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Sir John Betjeman Biography

(1906–84), Summoned by Bells, Architectural Review, Mount Zion, Continual Dew, New Bats in Old Belfries

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British poet, born in Highgate, London; his childhood and youth are described in detail in his blank-verse autobiography Summoned by Bells (1960). He was educated at Highgate Junior School, where T. S. Eliot was among his teachers, at Marlborough College, and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he became well acquainted with W. H. Auden and Maurice Bowra; he impressed the latter with his ‘extraordinary originality’ as a wittily accomplished poet and independently minded aesthete and bon viveur. Having left Oxford without a degree, he was briefly engaged as a school-master, before he began writing for the Architectural Review in 1931. Mount Zion, his first collection of poetry, appeared in 1932, and was followed by numerous volumes, among which are Continual Dew (1937), New Bats in Old Belfries (1945), A Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954), and A Nip in the Air (1974). Betjeman was a widely popular poet by the time his Collected Poems appeared in 1958; the book was remarkably successful, running to ten impressions by 1960, before the appearance of an enlarged second edition in 1962. Although largely discounted by successive generations of academic critics, his poetry displays a technical virtuosity and an emotional, intellectual, and imaginative cohesion which argue for his stature as a major talent. Philip Larkin was among the most fervent of his admirers, noting the generous range of his work and the attractive eccentricity of his ‘heterogeneous world of farce and fury, where sports girls and old nuns jostle with town clerks and impoverished Irish Peers’. From the early 1930s onward he produced books on architecture and topography, which include Ghastly Good Taste (1933), Vintage London (1942), and Cornwall (1965). In 1972 he succeeded C. Day Lewis as Poet Laureate. Young Betjeman (1988) is the first part of Bevis Hillier's authorized biography. See also topographical poetry.

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