Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The ‘most tremendous tale of all’ …
faith in the poetry of John Betjeman

King’s College Chapel, Cambridge … ‘here behold all colours change that catch the flying sky / To waves of pearly light that heave along the shafted stone’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

In my tutorial group with part-time students, on Saturday mornings we have decided to look at the contribution of key Anglican poets, including TS Eliot, John Betjeman, John Milton, perhaps George Herbert and John Donne.

For our reflection this morning, I have chosen two poems by Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), who was Poet Laureate from 1972. He had a passionate interest in Victorian architecture and railways, and contributed to guide books as well as being a popular figure on television.

In his poetry, he explored his thoughts about his Anglican faith, about Englishness and about Christianity in general. He was one of the great makers of the Christian imagination in the last century.

At school, his reading of the works of Arthur Machen (1863-1947) won him over to his own brand of Anglicanism – it was a conversion that influenced and shaped his writing and his work in the arts for the rest of the life.

In life, he crossed paths at different times with two other great Anglican literary giants: TS Eliot, who was once his teacher, and CS Lewis, who was his tutor in Oxford.

He was a lifelong friend of the Irish poet Louis MacNeice, and he spent time in Dublin during World War II working as the British press attaché. During that time, he was an active parishioner in Saint John’s, Clondalkin, Co Dublin.

In 1943, he gave a lecture to the clergy of the Church of Ireland, “Fabrics of the Church of Ireland,” in which he made the point that the “fabric of the church is very much concerned with worship. The decoration of a church can lead the eye to God or away from him.”

Betjeman’s poems are often humorous, and his wry comic verse is marked by a satirical and observant grace. He remains one of the most significant literary figures of our time to declare his Christian faith. He was a practising Anglican and his religious beliefs and piety inform many of his poems.

In response to a radio broadcast by the humanist Margaret Knight, he expressed his views on Christianity in The Listener in 1955 with his poem ‘The Conversion of St. Paul.’ It concludes:

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St Paul.

The ‘most tremendous tale of all’


‘This most tremendous tale of all, / Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Although Advent is still some weeks ago, looking at the shelves of shops and supermarkets, it is not too early to consider Betjeman’s poem ‘Christmas.’ This is one of his most openly religious pieces, and the last three stanzas proclaim the wonder of Christ’s birth in the form of a question: “And is it true...?”

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.

‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge’

King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in early morning sunlight (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

As a poet, Betjeman celebrates the social and cultural significance of the Church of England, yet points to the social and spiritual failures of the Church, particularly the snobbery and hypocrisy of the clergy and churchgoers. He is a poet who believes deeply in Christ and who holds out hope for the Church of England and Anglicanism.

In ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge,’ he fuses his different passions as he presents a happy marriage of architectural detail, finely observed, and the sense of the worship of the eternal captured in a moment. He presents the beauty and splendour of Anglican worship, ablaze with colour.

In this poem, the moment of worship exists out of time as the living and the dead, the choir and the poet, join in the eternal praise of God. Here, Betjeman captures a joyful and spontaneous reaction, albeit an emotionally restrained expression, and a sense of wonder in the celebration of Anglican worship.

Stanza 1 describes the procession of the choir of the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, and the spiritually overwhelming aesthetics of the chapel – the stalls, the stained glass, and especially the stunning fan-vaulted ceiling, “a shower that never falls.”

Stanza 2 sees the poet’s mind wander away from the service as he imagines being outside among the “windy Cambridge courts.” Again there is a great emphasis on the vast variety of colour, but all the colours are transformed into “waves of pearly light” reflected off the Cambridge stone. The image suggests that the divine is not to be found exclusively in the chapel but in the world, the space that contains both God’s works and humanity’s work.

Stanza 3 is a geographical and historical expansion of these images and ideas. Here, the white of the “windy Cambridge courts” contrasts with the “vaulted roof so white and light and strong.”

Betjeman imagines the tombs that fill churches throughout East Anglia, with the effigies of the deceased captured for eternity in postures of prayer:

... the clasped hands lying long
Recumbent on sepulchral slabs or effigied in brass.


