The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1)

John Betjeman, "Collected Poems"It’s no secret that John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, and Seamus Heaney were bound together by a sense of brotherhood. Larkin greatly admired the work of Betjeman, his predecessor, and then Heaney, arriving on the scene after the other two men were established poets, expressed equally great admiration for Larkin’s work. They even admired more or less the same elements of each other’s poetry: Betjeman, according to Larkin, was remarkable for “the quality in his poetry loosely called nostalgia,” “that never-sleeping alertness to note the patina of time on things past which is the hall-mark of the mature writer,” while Larkin, according to Heaney, was remarkable for his “visions of ‘the old Platonic England,’ the light in them honeyed by attachment to a dream world that will not be denied because it is at the foundation of the poet’s sensibility.” Sure enough, the poems of all three men are tinged with a vague sort of pastoral glow, a sly affection for the peace and calm and orderliness of village life in the British Isles. It manifests in a recurrent fondness for old churches and cobbled streets and other antique relics of a more innocent, pre-War, even pre-twentieth century world. But what also unites them, to my eye, is something considerably less quaint than all that. What unites them is that, when it comes to matters of sex and sexuality, each one of them is basically a man-child, a juvenile schoolboy who never grew up and now finds himself stuck in an ageing body. Betjeman is smutty and giddy about it, Larkin is a little darker, and Heaney is plainly crude, but in each case the words on the page reveal a man in a tussle with his juvenile self upon feeling a great pulse of lust.

The thing I love most about Betjeman is the way his frozen adolescence manifests as lasciviousness. You might call it simple, unashamed bawdiness, but for the fact that the poet is ashamed of it, or ashamed of his inability to act on it, which gives his expressions of lust an undercurrent of self-pity, an air of lament, a tone of proleptic regret. Consider, for example, ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ (1945), in which the speaker rhapsodises over his beloved Joan Hunter Dunn, one of Betjeman’s infamous tennis-playing girls with “[t]he speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy.” The speaker loves her dearly for her body, but he doesn’t love the women herself quite so much as to honour his fleshly love by requesting her hand in marriage. He notes, early on, “[t]he warm-handled racket” with which she beats him in a tennis tournament, and then, later, he notes her “strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!” — and it’s not difficult to guess where exactly he’d like her to put that hand, particularly as the two of them retreat to private quarters:

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

But there’s no handjob in this poem, nor anything else of a sexual nature. Paralysed by the prospect of first having to dance with Joan Hunter Dunn before anyone’s pants come off, the speaker, leaping ahead to a disappointing future, ends the poem by switching into the past tense and glumly looking back: “We sat in the car park till twenty to one / And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.” A similar sort of ennui enshrouds an earlier poem about a tennis-playing girl, ‘Pot Pourri From a Surrey Garden’ (1940), in which the speaker waxes lyrical about his amply proportioned partner, Pam, and her “bountiful body.” “Pam,” he begins, “I adore you, Pam, you great big mountainous sports girl / …you zephyr and khaki shorts girl,” and then, in an oblique addendum to ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song,’ he focuses again on the brachial beauty of his beloved, and uses his image of her to figuratively give himself the handjob he was hoping for:

See the strength of her arm, as firm and hairy as Hendren’s;
 See the size of her thighs, the pout of her lips as, cross,
And full of a pent-up strength, she swipes at the rhododendrons,
    Lucky the rhododendrons,
    And flings her arrogant love-lock
 Back with a petulant toss.

And even though ‘Pot Pourri’ ends in much the same way as ‘Love Song’ — with the speaker and his sweetheart taking themselves to church to become “Licensed… for embracement” — the speaker here, younger than the speaker of ‘Love Song,’ is bold enough to sexualise even the largely undesirable state of marriage. Presumably he and Pam sign the papers, presumably they receive a blessing, and then, as the ceremonial music starts up, he rejoices while “the organ / Thunders over you all.” It certainly does, if we play along with the speaker’s double-entendre, since his “organ” “Thunders over” pretty much everything he captures in verse. And that’s no less true for ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ or ‘Pot Pourri From a Surrey Garden’ than it is for later poems like ‘Beside the Seaside’ (1948) or ‘Late-Flowering Lust’ (1954). In ‘Beside the Seaside,’ the speaker displaces his misbegotten lust onto Mr. Pedder, the provocatively and quite aptly named “schoolmaster and friend / Of boys and girls — particularly girls,” who sexually grooms pre-adolescent children but dwells in a haze of forever preparing to act on desires he can’t bring himself to realise. In ‘Late-Flowering Lust,’ the speaker is somewhat more open and blunt —

My head is bald, my breath is bad,
    Unshaven is my chin,
I have not now the joys I had
    When I was young in sin.

I run my fingers down your dress
    With brandy-certain aim
And you respond to my caress
    And maybe feel the same.

— but the loaded ambivalence of that “maybe” suggests that the concerns he expresses here are of a piece with the concerns that run as a motif throughout Betjeman’s work. Betjeman’s schtick, for want of a better word, basically involves taking a superficially respectable English gentleman — he with the Church of England propriety and well-mannered deference to tradition — and imprisoning that man’s sensibility in a body quite at odds with it, a body overruled by lust and a longing for sensual pleasures.  The tension between the man’s sensibility and his bodily urges only grows stronger the more he is forbidden to pursue his wants, whether he is forbidden by circumstance or by law or by age. Yet at the same time — and this is where Betjeman infuses his poems with bitter humour — the very forbiddenness of his wants inclines him to see himself as perverted, so that his need to maintain a respectable appearance grows stronger at the same time. Betjeman’s speakers are thus trapped in a double-bind, indulging in bawdy fantasies while beset with inhibitions that lead them to confine their fantasies to poetry, and this confinement is what pushes his speakers into outright lasciviousness. They savour their fantasies all the more when rendering them in poetic form, knowing they cannot enjoy in the flesh so pure a product of the imagination.

Continued in the following post.

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