25 December 2011

Christmas poems (11): Christmas by John Betjeman

‘And is it true,/This most tremendous tale of all,/Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue …’ the Christmas scene seen this week in a stained-glass window’s hue in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

For my Christmas poems this Christmas morning, I have chosen ‘Christmas’ by the former Poet Laureate, Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984).

I wonder whether this is the most popular Christmas poem this year. I heard it read at two Christmas parties, and I see that Tom Hollander, the star of the BBC’s Rev, read it on Wednesday evening [21 December 2011] – at a reading in Westminster Cathedral, beloved of John Betjeman, and not in his draughty Saint Saviour in the Marshes Church in the East End of London.

The poem also punctuated Abbot Gregory Collins’s reflection on Christmas in the Holy Land, ‘Bread of Bethlehem,’ in the current edition of The Tablet and yesterday’s editorial in The Irish Times.

This poem by John Betjeman opens:

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again ...

But most people remember the lines that begin: “And is it true?”:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all...

This poem is published in several books, including Collected Poems, The Best of Betjeman, and Church Poems.

A less well-known poem, but one I have heard a few times this month too, is ‘Advent 1955,’ which begins:

The Advent wind begins to stir,
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir ...,

In that poem, Betjeman goes on to comment on the commercialisation of Christmas. This poem is included in the latest edition of Collected Poems, and was also published in an earlier volume, Uncollected Poems.

As I was re-reading the poem ‘Christmas’ yesterday, I was reminded that the name Bethlehem means “House of Bread” in Hebrew (בֵּית לֶחֶם‎ , Bēṯ Leḥem) and “House of Flesh” in Arabic (بيت لحم‎ , Bayt Laḥm). It is a beautiful coincidence, for on this Christmas morning God becomes present in Christ for us in the Incarnation in Bethlehem and in the bread in the Eucharist. It is a truth reflected in Betjeman’s poem ‘Christmas,’ which gets to the heart not only of the meaning of Christmas, but to the heart of Betjeman’s incarnational and sacramental High Anglicanism, in this poem:

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?

That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Betjeman was a practising Anglican and his religious values come through in many of his poems. He affirms his belief even while fearing it might be false.

In the poem ‘Christmas,’ one of his most openly religious pieces, the last three stanzas that proclaim the wonder of Christ’s birth do so in the form of a question “And is it true...?”

His views on Christianity were expressed in his poem ‘The Conversion of St. Paul’:

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.

Betjeman appealed to a wide public and managed to voice the thoughts and aspirations of many ordinary people. His poems are often humorous and his wryly comic verse is accessible, marked by satirical but graceful observations. WH Auden once said Betjeman was “at home with the provincial gas-lit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium.” He had a curiosity about and appreciation of railways, beaches, impoverished Irish peers and old churches, including the churches of the Church of Ireland. His poetry is redolent of time and place, continually seeking out intimations of the eternal in the ordinary, and recalling an England now gone but not forgotten.

He was a founding member of the Victorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture. Starting his career as a journalist, he ended it as one of the most popular British Poets Laureate to date and was a much-loved figure on British television.

Betjeman was born John Betjemann, the son of a furniture-maker of Dutch ancestry, but the family name was changed to the less German-sounding Betjeman during World War I. He was baptised at Saint Anne’s Church Highgate Rise, and grew up in Highgate in North London.

He later recalled being goaded and teased as a boy:

Betjeman’s a German spy -
Shoot him down and let him die

But his teachers at Highgate School who included the poet TS Eliot, who became a life-long influence. From there he went to the Dragon School and then to Marlborough, where he was a contemporary of the Irish poet Louis MacNeice. He went on to Magdalen College, Oxford, where his tutor, CS Lewis, regarded him as an “idle prig,” while Betjeman considered Lewis unfriendly, demanding, and uninspired. Betjeman’s friends at Oxford included Louis MacNeice and WH Auden.

Having failed three times to pass the compulsory Scripture examination, Divinity – popularly known as “Divvers” – Betjeman left Oxford without a degree. This failure rankled with him for the rest of his life and he was never reconciled with CS Lewis, making a rare, spiteful jibe at Lewis in ‘May-Day Song for North Oxford.’ Nevertheless, he had an enduring love of Oxford, and accepted an honorary doctorate in 1974.

After Oxford, Betjeman worked briefly as a private secretary, schoolteacher and film critic for the Evening Standard, and then as assistant editor of the Architectural Review. In 1933, he married the Hon Penelope Chetwode, a general’s daughter.

From the 1930s, Betjeman was involved in developing the Shell Guides, aimed at guiding motorists around Britain. By the start of World War II, 13 county guides had been published; Betjeman had written Cornwall (1934) and Devon (1936), and later he collaborated on Shropshire (1951) with his friend the artist John Piper (1903-1992), whose works include the stained glass windows in Coventry Cathedral and the East Window in the chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield.

