The Poet Laureate of England never has had to do much for his pittance—just scribble a few lines to commemorate royal occasions. But after the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II last week, the current laureate, Sir John Betjeman, 70, could probably have used the “butt of sack”—the cask of sherry—that once came with the job.
Betjeman’s troubles began when he wrote the words to a hymn marking Elizabeth’s 25th year as Queen. The Silver Jubilee hymn had scarcely been sung when Britons sent up a cranky chorus of jeers. “Worse than this we cannot go,” sniffed the Guardian. A Poetry Society official called his lyric “nursery-rhyme gibberish,” and Conservative MP Nicholas Fairbairn dubbed it “crude, vin ordinaire plonk.”
Most criticism focused on the singsong rhymes, for example: “From that look of dedication/In those eyes profoundly blue,/We know her coronation/As a sacrament and true.” It didn’t sing badly (Malcolm Williamson composed the music), and its performance drew a long ovation. And Betjeman could draw some amusement from MP Fairbairn’s attempted improvement on the work: “Queen Sovereign universal,/Queen my Queen,/Silver Queen, glint of Britain,/Queen woman serene.”
The Poet Laureate’s following in Britain is large, owing mainly to his television appearances. His tottering, disheveled personage and puckish manner are beloved national fixtures, and his poetry is generally popular. The Collected Poems have sold more than 225,000 copies. He wrote a scant 12 lines for Princess Anne’s wedding in 1973 and was silent on Elizabeth’s 50th birthday last April. “I just have to wait on the management for inspiration,” he says. “You can’t force it.” He has been known to inspire himself with morning champagne, leading to stronger stuff as the day progresses until, as he once wrote, the evening sometimes darkens into port.
Sir John’s background is checkered. Oxford flunked him in Scripture. Then, to support a wife and two children, he hacked out travel guides and book reviews until 1930, when he published his first volume of poetry. A quarter century later came TV celebrity, followed by knighthood and an honorary doctorate at Oxford.
Amicably parted from his Lady Penelope for 20 years, Betjeman went into seclusion last week with his longtime companions—his Teddy bear Archibald and stuffed elephant Jumbo. “Hymns are not good poems,” he said before he left, “nor is God Save the Queen.” Perhaps, in his solitude, he is mulling the unknown 18th-century writer who got away clean after wrestling its penultimate rhymes to the mat: “Oh Lord our God, arise,/Scatter our enemies,/And make them fall.”