08 November 2023

Love, unrequited love,
and a village wedding
in the poetry of
John Betjeman

‘How new its weathered stone appears / When vows are made in Heaven’ … reading the poetry of John Betjeman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

For decades, Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984) was Britain’s best-loved poet. Since Betjeman’s death, his statue at Saint Pancras Station – which he campaigned to save – has become a popular wedding venue.

He was the Poet Laureate from 1972, and was known for his television appearances and for his love of architecture and churches. He was a life-long friend of the artist John Piper, known for his Baptistry window in Coventry Cathedral and his East Window, ‘Christ in Majesty’ (1984), in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, and Betjeman and Piper worked together on the series of illustrated Shell Guides to English counties.

Betjeman was born in London in 1906. He had an interest in poetry from an early age and his interest in churches and architecture was kindled at the Dragon School, Oxford. He was part of the ‘literary set’ at Magdalen College, Oxford and after Oxford he was determined not to join his father’s business but to carve out a literary career instead.

Betjeman was married to Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of a former commander-in-chief of the Indian army. They were married for 53 years and had two children, Paul and Candida.

But Betjeman also had lengthy affairs with many women, including a lifelong affair with his muse Lady Elizabeth Cavendish (1926-2018) of Lismore Castle. They first met in 1951, and she was a daughter of Edward Cavendish, 10th Duke of Devonshire. Betjeman also had a four-year affair with Margie Geddes in the 1970s.

John and Penelope Betjeman rented Garrard’s Farm in Uffington in 1934. They soon became immersed in village life and entertained many famous friends there. Their son Paul was born in Uffington in 1937, and their daughter, Candida, was born in Dublin in 1942 while they were in Ireland.

Betjeman was the press attaché to John Maffey at the British Embassy in Dublin from 1941 to 1943, and during that time the family lived in Collinstown House, near Clondalkin in Dublin.

Betjeman wrote a number of poems inspired by his experiences in Ireland. ‘The Irish Unionist's Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922’, is set in west Waterford, with each stanza closing with the line ‘Dungarvan in the rain.’ The poem recalls the story of his unrequited love for a woman called Greta Hellstrom. It opens with the lines:

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

The woman Betjeman refers to as ‘my Swedish beauty’ was, in fact, Emily Sears, an American who later married Ion Villiers-Stuart of Dromana House, near Cappoquin, Co Waterford.

Their granddaughter Barbara Grubb, who now lives at Dromana, said in recent years 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.’

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.

After World War II, the family moved to Farnborough in 1945, then to Wantage in 1951. One of Betjeman’s poems set in Farnborough, ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song, is one of Betjeman’s best-known love poems. The narrator, a junior army officer, is beguiled by the doctor’s daughter, attractive and athletic young Joan Hunter Dunn. The young officer is defenceless in the face of ‘strenuous singles’ with her on the tennis court.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I'm engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The real Joan Hunter Dunn (1915-2008), later Joan Jackson, was a daughter of Dr George Hunter Dunn, a GP in Farnborough, Hampshire. Her grandfather, Andrew Hunter Dunn, was Bishop of Quebec in 1892-1914, and her uncle Edward Dunn was Bishop of Honduras and Archbishop of the West Indies.

Betjeman saw her for the first time in December 1940 while he was working in London for the Films Division of the Ministry of Information, based in the Senate House of the University of London, where she worked in the canteen. Although married for seven years, he was struck by her beauty, he fell in love, and composed his 44-line poem fantasising about them being engaged and playing tennis together. To him, she was ‘A girl to lean against for life and die adoring.’

When Betjeman left for Dublin, he continued to think of her. She married Harold Wycliffe Jackson, a civil servant in the Ministry of Information, in January 1945, in Saint Mark’s Church, Farnborough. Betjeman was invited, but did not attend.

As Poet Laureate, Betjeman also wrote a poem, ‘For A Royal Wedding, 29 July 1981,’ to mark the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.

