‘Lightweight’ Betjeman was initially overlooked for poet laureate

Newly released files reveal that Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984) was initially overlooked as poet laureate because he was considered a lightweight ‘versifier’ (PA Archive)
Newly released files reveal that Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984) was initially overlooked as poet laureate because he was considered a lightweight ‘versifier’ (PA Archive)

Sir John Betjeman, one of the best-loved British poets of the 20th century, was initially overlooked as poet laureate because he was considered a lightweight “versifier” who lacked serious merit, according to newly released official files.

Government papers released by the National Archives in Kew, south-west London, lay bare the extraordinary in-fighting and backbiting which surrounded the appointment to one of the most prestigious positions in the world of English literature.

Some of the most eminent poets of the time were denounced as drunkards, snobs, communists, mentally unstable and the authors of extreme pornography, as supporters of potential candidates – and in some cases, the candidates themselves – advanced their rival claims.

Betjeman’s name first came up for consideration in 1968 following the death of the then-laureate, John Masefield, at the age of 88.

It fell to Prime Minister Harold Wilson to advise Queen Elizabeth on the appointment of a successor, with No 10 appointments secretary John Hewitt being tasked to take soundings on who could take on the role.

With the two men regarded as the leading poets of the day – WH Auden and Robert Graves – ruled out for differing reasons, it quickly came down to a choice between Betjeman and Cecil Day-Lewis, father of actor Sir Daniel Day-Lewis.

Betjeman – perhaps best-known now for his lines “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!/It isn’t fit for humans now” – had the higher public profile through his appearances on television.

However, Lord Goodman, chairman of the Arts Council and Mr Wilson’s personal legal adviser, was among those to weigh in against him, warning that to offer him the post “would not be to take the matter seriously”.

“The songster of tennis lawns and cathedral cloisters does not, it seems to me, make a very suitable incumbent for the poet laureateship of a new and vital world in which we hope we are living,” he wrote dismissively.

“An aroma of lavender and faint musk is really not right for an appointment of this kind at this moment.”

His intervention appeared decisive – although there was not much more enthusiasm for Day-Lewis, who was described by Geoffrey Handley-Taylor, chairman of the Poetry Society, as no more than “a good administrative poet”.

That was nothing, however, to the vitriol faced by Auden when the post again fell vacant four years later following the death of Day-Lewis.

Auden was not actually eligible as he had taken US citizenship after moving to America at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 – a move still deeply resented by some.

But with speculation rife that he could return to the UK and reclaim his British nationality in order to take the post, a furious Jon Stallworthy, another poet and literary critic, warned No 10: “For him now to turn his coat again would make a mockery of the laureateship.”

Worse was to come.

Ross McWhirter, co-founder of the Guinness Book of Records, contacted Sir John Hewitt (who had by this time been knighted) to say that Auden was believed to be the author of a pornographic poem entitled The Gobble, which had appeared anonymously in a publication called “Suck. The first Europe Sex Paper No 1.”

When he met Sir John in Downing Street to discuss his concerns, Mr McWhirter acknowledged that Auden had not admitted writing the offending lines, but said he had not denied it either.

“He then produced a copy of the paper and showed me the poem by ‘WH Auden’ which ran to about 30 verses of an utterly revolting character,” Sir John wrote.

“His concern was that, if Mr Auden were appointed to the position, a further publication of this poem would take place and that this would bring disgrace upon the appointment itself and would reflect upon Her Majesty The Queen.”

Meanwhile, another hopeful, Leonard Clark – a former HM Inspector of Schools and an outside contender for the post – was enthusiastically putting the boot into potential rivals.

In a series of letters to Sir John, whom he apparently knew well, he warned that Ted Hughes was “unsuitable”, having written “too much in a violent strain”, Stephen Spender had become a “non-poet”, while Robert Graves was too old and “wedded to Majorca”.

In a further twist, a group called the Poets Conference, organised by George MacBeth, a former BBC talks producer, visited Sir John to say they had voted in favour of Adrian Mitchell, a passionate supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

“They arrived here wearing the usual uniform of the avant-garde and accompanied by photographers and so on,” Sir John informed Edward Heath, Mr Wilson’s successor as prime minister.

“Perhaps it is an indication of their attitudes that Mr Adrian Mitchell comes out top of this list. As you will remember, he is the person who put on a vulgar display at Southwark Cathedral when you were there.”

That left Betjeman, with Sir John admitting that previous dismissals of him as “just a versifier” were unfair.

“A fairer criticism would, I think, be to say that Betjeman is by no means the most eminent English poet, although he may be the best candidate for the poet laureateship at this stage,” he told Mr Heath, finally clearing the way for his appointment.