician, lent me a copy of Collected Poems (1958), just out. Torn from my Donne, I read:

Kirkby with Muckby-cum-Sparrowby-cum-Spinx
Is down a long lane in the county of Lincs,
And often on Wednesdays, well-harnessed and spruce,
I would drive into Wiss over Winderby Sluice.

‘Call this poetry!’ I said indignantly (it wasn’t the first time I was found too solemn, early in life). Years later I discovered that around the time I was delivering that judgement, Betjeman’s Collected Poems was selling a thousand copies a day – third on the bestseller list. (‘What ho!’ its jubilant publisher Jock Murray is said to have exclaimed, ‘I never remember such a dance since we published Byron’s Childe Harold in 1812.’)

Once I’d finished university I came to enjoy life more – including Betjeman’s poems. Now living, more or less, in the real world, I realized that the most original poetry isn’t usually a matter of intellectual constructions and conceits, but rather of finding expression for thoughts and states of mind in language close to how people speak. This Betjeman does to perfection. And he addresses the world we know. His currency is real named places, English villages and churches with their bells, London suburbs, seaside holidays, train jou

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About the contributor

Antony Wood lives in Highbury, North London, where Betjeman’s parents grew up and were married, and from where he runs his publishing firm, Angel Books, devoted to translations of classic foreign authors.

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