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.

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