When World War II broke out, Betjeman was rejected for active military service and went to work at the Ministry of Information. This led to his posting to Dublin in 1941 as press attaché to Sir John Maffey (later Lord Rugby), the British High Commissioner (de facto ambassador) in Ireland.

Betjeman may have been involved with gathering intelligence. It is said the IRA decided to assassinate him, but the order was rescinded after a meeting with an unnamed Old IRA man who was impressed by his works.

While he was press attaché at the British Embassy, the Betjemans lived at Collinstown House in Clondalkin from 1941 to 1943, and there their daughter Candida was born in 1942. The Betjemans were parishioners and registered vestry members in Saint John’s Parish, Clondalkin, where he regularly read the Lessons.

However, the poet also had a close association with Monkstown Parish Church, which he regarded as John Semple’s greatest work of architecture, displaying his “original genius” and “eccentric taste.” He said Monkstown Church was “one of my first favourites for its originality of detail and proportion.” He also liked another Semple church in Mountjoy Street, Saint Mary’s, known popularly as the Black Church. 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.”

The poems written by Betjeman in Ireland include ‘The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922.’ Despite its date, the poem was written two decades later in the 1940s, and recalls the times he spent with the Villiers-Stuart family of Dromana House, near Cappoquin and Dungarvan, and of the Yellow House at Helvick Head in west Waterford. Each stanza in the poem ends with the line “Dungarvan in the rain.”

Cappoquin’s Main Street ... as a child in Cappoquin, Co Waterford, I learned what Betjeman must have experienced when he exclaimed: Oh! Dungarvan in the rain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As a child in Cappoquin, Co Waterford, I explored the Villiers-Stuart estate nearby in Dromana and I learned what Betjeman must have experienced when he exclaimed: ‘Oh! Dungarvan in the rain’. But who was Greta, the object of his unrequited love?

The poem opens:

Golden haired and golden hearted
I would ever have you be,
As you were when last we parted
Smiling slow and sad at me.

The woman was neither a “Swedish beauty,” nor was her name Greta, and her identity remained a mystery for many years. In fact, she was Emily Sears, an American who later married Ion Villiers-Stuart. Her identity was revealed four years ago by her grand-daughter, Barbara Grubb, when she opened an exhibition at Joan Clancy’s Gallery in Dungarvan. She told Catherine Foley of The Irish Times that Betjeman “was stunned by my grandmother’s extraordinary beauty, but though he worshipped her, it was only from afar, for she was in fact in love with my grandfather, Ion Villiers-Stuart, whom she married. They did, however, remain good friends right up to the end of his life.” Barbara Grubb was opening an exhibition on Betjeman’s life in the Joan Clancy Art Gallery in Ring, outside Dungarvan in 2007.

The final lines of the poem show the poet’s respect and his final acceptance of Emily’s decision to remain friends and never to be lovers:

You were right to keep us parted:
Bound and parted we remain,
Aching, if unbroken hearted –
Oh! Dungarvan in the rain.

During those years in Ireland, Betjeman also became friends with the poet Patrick Kavanagh, who celebrated the birth of Betjeman’s daughter with a poem ‘Candida.’ When his official stay in Dublin ended in 1943, his departure made the front page of The Irish Times.

After the war, Betjeman resumed his career as a poet and architectural critic, dividing his time between London, rural Oxfordshire and the Cornish coast which he had loved as a child.

When Penelope Betjeman became a Roman Catholic, the couple were already drifting apart, although they remained married. The poet later met Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, whose family homes included Lismore Castle, Co Waterford. The two developed such a life-long friendship that his daughter Candida once described her as his “beloved second wife.”

By 1948, Betjeman had published more than a dozen books, and by 1958 sales of his Collected Poems had reached 100,000. He was a founder member of the Victorian Society in 1958 and continued writing guidebooks and books on architecture during the 1960s and 1970s.

After the death of Cecil Day Lewis, Betjeman was appointed Poet Laureate in 1972. A year later, he made an acclaimed television documentary for the BBC, ‘Metro-land.’ But he continued to remember his days in Ireland fondly, and in 1974 he became the first patron of the Friends of Monkstown Church, corresponding regularly with the rector, Canon William Wynne. The church also featured in a BBC documentary, Betjeman’s Dublin.

He died at his home in Trebetherick, Cornwall, on 19 May 1984, aged 77 and is buried Saint Enodoc’s Churchyard. He is commemorated on a pillar in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

‘Provincial Public Houses blaze’ … an open fire in the Moat House, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.

© John Betjeman Society

Tomorrow: ‘Saint Stephen was a clerk.’

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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