One of the most accessible Christian poets in English would have been 110 this year. John Betjeman (1906-1984), whose journalism and poetry conveyed the sooty red brick atmosphere of mid-twentieth century Britain, was late in his life honored with a knighthood and the title of Poet Laureate. Born into a prosperous manufacturing family in the north of London, he went to Oxford, where his frivolous approach to his studies exasperated his tutor, C. S. Lewis, and as has happened once or twice between Christians, for the rest of their lives they cordially disdained one another.
Among Betjeman’s enthusiasms were Victorian architecture and steam locomotives, but while several of Betjeman’s poems depict those aesthetic feats of engineering, others explore Christian themes. In 2006, in the preface to a representative collection of Betjeman’s poems, Hugo Williams, telling us more about himself than about Betjeman, complained that a number of Betjeman’s poems “are spoilt by piety,” so that “after the halfway point you search increasingly for things without bells on them.” More perceptive is Kevin J. Gardner, in his Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman (2005), observing that Betjeman’s religious poems “describe the perils of faith and the struggle to believe,” while also celebrating the cultural heritage of Christianity in England and yet demonstrating the foibles and failings of priest and people, himself not least among the latter.
Portly and occasionally lewd, Betjeman was a devout if sometimes morally lapsing Anglican. In 1948, his wife, Penelope, converted to Catholicism, and his poem “The Empty Pew,” published posthumously, poignantly muses upon spouses who worship Christ in different churches. His opening words in “Late-Flowering Lust,” “My head is bald, my breath is bad/Unshaven is my chin,” could be an uncomfortable glance over his shoulder into the morning mirror.
A shrewd noticer of passing scenes, he leaves details for us to supply. In a poem of six lines, “In a Bath Teashop,” he sketches two people, perhaps man and wife, perhaps married to two others, perhaps widow and widower finding new love after bereavement, holding hands and gazing at one another: “She, such a very ordinary little woman;/He, such a thumping crook;/But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels/In the teashop’s ingle-nook.”
One of Betjeman’s best-loved poems, “Christmas,” portrays harried people bustling around to decorate churches and town halls, and other people hurrying home from work as “marbled clouds go scudding by/The many-steepled London sky.” Yet, the frantic commercialism, with its layers of greed and guilt, has a deeper motive, and Betjeman asks “And is it true? . . . The Maker of the stars and sea/Become a Child on earth for me?” If it is true, he concludes, then, nothing “Can with this single Truth compare—/That God was man in Palestine/And lives today in Bread and Wine.”
A warden of his parish church, Betjeman would visit the sick and elderly in nursing homes, and “House of Rest” derives from a visit to the widow of an Anglican clergyman. She has tea ready for her visitor and an array of old family photographs; nearby sits her late husband’s pipe tobacco jar, in which she now keeps dried lavender. Her sons and daughters are deceased as well, but spiritually they and her husband remain close to her:
Now when the bells for Eucharist
Sound in the Market Square,
With sunshine struggling through the mist
And Sunday in the air,
The veil between her and her dead
Dissolves and shows them clear,
The Consecration Prayer is said
And all of them are near.
As these passages indicate, Betjeman has a keen eye for the way domestic life and spiritual life interweave. With a wry twinkle, he sees our and his mixed motives, like the lady praying in the poem “In Westminster Abbey,” “So, Lord, reserve for me a crown,/And do not let my shares go down.” Especially for those of us who get mired into exhaustion with Saint John of the Cross explaining the myriad and mystical facets of his otherwise brief poems, and who wonder more than once on each page what T. S. Eliot’s allusive excursions might be saying, Betjeman’s often ironic insights about the Christian life come home as blessedly clear.
Rare for someone outside a cloister, Betjeman reveals a deep understanding of religious life. In a poem written in the mid-1950s, “Felixstowe, or The Last of Her Order,” he imagines an Anglican nun in her seventies or eighties, the sole survivor of a religious community founded in 1894. “We built our orphanage,” she recalls, “We ran our school./Now only I am left to keep the rule.” Felixstowe is an old port city northeast of London, lying along the widening River Orwell as it empties into the North Sea.
She is in the world but not of the world. She scrapes by on a pittance, and she lives by herself in a drafty attic apartment off a side street. “I put my final shilling in the meter,” she says, “And only make my loneliness completer.” All the same, the last thing she needs is well-meaning people feeling sorry for her. She goes her way, and at a seaside pavilion people enjoy a band playing. Still, even pleasant afternoons in pavilions must end:
Across the grass the poplar shades grow longer
And louder clang the waves along the coast.
The band packs up. The evening breeze is stronger
And all the world goes home to tea and toast.
She, however, has a different destination. “I hurry past a cakeshop’s tempting scones,” she says, “Bound for the red brick twilight of St. John’s.” There she opens her Prayer Book for Evening Prayer, one of the texts being Psalm 139. “Thou knowest my down sitting and mine uprising,” she prays in an old translation. Scones and poplars, band music and cozy kitchens with tea and toast, all fade into a less vital plane. They are all good things, their comforts appealing to her, but she has disciplined herself to seek something better:
Here where the white light burns with steady glow
Safe from the vain world’s silly sympathizing,
Safe with the Love that I was born to know,
Safe from the surging of the lonely sea,
My heart finds rest, my heart finds rest in Thee.
English teachers tell us not to end essays with a quotation, yet saying more would be saying too much.