On this day in history….28th August 1906

On this day in history : 28th August 1906 – The birth of Sir John Betjeman – much loved broadcaster on British television and one of the most popular British Poets Laureate of all time….

Sir John Betjeman, 1961 – Public domain

Born John Betjemann, with a father of Dutch descent, the family name changed to Betjeman at the time of World War One, to make it appear a little less German….

After finishing his education Betjeman declined employment in the family’s furniture business…. In his early schooling he was taught by poet T.S. Eliot – and then later, whilst at Oxford University, his tutor was a young C.S. Lewis…. However, whereas Eliot was encouraging and inspiring Lewis was not so supportive, regarding Betjeman as an ‘idle prig’…. The feeling was mutual – in return Betjeman found Lewis demanding and uninspiring as a tutor…. He was to leave Oxford without a degree and went on to work in a variety of fields – as a private secretary, a period as a school teacher and then as a film critic for the Evening Standard…. Betjeman had first had his poetry published whilst at Oxford, in the university magazine The Isis…. His first book of poems, Mount Zion, was published in 1931….

A young Betjeman – Public domain

It was in 1932 that his broadcasting career began, a radio programme about the proposed destruction of Waterloo Bridge…. The previous year he had become assistant editor of The Architectural Review – as a result of his love for buildings and their history…. Betjeman was to become a founding member of the Victorian Society, aimed at protecting our Victorian and Edwardian heritage and architecture…. His first book on the subject, Ghastly Good Taste, was published in 1933…. It was also in this year that he married travel writer the Hon. Penelope Chetwode, the only daughter of Field Marshal Lord Chetwode…. They were to have two children, a son Paul and daughter Candida – the marriage was to break down in the late 1940s….

Betjeman was rejected for active military service in 1939 – instead he did work for the films division of the Ministry of Information…. He still did regular radio work, something that was to continue throughout his life – including interviews, documentaries, panel shows, even game shows – and of course poetry readings…. By 1937 the BBC was making regular screen broadcasts and Betjeman’s first television appearance was on a programme named How to Make a Guidebook…. From the 1950s he was to become a familiar face on television….

In 1960 he was to be awarded a CBE and then in 1962 he was knighted…. He succeeded Cecil Day Lewis as Britain’s Poet Laureate in 1972…. Later in his life he was to suffer from Parkinson’s disease – and was prominently featured in campaigns for Parkinson UK…. He died in Cornwall on the 19th of May 1984….

The following poem, ‘Slough’, is from John Betjeman’s 1937 collection Continental Dew…. The poem was written to show his dismay at the industrialisation of Britain…. Slough being a prime example – as it was used as a dumping ground for surplus war materials after World War One – and had also seen around 850 new factories built….

Come friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs, and blow to smithereens
Those air-conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town -
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week for half-a-crown
For twenty years,

And get that man with double chin
Who’ll always cheat and always win,
Who washes his repulsive skin
In women’s tears,

And smash his desk of polished oak
And smash his hands so used to stroke
And stop his boring dirty joke
And make him yell.

But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It’s not their fault that they are mad,
They’ve tasted Hell.

It’s not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It’s not their fault they often go
To Maidenhead

And talk of sports and makes of cars
In various bogus Tudor bars
And daren’t look up and see the stars
But belch instead,

In labour-saving homes, with care
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.

Come friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales

Of course, no offence intended if you live in Slough – this poem could have been written about so many places… What is poignant for me is that this was written in the 1930s – and nothing much has changed…. Except that we’re now finally beginning to accept we have to do something about it….

On this day in history….8th July 1822

On this day in history : 8th July 1822 – The death of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley – who drowned in a sudden storm whilst sailing his schooner in Italy….

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint – Public domain

The small schooner, ‘Don Juan’, was an open boat that had been custom built for Shelley in Genoa…. He was sailing from Livorno and was returning home to Lerici, when whilst in the Gulf of La Spezla, 10 miles from shore, a sudden violent storm struck – and the boat sank….

Although there was some suggestion that the boat had possibly been rammed, by a larger vessel, the accident was put down to the severe weather and the poor seamanship of the three men onboard…. As well as Shelley ‘Don Juan’ had been carrying retired naval officer Edward Elleker Williams and boat-boy Charles Vivien….