When Betjeman died at Trebetherick in Cornwall on 19 May 1984, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish was at his side. Joan Hunter Dunne attended his memorial service in Westminster Abbey, and died in 2008.

Later, his daughter Candida and her husband lived again in Uffington, and she donated many of her father’s papers to the museum.

Perhaps the best wedding poem he wrote was written for the wedding of Sally Weaver, who had been a childhood friend of Candida. The poem ‘Village Wedding’ blends imagery of natural beauty, a rain-purified atmosphere, church bells and a festive occasion that spans the generations.

It seems as if the entire parish of Uffington is brought together into the ancient church to witness a sacrament that binds together not just a young couple but all the living and dead with the timeless communal rituals of Christian faith.

Village Wedding by Sir John Betjeman

In summer wind the elm leaves sing,
And sharp’s the shade they’re shedding,
And loud and soft the church bells ring
For Sally Weaver’s wedding.

With chasing light the meadows fill,
The greenness growing greener,
As racing over White Horse Hill
Come bluer skies and cleaner.

The chalk-white walls, the steaming thatch
In rain-washed air are clearing,
And waves of sunshine run to catch
The bride for her appearing.

Inside the church in every pew
Sit old friends, older grown now;
Their children whom our children knew
Have children of their own now.

The babies wail, the organ plays,
Now thunderous, now lighter;
The brighter day of Sally’s days
Grows every moment brighter.

And all the souls of Uffington,
The dead among the living,
Seem witnessing the rite begun
Of taking and of giving.

The flying clouds! The flying years!
This church of centuries seven!
How new its weathered stone appears
When vows are made in Heaven!

Dromana Gate Lodge and Bridge … Betjeman’s ‘Greta Hellstrom’ was Emily Sears, who married Ion Villiers-Stuart of Dromana House, near Cappoquin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Daily prayers in the Kingdom Season
with USPG: (4) 8 November 2023

The Duomo di San Gimignano, formally the Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta, is part of the Unesco World Heritage Site of the ‘Historic Centre of San Gimignano’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In this time between All Saints’ Day and Advent Sunday, we are in the Kingdom Season in the Calendar of the Church of England, and the week began with the Fourth Sunday before Advent (5 November 2023).

But we are also in a time we might call ‘All Saints Tide’, and the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (8 November) remembers the Saints and Martyrs of England.

Before today begins, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

In recent prayer diaries on this blog, my reflections have already looked at a number of Italian cathedrals, including the cathedrals in Amalfi, Florence, Lucca, Noto, Pisa, Ravenna, Saint Peter’s Basilica and Saint John Lateran, Rome, Siena, Sorrento, Syracuse, Taormina, Torcello and Venice.

So, this week, my reflections look at some more Italian cathedrals, basilicas and churches in Bologna, San Marino, Pistoia, San Gimignano, Mestre, Sorrento and Ravello.

Throughout this week, my reflections each morning are following this pattern:

1, A reflection on an Italian cathedral or basilica;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The campanile may be that of the earlier church, or it may have been one of the city’s many tower houses (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta (Doumo), San Gimignano:

San Gimignano is a small walled mediaeval hill-top town in Tuscany, 40 km north-west of Siena and 60 km south-west of Florence. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site, known as the Town of Fine Towers, and celebrated for its mediaeval architecture, including more than a dozen tower houses that mark out the skyline.

The town changed its name from Silvia to San Gimignano in 450 AD after Bishop Geminianus, the Saint of Modena, intervened to spare the castle from destruction by Attila the Hun and his followers.

The city became so powerful that it asserted its autonomy from the Bishops of Volterra at the end of the 12th century. However, the peace of the town was disturbed for the next two centuries by conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, and family rivalries within San Gimignano.

Dante Alighieri came to San Gimignano in 1300 as the Ambassador of the Guelph League in Tuscany.

The city continued to flourish until it was struck by the Black Death in 1348, when about half the towns inhabitants died. The town later submitted to the rule of Florence.

