Tag Archives: John Betjeman

Sunday Poem 100

Today’s poem needs to be apposite for several reasons.

Firstly, it is the 100th Anniversary of The Wartime Housewife’s Sunday Poem.  I have tried to make my selections from a wide range of poets from Great Britain and abroad and have tried to make them palatably short as, personally, I wouldn’t be inclined to read 157 verses about albatrosses or unrequited love on a blog.  All publishing deals will be warmly considered.

Secondly, the first ever Sunday Poem was John Betjeman’s ‘Diary of a Church Mouse’.

Thirdly, those lovely people at Shire Books, quite coincidentally, sent me one of their newest titles ‘John Betjeman’ by Greg Morse, a beautifully illustrated little book providing an excellent introduction to the life and work of Sir Betj.

Which is why I’ve chosen this piece by Colley Cibber  … I am funning with you, of course.  These lines, by John Betjeman, offer a glimpse of my idea of a perfect English summer holiday and I feel a deep yearning for the sea even as I copy out the words.

East Anglian Bathe – by John Betjeman (1906-1984)

Oh when early morning at the seaside
Took us with hurrying steps from Horsey Mere
To see the whistling bent grass on the leaside
And then the tumbled breaker-line appear,
On high, the clouds with mighty adumbration
Sailed over us to seaward fast and clear
And jelly fish in quivering isolation
Lay silted in the dry sand of the breeze
And we, along the table-land of beach blown
Went gooseflesh from our shoulders to our knees
And ran to catch a football, each to each thrown,
In the soft and swirling music of the seas.

There splashed about our ankles as we waded
Those intersecting wavelets morning-cold,
And sudden dark a patch of sea was shaded,
And sudden light, another patch would hold
The warmth of whirling atoms in a sun-shot
And underwater sand storm green and gold.
So in we dived and louder than a gun shot
Sea-water broke in fountains down the ear.
How cold the bathe, how chattering cold the drying,
How welcoming the inland reeds appear,
The wood-smoke and the breakfast and the frying,
And your warm freshwater ripples, Horsey Mere.

 

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Sunday Poem 85

Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican – by John Betjeman (1906-1984 )

Isn’t she lovely, “the Mistress”?
With her wide-apart grey-green eyes,
The droop of her lips and, when she smiles,
Her glance of amused surprise?

How nonchalantly she wears her clothes,
How expensive they are as well!
And the sound of her voice is as soft and deep
As the Christ Church tenor bell.

But why do I call her “the Mistress”
Who know not her way of life?
Because she has more of a cared-for air
Than many a legal wife.

How elegantly she swings along
In the vapoury incense veil;
The angel choir must pause in song
When she kneels at the altar rail.

The parson said that we shouldn’t stare
Around when we come to church,
Or the Unknown God we are seeking
May forever elude our search.

But I hope that the preacher will not think
It unorthodox and odd
If I add that I glimpse in “the Mistress”
A hint of the Unknown God.

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Sunday Poem 64

As I was talking about John Piper earlier in the week, I was reminded that Myfanwy Piper  was much admired by John Betjeman about whom he wrote two poems.  Here is one of them.

Myfanwy – by John Betjeman (1906-1984 )

Kind o’er the kinderbank leans my Myfanwy,
White o’er the play-pen the sheen of her dress,
Fresh from the bathroom and soft in the nursery
Soap-scented fingers I long to caress

Were you a prefect and head of your dormit’ry?
Were you a hockey girl, tennis or gym?
Who was your favourite? Who had a crush on you?
Which were the baths where they taught you to swim?

Smooth down the Avenue glitters the bicycle,
Black-stockinged legs under navy-blue serge,
Home and Colonial, Star, International,
Balancing bicycle leant on the verge.

Trace me your wheel tracks, you fortunate bicycle,
Out of the shopping and into the dark,
Back down the Avenue, back to the pottingshed,
Back to the house on the fringe of the park.

Golden the light on the locks of Myfanwy,
Golden the light on the book on her knee,
Finger-marked pages of Rackham’s Hans Andersen,
Time for the children to come down to tea.

