Subversion of Notions of Upper and Middle Class Morality in Betjeman’s Poems

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Betjeman challenges the Victorian notion of upper and middle class morality by presenting speakers, whom are engulfed by their wealth and social status to the point of viewing themselves as entitled. Although his love for Victorians is prominent, he found it difficult to resist making fun of them. The Marxist Critic Leon Trotsky states: “The ruling class forces its ends upon society and habituates it into considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral.” This is evident from when Betjeman, through caricatures, adopts arrogant personas of affluent individuals who are politically, socially and geographically inside of the hegemonic power structure and do not see the collective effects they have on others in society, especially those whom were considered ‘lower’ on the social hierarchy. However, this can also be refuted because in “Executive” and “The City”, Betjeman portrays egotistical males who seem to boast about their wealth in a way that ultimately depicts what 21st century readers would define as toxic masculinity rather than ignorance. Yet, in “Westminster Abbey”, the female speaker is constructed to be ultimately ignorant, which collectively presents the upper class as comic fools who inadvertently create comedy because of their stupidity when it comes to distinguishing reality from fantasy. As Betjeman was an upper-middle class man whose parents worked for their relative wealth, he was an outsider who could see the flaws amongst aristocracy, which could be what he’s reflecting through his choice of speakers. Although there isn’t conclusive evidence to suggest that Betjeman was a Marxist, this doesn’t mean that he didn’t think the upper-classes were more moral or noble. He uses these poems to collectively implicate a faulty system for allowing aristocrats to assume a level of superiority. Rather than create a sense of judgement of them being detestable people, he is attempting to make us laugh at their foolishness.

Betjeman satirises social class in ‘Executive’ by drastically opposing the common belief that those of upper class were moral or noble. He does this by narrating the poem from the perspective of an arrogant and insecure man who is seen as a ‘social-climber’ from the middle class. His constant boasting, e.g. “let me sign the bill”, projects his insecurity as he feels the constant need to talk about what he owns and does even though he doesn’t particularly need to. This is emphasised further by the need to complicate simple phrases, by changing the language of the word, in order to make him seem intelligent and/or superior. For example, “the maîtres d’hôtel all know me well”. The phrase “maître d’hôtel” can simply be defined as the head waiter of a restaurant or the manager of a hotel. Over-complicating such a simple occupation makes him seem snobbish rather than educated as he feels the need to make everything sound unnecessarily sophisticated. This idea could be a reflection of himself as throughout the whole poem, he makes himself sound as though he is more excelling and superior than he really is- talking about himself so highly but he has a “Slimline brief-case”. Yet the references to superiority in society creates a false sense of complexity as he never actually confirms his occupation; therefore, doesn’t confirm his status in society- creating a sense of humour at his unnecessary boasting.

In Betjeman’s poem “The City”, he adopts an outside perspective of business men rather than adopting negative personas of the individuals themselves. Marxists believe that every text has an “overt” content and a “covert” meaning; whereby there is always a hidden meaning behind what is written on the surface of the text (what can easily be identified); the covert meaning can always be understood as revealing something related to the class struggle in society. “Business men with awkward hips and dirty jokes upon their lips” creates an uncomforting image of crinkly old men who are exerting sexual jokes within the work force, fundamentally opposing the idea of ‘professionalism’ suggested to maintain within upper class occupations. The Marxist critic H. Bertens stated “Capitalism thrives on exploiting its labourers”. This is evident when the narrator states: “lump white fingers made to curl round some anaemic girl”. This creates a disgusting image of old business men flirting, possibly sexually assaulting young girls during their place of work rather than concentrating solemnly on their business in the City. Women are most likely to be diagnosed with iron-deficiency anaemia during their teenage years due to the blood loss from menstruation, further expressing how young these girls could truly be. Although the businessmen are described in a way which makes them seem despicable, he could be using these techniques as a way of creating passion for change amongst the class system.

Betjeman also subverts the ideas in which the upper class are seen as noble in “Westminster Abbey” by creating a female narrator within a dramatic monologue whom is suggested to be praying to God, yet it seems more like a negotiation in favour of herself only- revealing her selfish flaw. He shows this by using an inconsistent rhyme scheme, which could represent inconsistent beliefs, which collectively oppose the idea of a ‘selfless’ prayer. Especially when she states: “protect the whites” as it is reinforcing segregation between those with different coloured skin. While she apparently ‘prays’ for the safety of ‘Gallant blacks’ she would ultimately prefer that God prioritise the whites as the adjective ‘Gallant’ can be seen as patronizing and slightly offensive. She assumes colonialist superiority and white cultural supremacy. Betjeman undermines the idea that upper class people, like this narrator, are ‘noble’ and ‘moral’ just by projecting their core beliefs and values. In a list form, she states “think of what our nation stands for, books from Boots’ and country lanes, free speech, free passes, class distinction and proper drains”. This list seems to be creating an order of importance in her mind that is constructed in an illogical manner.

The fact she includes class distinction in her list further expresses the idea of her reinforcing segregations she believes it’s important to separate the different classes rather than unite them. Democracy (equal rights) and free speech should be at the top of her list yet they’re at the bottom as though they didn’t have much importance, suggesting that it hasn’t exactly affected her as she has always had rights and free speech due to her being born into wealth. She is more bothered about having the basics like modern plumbing. She is immoral; she doesn’t see nor care about anyone’s life other than her own (she doesn’t see the great impact of “bombing the Germans”). She is also very petty and trivial considering that she doesn’t want bombs to interrupt her lunch date as well as having no regard for others, poorer Londoners who would be affected by it. Yet, we cannot completely blame the girl for her views as they are only a result of her upbringing. So, instead, Betjeman allows us to listen to the stupidity expressed in her words in a way in which we cannot truly take her seriously.

In conclusion, Betjeman uses his poems to subvert the Victorian notions of upper- and middle-class morality. His poems highlight the ignorance and arrogance of those who were viewed as ‘superior’ on the social hierarchy system. Yet, rather than creating hatred towards the upper and middle class, he expresses his views in a way in which portrays their views as ridiculous and unreliable. In his poem “Executive”, he narrates the poem from the perspective of a social climber who aims to be viewed as upper class to state a sense of importance in society, yet decides to do it in a boastful way which primarily had the opposite effect. However, in “The City”, he changes the perspective of the narrator so that it portrays an outside outlook on the business workplace whereby exploitation of workers is consistent yet left unspoken; however, he decides to target this corruption. Additionally, in “Westminster Abbey”, Betjeman explores the views of a wealthy young girl whose views lack knowledge of the important things in life and can be seen as cold-hearted towards those she deems as ‘lower’ than her. Overall, Betjeman’s poems comprehensively subvert the notions of middle and upper class morality.


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