Sir John Betjeman was a poet of small things and of familiar loves. Nothing great or heroic have I found there, but what is small can still be sincere and can be charged with such an intensity as shows another sort of greatness.
In loving what is familiar, Betjeman loved the Church of England. In loving the Church of England sincerely he loved Christianity. It is manifested without sentimentality or affectation. You will find many of his poems dealing with religious themes worthwhile. He loves the ringing of the bells, the stained glass windows, but through them the realities of meaning.
In loving and exposing things that were ridiculous, Betjeman’s verse can come close to seeming doggerel. I do not believe it is, for all that it is sometimes metrically ridiculous. I think it is always what it is with a purpose, and when it borders on ridiculous, it is usually for an ironic purpose. He is frequently subtle, if I have perceived him rightly.
It seems to me Betjeman was a man keenly aware of his limitations: limitations in experience, in situation, and even in his own powers. But he did not resent those limitations; they were the thing that made his art. He was also very comic, but never have I found him to be simply comic. Always there is another satisfaction, always the poem comes with an insight harvested out of reflection, however rueful.
I admire his poetry and I admire his skill with rhyme and verse and language. Let me recommend to you who love England, or who love small things and unheroic, or enjoy good verse, John Betjeman’s poetry.
The poem below is characteristic: the sense of a particular English place, the speaking of a female voice, a quiet and religious theme, the greatness of something small . . . and this curious habit of working in the number of a certain year.
Felixstowe, or The Last of Her Order
With one consuming roar along the shingle
The long wave claws and rakes the pebbles down
To where its backwash and the next wave mingle,
A mounting arch of water weedy-brown
Against the tide the off-shore breezes blow.
Oh wind and water, this is Felixstowe.
In winter when the sea winds chill and shriller
Than those of summer, all their cold unload
Full on the gimcrack attic of the villa
Where I am lodging off the Orwell Road,
I put my final shilling in the meter
And only make my loneliness completer.
In eighteen ninety-four when we were founded,
Counting our Reverend Mother we were six,
How full of hope we were and prayer-surrounded
“The Little Sisters of the Hanging Pyx”.
We built our orphanage. We built our school.
Now only I am left to keep the rule.
Here in the gardens of the Spa Pavillion
Warm in the whisper of the summer sea,
The cushioned scabious, a deep vermillion,
With white pins stuck in it, looks up at me
A sun-lit kingdom touched by butterflies
And so my memory of the winter dies.
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.
I hurry past a cakeshop’s tempting scones
Bound for the red brick twilight of St.John’s.
“Thou knowest my down sitting and mine uprising”
Here where the white light burns with steady glow
Safe from the vain world’s silly sympathising,
Safe with the love I was born to know,
Safe from the surging of the lonely sea
My heart finds rest, my heart finds rest in Thee.