Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Was John Betjeman the new McGonagall?

So, the hotel we stayed in in London was within sight of the Marble Arch.  And in our room was a little brochure giving a brief history of the Arch itself. And in that brochure they reprinted a poem about the Arch by Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman which I thought fell in the so-bad-it's-good category. Here's it is in somewhat abbreviated form.

How beautiful the London air, how calm and unalarming
This height above the archway where the prospects round are charming.
Oh come and take a stroll with me and do not fear to stumble.
Great Cumberland, your place I see, I hear your traffic rumble.
See Oxford Street on my left hand, a chasm full of shopping.
Below us traffic lights command the starting and the stopping.
And on my right the spacious park, so infinitely spacious,
So pleasant when it isn't dark but when it is -- good gracious!
. .  . trodden by unheeding feet a spot which memory hallows:
Where Edgware Road meets Oxford Street stood Tyburn's fearsome gallows.
What martyrdoms this place has seen, what deeds much better undone.
Yet still the greatest crime has been the martyrdom of London . . . 

--JB, 1968

Not having read much of Betjeman's stuff, I can't say how typical this is of him. Was his poetry, and his championing of Victorian erections like the Albert Memorial, all part of a pose, like carrying a teddy bear with him when a student at Oxford?

--John R.


David Bratman said...

What's reminding you of McGonagall are the lengthy lines, jogging rhythm, and detailed verbal descriptions.

That's not enough to make a poet a McGonagall, not by a long shot. Betjeman entirely lacks McGonagall's ineptness at rhyme and meter, or the pervasive bathos of his treatment of his subject matter.

Also, if you're judging Betjeman as a whole, and not just this example, Betjeman wrote many lyrical verses with tighter lines. McGonagall couldn't.

Garkbit said...

That is pretty dreadful though! But even the first google hit for a Betjeman shows how much better than that he could be - "Crematorium" at

Clive Shergold said...

Methinks Mr B. is cocking a snook at a less salubrious side of London life. Marble Arch, for all it is a well-known landmark, is actually in the centre of a four-lane roundabout, punctuated by six sets of traffic lights, fed by four major and two lesser roads, and one of the more continuously busy junctions in the capital. A less likely spot to exemplify the peace, tranquillity and fresh air of London would be hard to find. Perhaps the poet felt that this poem expressed his actual sentiments very well?