The prayers of these dead are a “buttress” for the vaulted ceiling of the chapel at King’s, which, built near the end of the Gothic period, needs no architectural buttresses. Christianity exists not because of aesthetics but because of prayer, and the sanctuary is supported, not because of the marvels of 15th century engineering, but by a tradition of faith. In ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge,’ the moment of worship exists out of time as the living and the dead, the choir and the poet, join in the eternal praise of God.

The poem has no irony, except perhaps in the last line:

To praise Eternity contained in Time and coloured glass.

Here Betjeman illustrates the futility of our human desire to share in God’s timelessness. All of us are being confounded by our foolish need to control God and time.

File into yellow candle light, fair choristers of King’s
Lost in the shadowy silence of canopied Renaissance stalls
In blazing glass above the dark glow skies and thrones and wings
Blue, ruby, gold and green between the whiteness of the walls
And with what rich precision the stonework soars and springs
To fountain out a spreading vault – a shower that never falls.

The white of windy Cambridge courts, the cobbles brown and dry,
The gold of plaster Gothic with ivy overgrown,
The apple-red, the silver fronts, the wide green flats and high,
The yellowing elm-trees circled out on islands of their own –
Oh, here behold all colours change that catch the flying sky
To waves of pearly light that heave along the shafted stone.

In far East Anglian churches, the clasped hands lying long
Recumbent on sepulchral slabs or effigied in brass
Buttress with prayer this vaulted roof so white and light and strong
And countless congregations as the generations pass
Join choir and great crowned organ case, in centuries of song
To praise Eternity contained in Time and coloured glass.

‘God was man in Palestine / And lives today in Bread and Wine’ ... the Altar in Straffan Church, Co Kildare, decorated for the Harvest Thanksgiving Service on Sunday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared for a reflection at a staff meeting on 20 October 2015.

Pembroke Town Hall and Library
… reminders of a former township

Pembroke Town Hall, Ballsbridge, designed by Edward Carson, was built in 1880 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Between the Said Eucharist at 9 a.m. and the Solemn Eucharist at 11 a.m. in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, on Sunday morning [18 October 2015], I went for a double espresso and short stroll in Ballsbridge.

Two of the buildings that caught my eye during my stroll were the former Pembroke Town Hall on the corner of Merrion Road and Anglesea Road, and the Pembroke Library on Anglesea Road, close to the banks of the River Dodder.

Pembroke Town Hall is a landmark building in Ballsbridge, standing at the corner of a major junction, close to the buildings of the Royal Dublin Society.

The town hall was built in 1880 as the offices of the 15 town commissioners of the Pembroke Township. Pembroke Township included Ballsbridge, Ringsend, Irishtown, Donnybrook and Sandymount.

The commissioners who governed the Pembroke Township and provided services from 1863 to 1930 were elected by wealthy property owners of the area.

Pembroke Township was formed by private Act of Parliament in 1863. The township, which was named after the Earl of Pembroke who owned most of the land in the Dublin 4 area. It included Ringsend which was an old fishing village and Irishtown, an industrial district, as well as Ballsbridge, Sandymount and Donnybrook.

At the time, these areas were expanding apidly and there was a pressing need for an authority to manage sewage, water, paving and other services.

The areas varied in economic and social life. Ringsend was an old fishing village, Irishtown was an industrial district, while the remainder of the township contained mainly affluent residential areas.

But, because there were many low-quality homes at the time, the Pembroke Estate also built many housing projects from the 1880s onwards in areas such as Shelbourne Road and Ringsend, designed to house employees of the estate as well as artisans and craftspeople.

Seven ninths of the Pembroke Township stood on lands that were part of the Pembroke Estate, and the agent of the estate was an ex-officio commissioner, the remaining 14 being elected by property owners. The estate had a great deal of influence on the activities of the commissioners, and also made donations of land for the use of the township.

The township had a population of about 13,200 in 1863, and a land area of 1,592 acres. The Pembroke Urban District Council levied rates on the residents to pave the roads and provide other social services. The first rates struck in 1864 were set at two shillings on the pound.

Lord Pembroke’s agent, who looked after his business interests in Dublin, chaired the town commissioners, and so Lord Pembroke exercised considerable power in the affairs of the township.

The town commissioners were in charge of lighting, streets, public footpaths, the water supply and other public services in the area, and introduced a fire service.

