'Betjeman's Penelope: Untangling the roots of "Late-Flowering Lust"'

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Abstract

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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)70–83
Number of pages14
JournalEnglish
Volume66
Issue number252
Early online date23 Jan 2017
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 23 Jan 2017

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Poem
Emotion
Lust
Glance
Rome
Wives
Frivolity
Poetry
Muse
Poet

Keywords

  • John Betjeman
  • English poetry.

Cite this

@article{4bfb366d249f4a338fc2481bcf7e4f0f,
title = "'Betjeman's Penelope: Untangling the roots of {"}Late-Flowering Lust{"}'",
abstract = "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.",
keywords = "John Betjeman, English poetry.",
author = "Tim Hancock",
note = "Article not going forward for REF. Reference text: Ian Sansom, ‘Happy Knack’, review of John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love by Bevis Hillier, London Review of Books, 25.4 (20 February 2003), pp. 27-28, p. 27. John Wain, ‘A Substitute for Poetry’ review of Summoned by Bells, The Observer, 27 November 1960; reprinted in Wain, Essays on Literature and Ideas (London: Macmillan, 1964), pp. 168-71, p. 171. John Walsh, ‘Rhymes of Passion: Betjeman’s Women’, The Independent (18 April, 2008), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/rhymes-of-passion-betjemans-women-811236.html [accessed 29 June 2016] John Betjeman, Collected Poems (London: John Murray, 2006), pp. 171-72 (henceforth CP). See, for examples, ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’ (CP, pp. 45-6), ‘Myfanwy’ (pp. 69-70), ‘Myfanwy at Oxford’ (pp. 71-72), ‘Invasion Exercise on the Poultry Farm’ (pp. 102-03), ‘The Licorice Fields at Pontefract’ (p. 155), ‘The Olympic Girl’ (p. 186), ‘Station Syren’ (pp. 195-96), ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ (p. 310). See Alan Bell, ‘Sir John Betjeman – By Appointment: Teddy Bear to the Nation’, The Times, 20 September 1982, p. 5; Andrew Geddes, ‘To be with John Betjeman was to enter another world’, The Spectator, 20 January 2007, p. 18; John Betjeman: Letters, Volume One: 1926 – 1951, ed. Candida Lycett Green (London: Methuen, 2006), p. 427. Seamus Perry, ‘Betjeman’s Tennyson’, in Tennyson Among the Poets, ed. Perry and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 409-26, p. 413. Quoted in Bevis Hillier, John Betjeman: The Biography (London: John Murray, 2006), p. 399. Greg Morse, John Betjeman: Reading the Victorians (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2008), p. 81. John Betjeman, John Betjeman: Coming Home, An anthology of prose, ed. Candida Lycett Green (London: Methuen, 1997), pp. 416-420, p. 417. Betjeman referred to his ‘green skin’ in ‘Christmas’, a talk broadcasted on the BBC Home Service in 1947 – see Coming Home, p. 214. See William S. Peterson, John Betjeman: A Bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), p. 426. See, for example, Hillier pp. 264-65, p. 398. See Candida Lycett Green, The Dangerous Edge of Things: A Village Childhood (London: Doubleday, 2005), p. 26. John Betjeman: Letters, Volume Two: 1951 to 1984, ed. Candida Lycett Green (London: Methuen, 2006), p. 291, p. 485. The poems are ‘The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922’ (CP, pp. 118-19), the muse of which, once thought to be Emily Sears, has recently been identified as Greta Wyndham (see The Sunday Times, 24 November 2014, p. 20), and ‘A Lament for Moira McCavendish’ (CP, pp. 249-50), a rather transparent pseudonym for Elizabeth Cavendish. A.N. Wilson, Betjeman (London: Arrow Books, 2007), p. 211. It was printed in the second (and final) number of the Oxford magazine Harlequin. See Peterson, p. 245. See Letters, Vol 1, pp. 480-81. Taylor-Martin, John Betjeman: His Life and Work (London: Allen Lane, 1983), p. 131. Imogen Lycett Green, Grandmother’s Footsteps: A Journey in Search of Penelope Betjeman (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994), p. 18. Ibid. A series of cartoons Betjeman sent to his wife (as ‘Saint Centipeda’) envisaging her adventures in Rome reflects the enduring sense of humour that, perhaps more than anything else, united this couple. They are reprinted in Coming Home, pp. 217-24. ‘The Lonely Laureate’, interview with Wilfred de’Ath, Illustrated London News 262 (March 1974): pp. 45-6, p. 46. Candida Lycett Green recalls that ‘JB enjoyed driving as fast as his car would go. If he got behind a slow driver he would curse and shake his fist’ (Letters, Vol 1, p. 372). Penelope would have got the message: one of many amusing moments in her correspondence with her husband indicates that she shared his love for The Diary of a Nobody: ‘He tells me Emily has LEFT poor Zimmer and gone off to Hawaii with a lover, and that his sister had left her husband. I felt rather like Mr Pooter as all his relatives I asked after had – not died, - but left their hubbies’ (undated letter, British Library Betjeman Archive, Add. 71652).",
year = "2017",
month = "1",
day = "23",
doi = "10.1093/english/efw057",
language = "English",
volume = "66",
pages = "70–83",
journal = "English",
issn = "0013-8215",
number = "252",

}

'Betjeman's Penelope: Untangling the roots of "Late-Flowering Lust"'. / Hancock, Tim.

