Monday, December 21, 2015
John Betjeman selects the 1890s
The Saturday Book is a fixture of almost any secondhand bookshop in the UK. It was a ...well, it's difficult to describe really. It was an annual (always out in the weeks before Christmas), it was an anthology, a 'magazine', a review ...all these things. It's editor John Hadfield was a man of broad taste who managed to not just reflect but also anticipate the various 'fashionable' interests of the 1960s and one of these, which found a home in more than one edition of the book was the 1960s vogue for all things 1890s and decadent. So it wasn't surprising, flicking through this, the 25th annual edition of the book, to find a long article on Aubrey Beardsley, nor a selection of "The Best of..." 1890s verse by John Betjeman. The selection itself though was fascinating and, one can't help but think, not a little tongue in cheek.
The poems are broken down into subject sections and from the outset it is made clear that Betjeman has steered clear of the big names of the period. Now, this is the 1960s so it is not unheard of to be forward about homosexuality but under 'Love' Betjeman chooses 'Heart's Desmesne' by John Gray from Silverpoints, 'The Dead Poet' by Lord Alfred Douglas from Sonnets, a 'Symphony of blues and brown...' from In the Key of Blue by John Addington Symonds and most outrageously perhaps "Passional" from Edmund John's ode to beautiful boys in incense-filled churches, The Flute of Sardonyx. Thinking this was some rather hot-house stuff to file under the heading 'Love' and marked by its absence of heterosexuality, I checked the introductory paragraph and sure enough Betjeman (presumably) writes "Love can be given to girl or boy. Passion is sensuous and twines around one's heart like waterlily stems in the river of life. In dark streets there are strange sins connected, perhaps, with 'the love that dare not speak its name'. Racy indeed?
But then I flicked through the other pages. The section 'Women' contains a workmanlike piece of misogyny by William Watson and then two more poems, one by Theodore Wratislaw and another by Alfred Douglas, neither of whom were distinguished by their knowledge of the subject of that section.
Even the section on 'Religion' doesn't escape Betjeman's nodding and winking to those 'in the know'. Another Edmund John poem appears, a long poem, also from The Flute of Sardonyx, called 'The Acolyte' covers two pages and ends:
"Who art thou, Acolyte?
Whose breath makes sweet the God of Sighs?
What lips have kissed thy lithe lips into flame?
Nay, but I know not, would not know thy name -
For I am stricken by thine eyes..."
And then, in the final section, 'The Golden Age', meaning childhood, as a last wonderful flourish to this collection Betjeman puts in a poem by one of his favourite Uranian poets, The Rev'd E. E. Bradford, a very funny poetic romp about a boy called "Paddy Maloy" who just isn't interested in girls!
"O Paddy Maloy is a broth of a boy,
As pretty as pretty can be;
He tosses his curls in disdain at the girls,
For not one is so pretty as he."
...and so in, in the same vein.
The Saturday Book is always worth perusing if you see a copy but I had not seen this issue before and was delighted to see such a mischievous and knowing compilation of poems by poets who barely ever see their work reprinted in the mainstream light of day. Thank you Sir John.