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“Behind the backs of houses”

Landscapes of Englishness in the Postwar Railway Poetry of John Betjeman and Philip Larkin

Heather Joyce

Keywords: CRISIS; CULTURE; ENGLISHNESS; HERITAGE; LANDSCAPE; PRESERVATION; RAILWAYS

Railways in John Betjeman's and Philip Larkin's poems of the 1950s and 1960s function as provocative signifiers that interrogate and encourage definition of what constitutes the modern English landscape. Through their works, which recognize how railways have been held to register the cultural health of the nation from their inception, it becomes clear that the panoramic perception that railways make possible aptly represents the self-conscious cultural gaze filtered through crisis that critics argue prevails in the postwar context. Betjeman's and Larkin's speakers reveal the capacity for railway travel to disrupt the settled vision of nationhood at the heart of heritage-based Englishness; at the same time, railways – and they themselves – are not outside of this discourse. For Betjeman and, to a greater extent, Larkin, it is the possibility of double return embodied by the railway system that perhaps proffers a desirable mode of inhabiting the modern English nation.

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