Oh!  Fuller’s angel-cake, Robertson’s marmalade,
Liberty lampshade, come, shine on us all,
My! What a spread for the friends of Myfanwy
Some in the alcove and some in the hall.

Then what sardines in the half-lighted passages!
Locking of fingers in long hide-and-seek.
You will protect me, my silken Myfanwy,
Ringleader, tom-boy, and chum to the weak.

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Sunday Poem 44

As I will be in Norfolk today, I decided to find a poem about that very place.  Imagine my delight when I came upon this poem by Sir Betj.

Norfolkby John Betjeman

How did the Devil come? When first attack?
These Norfolk lanes recall lost innocence,
The years fall off and find me walking back
Dragging a stick along the wooden fence
Down this same path, where, forty years ago,
My father strolled behind me, calm and slow.

I used to fill my hand with sorrel seeds
And shower him with them from the tops of styles,
I used to butt my head into his tweeds
To make him hurry down those languorous miles
Of ash and alder-shaded lanes, till here
Our moorings and the masthead would appear.

There after supper lit by lantern light
Warm in the cabin I could lie secure
And here against the polished sides at night
The lap lap lapping of the weedy Bure
A whispering and watery Norfolk sound
Telling of all the moonlit reeds around.

How did the Devil come? When first attack?
The church is just the same, though now I know
Fowler of Louth restored it. Time, bring back
The rapturous ignorance of long ago,
The peace, before the dreadful daylight starts,
Of unkept promises and broken hearts.

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Sunday Poem 30

Having had Rev and Mrs Marple for dinner and talked extensively about railways, I think a bit of Betjeman is in order.

Before Invasion, 1940 – by John Betjeman

Still heavy with may, and the sky ready to fall,
Meadow buttercup high, shed and chickens and wire?
And here where the wind leans on a sycamore silver wall,
Are you still taller than sycamores, gallant Victorian spire?

Still, fairly intact, and demolishing squads about,
Bracketed station lamp with your oil light taken away?
Weep flowering currant, while your bitter cascades are out,
Born in an age of railways, for flowering today!

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Sunday Poem 18

One can never have too much Betjeman…

Christmas by John Betjeman

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine

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Sunday Poem 1

Diary of a Church Mouse – by John Betjeman

Here among the long-discarded cassocks,
Damp stools, and half-split open hassocks,
Here where the Vicar never looks
I nibble through old service books.
Lean and alone I spend my days
Behind this Church of England baize.
I share my dark forgotten room
With two oil lamps and half a broom.
The cleaner never bothers me,
So here I eat my frugal tea.
My bread is sawdust mixed with straw;
My jam is polish for the floor.
Christmas and Easter may be feasts
For congregations and for priests,
And so may Whitsun.  All the same,
They do not fill my meagre frame.
For me the only feast at all
Is Autumn’s Harvest Festival,
When I can satisfy my want
With ears of corn around the font.
I climb the eagle’s brazen head
To burrow through a loaf of bread.
I scramble up the pulpit stair
And gnaw the marrows hanging there.
It is enjoyable to taste
These items ere they go to waste,
But how annoying when one finds
That other mice with pagan minds
Come into church my food to share
Who have no proper business there.
Two field mice who have no desire
To be baptized, invade the choir.
A large and most unfriendly rat
Comes in to see what we are at.
He says he thinks there is no God
And yet he comes … it’s rather odd.
This year he stole a sheaf of wheat
(It screened our special preacher’s seat),
And prosperous mice from fields away
Come in to hear the organ play,
And under cover of its notes
Ate through the altar’s sheaf of oats.
A Low Church mouse, who thinks that I
Am too papistical, and High,
Yet somehow doesn’t think it’s wrong
To munch through Harvest Evensong,
While I, who starve the whole year through,
Must share my food with rodents who
Except at this time of year
Not once inside the church appear.
Within the human world I know
Such goings-on could not be so,
For human beings only do
What their religion tells them to.
They read the Bible every day
And always, night and morning, pray,
And just like me, the good church mouse,
Worship each week in God’s own house,
But all the same it’s strange to me
How very full the church can be
With people I don’t see at all
Except at Harvest Festival.

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