Monday, October 5, 2020

John Betjeman*

John Betjeman (1906—1984) is one of Britain’s most popular twentieth century poets. He differed from most of his peers in that he was neither a modernist (like his school teacher T.S. Eliot) nor an academic (like his Oxford tutor C.S. Lewis). He had a love for Victorian architecture, as existed in railway stations and churches ― even writing books on the subject, the first of which was Ghastly Good Taste (1933). There is a nostalgia expressed in his verse, which appealed to the common people in Britain’s post-war years.

He became a High-Church Anglican while still in school ― a conversion which significantly influenced the rest of his life.

In his poetry he often mocked ideals of progress, and attitudes of the privileged, and church-goers who didn’t see their own hypocrisy. He honestly expressed his own doubts and his fear of death, which can be seen in the following poem.

Before the Anaesthetic

Intolerably sad, profound
St. Giles's bells are ringing round,
They bring the slanting summer rain
To tap the chestnut boughs again
Whose shadowy cave of rainy leaves
The gusty belfry-song receives.
Intolerably sad and true,
Victorian red and jewel blue,
The mellow bells are ringing round
And charge the evening light with sound,
And I look motionless from bed
On heavy trees and purple red
And hear the midland bricks and tiles
Throw back the bells of stone St. Giles,
Bells, ancient now as castle walls,
Now hard and new as pitchpine stalls,
Now full with help from ages past,
Now dull with death and hell at last.
Swing up! and give me hope of life,
Swing down! and plunge the surgeon's knife.
I, breathing for a moment, see
Death wing himself away from me
And think, as on this bed I lie,
Is it extinction when I die?
I move my limbs and use my sight;
Not yet, thank God, not yet the Night.
Oh better far those echoing hells
Half-threaten'd in the pealing bells
Than that this "I" should cease to be
Come quickly, Lord, come quick to me.
St. Giles's bells are asking now
"And hast thou known the Lord, hast thou?"
St. Giles's bells, they richly ring
"And was that Lord our Christ the King?"
St. Giles's bells they hear me call
I never knew the lord at all
Oh not in me your Saviour dwells
You ancient, rich St. Giles's bells.
Illuminated missals ― spires ―
Wide screens and decorated quires ―
All these I loved, and on my knees
I thanked myself for knowing these
And watched the morning sunlight pass
Through richly stained Victorian glass
And in the colour-shafted air
I, kneeling, thought the Lord was there.
Now, lying in the gathering mist
I know that Lord did not exist;
Now, lest this "I" should cease to be,
Come, real Lord, come quick to me.
With every gust the chestnut sighs,
With every breath, a mortal dies;
The man who smiled alone, alone,
And went his journey on his own
With "Will you give my wife this letter,
In case, of course, I don't get better?"
Waits for his coffin lid to close
On waxen head and yellow toes.
Almighty Saviour, had I Faith
There'd be no fight with kindly Death.
Intolerably long and deep
St. Giles's bells swing on in sleep:
"But still you go from here alone"
Say all the bells about the Throne.

*This is the third Kingdom Poets post about John Betjeman: first post
second post.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. His latest poetry collection is Ampersand (2018, Cascade). His books are available through Amazon, and Wipf & Stock, including the anthologies The Turning Aside, and Adam, Eve, & the Riders of the Apocalypse.