However, there were those who believed the sinking of ‘Don Juan’ was not an accident – and the stories began to circulate…. They ranged from Shelley having committed suicide on account of suffering from depression to the more fanciful idea of having been attacked by pirates…. It is said an Italian fisherman later confessed on his deathbed to having rammed the boat in order to rob it….

Shelley was having financial difficulties at the time; he owed a substantial sum after leaving his former home in wales without paying any rent – as well as having other debts – so he certainly had his enemies…. There was also a theory, which had some supporting evidence, that he may have been murdered by one of his enemies – some think by an intelligence agent who strongly disagreed with Shelley’s political views…. He had indeed been attacked by such a person in the past….and the supposed ramming of his boat fuelled the speculation….

Shelley’s body washed ashore a few days later – and would have already been in a state of decomposition…. As in keeping with quarantine regulations he was cremated on the beach near to Viareggio…. He had died just a month before his 30th birthday….

The funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier (1889) – Public domain

His ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome – with the Latin inscription ‘Cor Cordium’ – meaning ‘Heart of Hearts’…. And then followed with a few lines from Aerial’s song from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’…. Eventually a memorial to Shelley was created at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey….

Photo credit : RubyEmpress – own work – CC BY-SA 4.0

On this day in history….19th November 1850

On this day in history : 19th November 1850 – Alfred, Lord Tennyson becomes Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland….

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Alfred, Lord Tennyson – George Frederic Watts – Public domain

Tennyson succeeded William Wordsworth after his death and he remained Poet Laureate until his own death in 1892 – the longest tenure ever in the role…. He was the appointed Poet Laureate for much of the Victorian era….and indeed was a great comfort to Queen Victoria after the death of her beloved Prince Albert in 1861…. She was quoted as saying “Next to the Bible ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’ is my comfort”…. The work by Tennyson she referred to being one of his most popular – a tribute to a dear departed friend….

Tennyson still remains one of our most influential poets today…. Many of us will not realise it but our English language is peppered with quotes and sayings from his poetry….

‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all’, comes from In Memoriam A.H.H…. Other sayings that slip into our speech, either as they were originally penned by Tennyson or adapted to suit modern day life: ‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers’, from Locksley Hall ~ ‘Who are wise in love, love most, say least’, from Merlin and Vivienne, a passionate love story ~ ‘A lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies’ ~ ‘Nor is it wiser to weep a true occasion lost, but trim our souls, and let old bygones be’ ~ ‘If I had a flower for every time I thought of you….I could walk through my garden forever’…. (This particular one has featured in many a wedding speech)….

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Tennyson with his family, wife Emily and sons Hallam and Lionel – Photograph : Oscar Gustave Rejlander – Public domain

One of Tennyson’s most quoted and inspirational works has to be The Charge of the Light Brigade…. It was used as an influence in the film Saving Private Ryan – and the Iron Maiden song The Trooper was inspired by it…. The poem pays tribute to the brave British cavalrymen who lost their lives at the disastrous, ill-advised charge that took place at the Battle of Balaclava on the 25th of October 1854, during the Crimean War…. The poem from which we get the well known saying ‘Their’s is not to reason why, their’s but to do or die’….

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Painting of the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ – Richard Caton Woodville, Jr – Public domain

The Charge of the Light Brigade
Half a league, half a league
Half a league onward,
All in the Valley of Death
– Rode the six hundred
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said,
Into the Valley of Death
– Rode the six hundred.

” Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the World wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered.
Then they broke back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the World wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

~Lord, Alfred Tennyson

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Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Julia Margaret Cameron – Public domain

On this day in history….27th October 1914

On this day in history : 27th October – The birth of Dylan Thomas, perhaps the most legendary of 20th century poets – but also known for his hard drinking and boisterous behaviour….

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Dylan Thomas in New York, 1952 – Fair use

Born Dylan Marlais Thomas, in Swansea, Wales, his father an English teacher and his mother a seamstress, the young Dylan developed an interest in language at an early age…. His father would read Shakespeare to him at bedtime – Dylan loved the sound of the words, even if he was too young to understand them….