At first, the township offices were in Ballsbridge Terrace, where the Herbert Park Hotel stands today. The new Town Hall was designed in 1879 in the Gothic style by the Dublin architect, surveyor and civil engineer Edward Henry Carson (1822-1881). He was assisted by his pupil John Loftus Robinson.

Carson was the second of the three sons of William Carson, a chip and straw hat merchant, originally from Dumfriesshire, who had moved from Scotland to Dublin to set up in business. Although he was a devout Presbyterian, his brothers, the Revd William Carson and the Revd James Carson, were ordained in the Church of Ireland.

Carson was a pupil of William Deane Butler and became involved in property development in the south suburbs of Dublin, including Marlborough Road in Donnybrook and Belgrave Square in Rathmines. He was architect and surveyor to the National Building and Land Investment Co. of Ireland (1868-1873) and to the Dublin, Rathmines, Rathgar, Rathfarnham & Rathcoole Railway (1868-1874).

Carson’s pupils and assistants included his brother-in-law Sir George Moyers (1836-1916), who was Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1881, Richard Chaytor Millar, and John Loftus Robinson, who later formed the partnership of Robinson Keefe.

Carson was a Commissioner of the Pembroke Township from its foundation in 1864 until 1880 and a member of Dublin Corporation in 1877 and 1878, sitting as a Liberal Conservative.

In 1851, he married Isabella Lambert, a daughter of Peter Lambert of Castle Ellen, Co Galway. They were the parents of four sons and two daughters, the third son being Edward Carson, later Lord Carson, the barrister and Unionist politician.

Carson died on 14 February 1881 and was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery.

Pembroke Town Hall opened a year before Carson’s death (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Meanwhile, Pembroke Town Hall had opened in the previous year, 1880.

The Building News, describing Pembroke Town Hall, said: “It is built of rough-punched Ballynockan granite set in regular courses, with bands of red sandstone. The principal entrance door and windows of upper storey have columns of polished Aberdeen granite. The building provides accommodation on the ground floor for secretary, engineer, rate collector, post and telegraph office, also sanitary office and care- taker’s apartments.”

On 25 June 1880, The Irish Times praised the new building and said it was “a credit … to the locality.”

It described some of its elegant features, including the ornamental marble pillars at the entrance; a stained glass window at the top of the stairway; a boardroom that was a “model of neatness.” It was fitted with electric bells that linked to each department in the building so that officials could call for instant attendance. There were modern lavatories, a handsome clock on the front of the building, as well as extensive stabling for the commissioners’ horses and sheds for their carts.

The smaller block to the left (south) side is a former fire station designed at the same time.

The township continued to be governed by the commissioners until 1899 when it became an Urban District, with a more democratically elected urban district council.

During the Easter Rising in 1916, the British army requisitioned the Town Hall as a place for holding prisoners, including Eamon de Valera.

After many years of proposed amalgamations of Dublin’s local authorities, the Local Government (Dublin) Act 1930 dissolved Pembroke Urban District and its area was absorbed into the City of Dublin. The other Dublin townships, including Rathmines, Clontarf, Kilmainham and Drumcondra, were dissolved too. The records of the Pembroke township are now contained in Pearse Street Library.

Ringsend Technical School occupied the Town Hall until 1951, when the Dublin Vocational Education Committee (VEC) moved its headquarters there, where it remains until this day.

Pembroke Library, a graceful building, dates from 1926-1927 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Around the corner from Pembroke Town Hall, Pembroke Library is a graceful building, and surrounded by RDS property.

The library was funded by the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, and is the last library of this kind to be built in Ireland. The first librarian was the short story writer Frank O’Connor.

The Pembroke Library was built built between September 1926 and October 1927 by the Pembroke Urban District Council on part of the site of Pembroke Town Hall. The building was designed by the architect Arnold F Hendy of Kaye-Parry, Ross and Hendy, Kildare Street, Dublin, and built by G and T Crampton.

The façade of red brick is classical in style, with an interesting, pedimented central bay, with an inset arch and round window. The curve of the arch and round window is mirrored in the three bays of round headed windows to either side. The roof has a small copper cupola or lantern that provides light and ventilation in the attic.

A wooden porch that was a bad state of repair and that was not aesthetically sympathetic to the building, was removed during recent restoration work and the entrance to the library was restored its original appearance. After the universal access improvement works were completed, Pembroke Library reopened on 16 August 2010.