Two objections that have been raised against John Betjeman’s poetry are that it deals in vague or unclear emotions, and that its frivolity often conceals an insupportable lasciviousness. This essay seeks to challenge both of these assertions, and by so doing achieve a more nuanced appreciation of Betjeman’s writing, through an original reading of ‘Late-Flowering Lust’, a poem that – at first glance – would appear to provide strong evidence for the prosecution’s case. Research into the circumstances that produced this poem leads me to identify the poet’s wife Penelope as its unexpected muse, and to argue that its emotional complexion is more precisely defined, and less reprehensible, than has been assumed. I offer a new appreciation of the influence that Penelope wielded over Betjeman’s writing, one that became more complex following her conversion to the Church of Rome in 1948, the year in which ‘Late-Flowering Lust’ appears to have been written.
- John Betjeman
- English poetry