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5, Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea – birthplace of Dylan Thomas – Photo credit : Hywel Williams CC BY-SA 2.0

On leaving school at 16 Dylan became a journalist for a while – but had his first poems published whilst still in his teens…. Dylan wrote hundreds of poems, short stories, a novel and a play during his lifetime…. He was a disciplined writer, often re-drafting his work to the point of obsession – his poetry having a musical, nostalgic tone, frequently focusing on childhood and death…. Some of his greatest work was produced in the 1940s, particularly his 1946 collection which was heavily influenced by war….

In 1936 Dylan met Caitlin Macnamara and they married the following year at Penzance Registry Office…. They moved to Laugharne, a Welsh fishing village, in 1938 – where they settled and raised their three children…. It was a stormy marriage, fuelled by alcohol, infidelity and money problems – but they remained together until Dylan’s death….

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The Boat House, Laugharne – where Dylan and Caitlin raised their family – Photo credit : GerritR CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1950 Dylan fulfilled an ambition to tour the United States, giving readings of his work – which attracted large audiences…. The very nature of the trip meant much socialising was done and Dylan returned home with very little money – he had effectively drank his profits…. Another two trips to the States ended the same way – not surprisingly this caused a rift between himself and Caitlin….

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Dylan’s writing shed at Laugharne – Photo credit : wardyboy400 CC BY 2.0

Dylan’s father died on the 16th of December 1952; as an English teacher at a grammar school he had been disappointed with his position in life – he had longed to be a poet; how proud he must have been of his son…. Dylan had great respect for his father and watching him succumb to the ravages of cancer would have torn him apart…. Indeed whilst his father lay on his deathbed, Dylan wrote one of his most emotive poems ~ “Do not go gentle into that good night”…. Little did Dylan know at that time that in less than a year he would face his own untimely death – at the age of just 39…. On a last fateful trip to New York in October 1953 and after several bouts of heavy drinking Dylan was taken ill at the Chelsea Hotel on the 4th of November…. He was admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital where he died five days later – the cause of his death pneumonia and pressure on the brain – due to excessive alcohol…

"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forced no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
                              ~ Dylan Thomas

On this day in history….23rd April 1915

On this day in history : 23rd April 1915 – The death of English poet Rupert Brooke, known for his sonnets written in World War I – especially ‘The Soldier’….

Rupert Chawner Brook was born in Rugby, Warwickshire on the 3rd of August 1887 – he was the third of four children…. He attended prep school and then went to Rugby and Cambridge University….

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From a photograph by Sherril Schell taken in 1913

Known for his boyish good looks, Brooke was a popular character – amongst his friends were the likes of mountaineer George Mallory and writer Virginia Woolf…. Brooke belonged to the Bloomsbury group of writers and to the Georgian Poets….he was also one of the most important of the ‘Dymock Poets’ and lived in the Gloucestershire village for a while…. In 1912 he suffered an emotional breakdown after his long-term relationship with Katherine Laird Cox, whom he had met at University, ended….

At the outbreak of World War I Brooke immediately enlisted and came into the public eye for his war poetry the following year…. The Times Literary Supplement had published two of his sonnets – ‘The Dead’ and ‘The Soldier’…. On Easter Sunday, the 4th of April 1915, ‘The Soldier’ was read as part of the service at St. Paul’s Cathedral….in less than three weeks time Brooke was to pass away….img_3020

Coming to the attention of Winston Churchill, who was at the time First Lord of the Admiralty, Brooke was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve….taking part in the Antwerp Expedition in October 1914…. On the 28th of February 1915 he sailed with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force bound for the Gallipoli Campaign….

It was during the voyage he developed sepsis from an infected mosquito bite…. At 4.46pm on the 23rd of April 1915, on board the ‘Duguay-Trouin’, a French hospital ship moored in a bay off of the Greek island of Skyros, Brooke died…. He was buried in an olive grove on the island at 11pm that night….

Grave of Rupert Brooke on the Greek island of Skyros

On the 11th of November 1985 he was one of sixteen World War I poets’ names to be commemorated at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey…. The inscription on the slate monument reads the words ~ “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity” ~ ….and are by Brooke’s fellow war poet Wilfred Owen….

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Rupert Brooke – From the collections of the Imperial War Museums