John Betjeman dismissed as ‘songster of tennis lawns’ in 1967 search for poet laureate

Sir John Betjeman was dismissed as a “songster of tennis lawns and cathedral cloisters” evoking an “aroma of lavender and faint musk” five years before he was finally appointed to the prestigious post of poet laureate, newly released government documents reveal.

WH Auden, meanwhile, was regarded by some as the best candidate but was once ruled out because he had taken US citizenship and because of a pornographic poem that had appeared under his name in an underground magazine. The work, titled The Gobble Poem, was said to be “of so filthy a character that his appointment would bring disgrace upon the office”.

Papers released by the National Archives reveal the internecine cut-throat world of poetry as successive governments sought consultation on recommendations to Buckingham Palace for the crown appointment, for which the incumbent received £70 annually and £27 in lieu of a “butt of sack” (a barrel of Spanish wine).

Betjeman was first shortlisted in 1967 after the death of John Masefield. John Hewitt, Harold Wilson’s secretary for appointments who was tasked with consulting on candidates, was deluged with applications from the public advancing their own claims, and even received a hand-drawn “flower card” from the American beat poet Allan Ginsberg with the words “Donovan for laureate”, referring to the one-named pop-singing “hippy” poet, records reveal.

In a scathing take-down of Betjeman, Lord Goodman, the chair of the Arts Council, wrote to Hewitt: “The songster of tennis lawns and cathedral cloisters does not, it seems to me, make a very suitable incumbent for the poet laureateship of a new and vital world in which we hope we are living. An aroma of lavender and faint musk is really not right for an appointment of this kind at this moment. It is much too nostalgic and backward looking.”

Geoffrey Handley-Taylor, the chair of the Poetry Society, cautioned Hewitt against Stevie Smith, calling her “unstable” and adding: “She sang her verses at the recent Festival Hall affair and afterwards tore her bouquet to pieces on the platform.”

Handley-Taylor also thought Hugh MacDiarmid was “heavily on the bottle and has rejoined the Communist party”; Edmund Blunden “suffered from severe mental lapses and was almost unintelligible at times”; and Betjeman was “rather a lightweight who called himself a poetic hack rather than a poet and there was some truth in this”.

The post went to Cecil Day-Lewis. But after his death in 1972, Betjeman was again in the running, and with Edward Heath now prime minister, Hewitt again set about consulting.

Auden was 5-4 favourite with the bookmakers Ladbrokes and was regarded by many of those consulted as the best poet, with Robert Graves also lauded. But the former lived in the US and the latter in Mallorca.

So horrified was Ross McWhirter, a TV presenter and co-founder of the Guinness Book of Records, that he wrote to Buckingham Palace and No 10 drawing attention to The Gobble Poem. He showed it to Hewitt, who wrote in a confidential memo that it “ran to about 30 verses of an utterly revolting character”. While there was no evidence Auden had written it, despite it being published under his name, there was “equally no denial”, Hewitt said.

Auden, who was not eligible anyway due to his US citizenship, did reportedly admit to friends his authorship of the poem, also known as The Platonic Blow, which discussed oral sex.

In a letter to Christopher Roberts, one of Heath’s private secretaries, Jon Stallworthy, an Oxford professor, poet and literary critic, delivered his own brutal assessment of runners and riders. Auden was the most important “homegrown poet (with the exception of Graves, the wild man of Majorca) now living”, he wrote. But having accepted US citizenship, “for him now to turn his coat again would make a mockery of the laureateship. If, like a football club, we are simply looking for a world-class performer, let us persuade a [Robert] Lowell or a [Pablo] Neruda, or even Chairman Mao to change his nationality.”

He wrote that Betjeman was the “most English” and a “social poet”; Philip Larkin “though most likely to write a good/great poem” was “a reserved man who will never give a public reading”: and Stephen Spender’s reputation “had not survived the 30s when he was known as one of Auden’s lesser satellites”.

The Poets’ Conference, which saw itself as a poets’ union, favoured Adrian Mitchell, a poet of the left and CND supporter. “As you will remember, he is the person who put on a vulgar display at Southwark Cathedral when you were there,” Hewitt wrote to Heath of Mitchell.

In a further note to Heath, Hewitt wrote: “If you are prepared to ignore the younger way-outers like Adrian Mitchell, the down-and-outers like George Barker, the old mandarins of poetry like Sacheverell Sitwell, the poets who live in a twilight world like poor David Gascoyne and the hard drinkers like Vernon Scannell, the remaining list is stolid but not unimpressive.”

Plumping for Betjeman, he wrote there might be “a certain amount of criticism on the ground that he is an establishment figure”. He was “ by no means the most eminent English poet, although he may be the best candidate … at this stage”, he wrote.