John Betjeman (1906-1984) achieved huge success during his lifetime and continues to retain his ‘National Treasure’ status more than twenty years after his death. His gift for comic writing, his dazzling technical abilities and his combination of eccentricity and Englishness are all key ingredients in his enduring popularity. He was the son of a manufacturer of luxurious household goods, a background that provided him with a comfortable childhood but also left him socially insecure, conscious of his family’s status as ‘trade’ in an era of more rigid social class distinctions. Sensitive and bullied at school, Betjeman only came into his own at Oxford where he threw himself into a party-going lifestyle. He perhaps enjoyed himself too much and was sent down for failing his exams. However, Oxford contacts helped him secure a post on The Architectural Review which he left in 1933 to become a freelance journalist. During the war he worked for various government departments and then continued to make his living from journalism and broadcasting.

Betjeman’s wide appeal and his conservatism in form and theme have tended to obscure his achievements as a serious poet, but he was rated highly by his contemporaries and no less a figure than W. H. Auden edited a choice of Betjeman’s verse in 1947. Some of his best qualities are presented in these two recordings: ‘Youth and Age on Beaulieu River’ demonstrates Betjeman’s brilliance at describing human figures in a landscape and deals with one of his abiding preoccupations, mortality, whilst ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ is Betjeman at his rollicking best, amorous and satirical as he pokes fun at himself and the upper middle class world he was from whilst celebrating its straightforward pleasures. A virtuoso performer with a keen sense of how to project an image, this recording captures him at his best, effortlessly charming his audience with his bravura renditions.


This recording was made on 1 December 1967 at the Poetry Society in association with the Talking Tape Co. and first appeared as 'Sir John Betjeman Reading a Selection of His Own Poems'.

Poems by John Betjeman

Henley on Thames - John Betjeman
A Subaltern’s Love Song - John Betjeman
Youth and Age on Beaulieu River - John Betjeman

Books by John Betjeman

Featured in the Archive