In: English, Vol. 66, No. 252, 23.01.2017, p. 70–83.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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AU - Hancock, Tim

N1 - Article not going forward for REF. Reference text: Ian Sansom, ‘Happy Knack’, review of John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love by Bevis Hillier, London Review of Books, 25.4 (20 February 2003), pp. 27-28, p. 27. John Wain, ‘A Substitute for Poetry’ review of Summoned by Bells, The Observer, 27 November 1960; reprinted in Wain, Essays on Literature and Ideas (London: Macmillan, 1964), pp. 168-71, p. 171. John Walsh, ‘Rhymes of Passion: Betjeman’s Women’, The Independent (18 April, 2008), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/rhymes-of-passion-betjemans-women-811236.html [accessed 29 June 2016] John Betjeman, Collected Poems (London: John Murray, 2006), pp. 171-72 (henceforth CP). See, for examples, ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’ (CP, pp. 45-6), ‘Myfanwy’ (pp. 69-70), ‘Myfanwy at Oxford’ (pp. 71-72), ‘Invasion Exercise on the Poultry Farm’ (pp. 102-03), ‘The Licorice Fields at Pontefract’ (p. 155), ‘The Olympic Girl’ (p. 186), ‘Station Syren’ (pp. 195-96), ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ (p. 310). See Alan Bell, ‘Sir John Betjeman – By Appointment: Teddy Bear to the Nation’, The Times, 20 September 1982, p. 5; Andrew Geddes, ‘To be with John Betjeman was to enter another world’, The Spectator, 20 January 2007, p. 18; John Betjeman: Letters, Volume One: 1926 – 1951, ed. Candida Lycett Green (London: Methuen, 2006), p. 427. Seamus Perry, ‘Betjeman’s Tennyson’, in Tennyson Among the Poets, ed. Perry and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 409-26, p. 413. Quoted in Bevis Hillier, John Betjeman: The Biography (London: John Murray, 2006), p. 399. Greg Morse, John Betjeman: Reading the Victorians (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2008), p. 81. John Betjeman, John Betjeman: Coming Home, An anthology of prose, ed. Candida Lycett Green (London: Methuen, 1997), pp. 416-420, p. 417. Betjeman referred to his ‘green skin’ in ‘Christmas’, a talk broadcasted on the BBC Home Service in 1947 – see Coming Home, p. 214. See William S. Peterson, John Betjeman: A Bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), p. 426. See, for example, Hillier pp. 264-65, p. 398. See Candida Lycett Green, The Dangerous Edge of Things: A Village Childhood (London: Doubleday, 2005), p. 26. John Betjeman: Letters, Volume Two: 1951 to 1984, ed. Candida Lycett Green (London: Methuen, 2006), p. 291, p. 485. The poems are ‘The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922’ (CP, pp. 118-19), the muse of which, once thought to be Emily Sears, has recently been identified as Greta Wyndham (see The Sunday Times, 24 November 2014, p. 20), and ‘A Lament for Moira McCavendish’ (CP, pp. 249-50), a rather transparent pseudonym for Elizabeth Cavendish. A.N. Wilson, Betjeman (London: Arrow Books, 2007), p. 211. It was printed in the second (and final) number of the Oxford magazine Harlequin. See Peterson, p. 245. See Letters, Vol 1, pp. 480-81. Taylor-Martin, John Betjeman: His Life and Work (London: Allen Lane, 1983), p. 131. Imogen Lycett Green, Grandmother’s Footsteps: A Journey in Search of Penelope Betjeman (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994), p. 18. Ibid. A series of cartoons Betjeman sent to his wife (as ‘Saint Centipeda’) envisaging her adventures in Rome reflects the enduring sense of humour that, perhaps more than anything else, united this couple. They are reprinted in Coming Home, pp. 217-24. ‘The Lonely Laureate’, interview with Wilfred de’Ath, Illustrated London News 262 (March 1974): pp. 45-6, p. 46. Candida Lycett Green recalls that ‘JB enjoyed driving as fast as his car would go. If he got behind a slow driver he would curse and shake his fist’ (Letters, Vol 1, p. 372). Penelope would have got the message: one of many amusing moments in her correspondence with her husband indicates that she shared his love for The Diary of a Nobody: ‘He tells me Emily has LEFT poor Zimmer and gone off to Hawaii with a lover, and that his sister had left her husband. I felt rather like Mr Pooter as all his relatives I asked after had – not died, - but left their hubbies’ (undated letter, British Library Betjeman Archive, Add. 71652).

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