Reaction Weekend

The private lives of poets

BY Alexander Larman   /  14 June 2019

The revelation in last weekend’s Sunday Times that the much-loved Poet Laureate John Betjeman – so-called ‘teddy bear to the nation’ – had a racier side to him that manifested itself in writing gay love poetry may, conceivably, have come as a shock to a few colonels and maiden aunts in Tunbridge Wells. Certainly, for those used to lightly bittersweet paeans to Englishness, there is a faintly uncompromising feel to such newly discovered poems as Sweets and Cake, a description of schoolboy sex, in which Betjeman presents himself as a character called “Teddy Sale” and praises his own “sturdy little arse”, before matters go somewhat further:

‘Look out I’m coming!” Teddy cries

And further he undoes his flies

And up and down he rubs his prick.

“Kiss me, Neville, kiss me quick!’

Sweets and Cake is unlikely, for all its novelty value, to join the Betjeman canon. However, for those who seem shocked by the revelation that its author was, if not necessarily bisexual, certainly bicurious, they have not studied his poetry very carefully. His most famous work, A Subaltern’s Love-Song, which introduced the world to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, praised his “shock-headed victor” as possessing “the grace of a boy”, and he certainly enjoyed sexual relations with both women and men in his early years, which gave the lie to his famous deathbed comment that his greatest regret in life was “not having had enough sex”. One of his most famous liaisons was with WH Auden when both men were students at Oxford in the Twenties; when Auden’s ‘scout’ discovered the aftermath of their encounter the next day, he had to be bribed with five pounds to keep quiet. Auden’s later, damning, comment on the whole affair was “it wasn’t worth the fiver.”

Still, even if this new aspect of Betjeman, sturdy little arse and all, may cause consternation and surprise to a few biographers and literary critics, it still establishes him as relatively mild when it comes to his poetic peers. Perhaps the most notorious of all English poets was the 17th century rake and libertine Lord Rochester, who rose to fame in the Restoration era and died of syphilis at 33. In his brief and eventful life, he found himself expelled from court frequently for his misdemeanours, which included destroying Charles II’s much-prized sundial in a drunken rage with the words “What? Does thou stand here to fuck time?” and once handing the king a libellous poem that he had written about him, A Satire On Charles II, which began:

In th’ isle of Britain, long since famous grown
For breeding the best cunts in Christendom,
There reigns, and oh! long may he reign and thrive,
The easiest King and best-bred man alive.

It then diversified into even wilder – and dirtier – areas. Yet Rochester was not someone who could be accused of leading a conventional life. Other escapades of his included abducting Elizabeth Malet, the woman who later became his wife, setting himself up as a fraudulent doctor – “Alexander Bendo” – who specialised “not without success” in curing infertility, and allegedly converting to Christianity on his deathbed, although the facts of this have been much debated.

For all the bad behaviour, though, he remained an acute observer of the strangeness and debauchery of the court, writing such epic poems as A Satire Against Reason and Mankind that took aim at the false society that he was one of the leading lights within, and always retaining a sad sense of self-awareness.

When he wrote in his late poem To The Postboy that “I’ve swived more whores more ways than Sodom’s walls ever knew”, he also knew that he, a “peerless peer”, was bound, in his own worlds, on “the readiest way to hell”.

Despite his extraordinary behaviour, Rochester was also a loving husband, loyal friend and devoted father, and an altogether more likeable figure than the other great noble poet of England, Lord Byron. One of the few writers to have lent his name to the language as an adjective, Byron combined extraordinary personal attractiveness – despite a club foot and lifelong struggles with obesity which he dealt with by a mixture of starvation and cures that Bendo might have prescribed – with a chilling absence of morals. When he briefly tired of molesting aristocratic ladies and serving boys (he was nothing if not egalitarian in his tastes), he married Annabella Milbanke, but their union was doomed from the beginning, not least because he was having an affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh.

After suffering a mixture of rape and psychological abuse at his hands, she eventually obtained a divorce, and Byron was forced into a humiliating exile in Europe, where, after he fathered a child by Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, he placed the little girl in a nunnery, mainly on the grounds that her presence frustrated his love affairs. The girl, Allegra, died at the age of 5 of a typhus outbreak; Byron was grief-stricken, saying “While she lived, her existence never seemed necessary to my happiness; but no sooner did I lose her, than it appeared to me as if I could not live without her”. He himself died a couple of years later at the age of 36, still wracked by guilt at his neglect.

There are many other instances of bad poetic behaviour amongst our greatest writers. Whether it is the much-debated rumours of Ted Hughes’ domestic violence to Sylvia Plath, whatever was going on in the dark recesses of Philip Larkin’s psyche or the recurrent discussions about TS Eliot’s anti-semitism, it seems clear that great writing and a complex personal life seem inextricably entwined, whether that helps or even hinders the work. With all this in mind, it will be interesting to see whether our new Poet Laureate Simon Armitage has any spectacular skeletons in his closet – and if not, whether he’ll spend the next few years in a frantic attempt to acquire a few for future biographers to puzzle over.


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