Yet there can be no question that he was what the French call a petit- maitre. In some other creative field - fiction, for example, or drama or film - that fact wouldn't necessarily bar him from posthumous survival. Posterity, though, has always demanded of its supplicant versifiers the highest possible standards. There has never existed, in short, a minor poet whose name has rung down the ages, and it's impossible to believe that Betjeman will prove the first exception to that rigorous rule.
What made his books so pleasurably idiosyncratic was equally what made them so minor. His proselytising interest in long-derided Victorian architecture, his fascination with humdrum and hence easily ignored parish churches, his celebration of all the poignantly dainty kitsch of Home Counties suburbia - these were gentle passions to which thousands of 20th-century readers could respond but which are surely destined to have less and less resonance as the 21st unfolds. As for the quality of the poems themselves, though they are not as chintzy as they may initially appear to the casual eye - "Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!" is, after all, a subversive and potentially offensive line - they're hardly destined to carry all before them. Betjeman was an arch-traditionalist in an era of arch-modernism, a stance calculated to render him sympathetic in this era of postmodernism (to a nation as culturally conservative as ours the notion of "post-traditionalism" would be inconceivable) but unlikely to cut any ice with posterity.
So, much as it pains me to order the execution: "Come, friendly blade ..."
GILBERT ADAIRReuse content