The Duomo di San Gimignano, formally known as Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta, is a collegiate church and minor basilica in San Gimignano. It stands on the west side of Piazza del Duomo. But, despite the name of the square and the unofficial name of the church, the church has never been a cathedral or the seat of a bishop.

The duomo is part of the Unesco World Heritage Site of the ‘Historic Centre of San Gimignano.’ The church is oriented liturgically on a west-east liturgical axis, rather than the traditional east-west alignment. It has an east-facing façade and the chancel is at the west end, as with Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Unesco says the frescoes in the church are ‘works of outstanding beauty.’

The first church on the site was begun in the 10th century. San Gimignano was on the pilgrimage route to Rome, the Via Francigena, and so the importance of the town and the church grew steadily in the early 12th century.

The present church on this site was consecrated on 21 November 1148 and dedicated to Saint Geminianus (San Gimignano) in the presence of Pope Eugenius III and 14 bishops. The church holds the relics of Saint Geminianus, the patron saint of the city (feast 31 January).

The church was enriched in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries with the addition of frescoes and sculpture. The west end of the building (liturgical east) was altered and extended by Giuliano da Maiano in 1466-1468, with the addition of vestries, the Chapel of the Conception and the Chapel of Saint Fina.

The church was given collegiate status in 1471. Girolamo Savonarola preached there in 1497.

The architecture of the church is 12th and 13th century Romanesque, with the exception of the two chapels in the Renaissance style. It has important cycles of Renaissance frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Benozzo Gozzoli, Taddeo di Bartolo, Lippo Memmi, Bartolo di Fredi and others.

The façade has little ornament and there is no entral portal. Instead, the church is approached from the square by a wide staircase, with a door leading into each of the side aisles. The doorways are surmounted by stone lintels with recessed arches above them, unusual in incorporating the stone Gabbro.

There is a central ocular window at the end of the nave and a smaller one giving light to each aisle. The stone façade was raised higher in brick in 1340, when the ribbed vaulting was constructed, and the two smaller ocular windows set in.

Matteo di Brunisend is generally credited as the main architect of the mediaeval period, with working ca 1239. However, his contribution may have been little more than the design of the central ocular window. Beneath this window is a slot that marks the place of a window that lit the chancel of the earlier church. It may indicate the church was reoriented during the 12th century rebuilding.

Inside, the church is in the shape of a Latin Cross, with a central nave and an aisle on either side, divided by arcades of seven semi-circular Romanesque arches resting on columns with simplified Corinthian-style capitals. The chancel is a simple rectangle with a single arched window at the end.

The church is famous for its largely intact scheme of fresco decorations, the greater part of which dates from the 14th century, and represents the work of painters of the Sienese school, influenced by the Byzantine traditions of Duccio and the Early Renaissance style of Giotto. The frescoes comprise a Poor Man’s Bible of an Old Testament cycle, a New Testament cycle, and the Last Judgement, as well as an Annunciation, Saint Sebastian, and the stories of a local saint, Saint Fina, with several other smaller works.

The fresco of the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli (1465), is on the rear wall of the nave, beneath the Last Judgement. It was commissioned by the people of San Gimignano after the saint’s intervention was believed to have brought relief from an outbreak of plague in 1464.

The crucifix in the chancel (1754) is by the Florentine sculptor, Giovanni Antonio Noferi, who also designed the marble pavement in the chancel.

This Chapel of Saint Fina has been described as ‘one of the jewels of Renaissance architecture, painting and sculpture.’ The Chapel of the Conception was built in 1477 and modified in the 17th century.

In the Baptistry Loggia to the south of the church are several small frescoes of saints, and a major work, The Annunciation (1482), previously attributed to Ghirlandaio but now believed to be the work of Sebastiano Mainardi.

To the north side of the church, in the corner of the transept and chancel, stands a plain campanile with a square plan and a single arched opening in each face. The campanile may be that of the earlier church, or it may have been one of the city’s many tower houses, adapted for use by the church.

The Loggia of the Baptistry on the south side of the church is a 14th-century arcaded cloister with stout octagonal columns and a groin vault.

The church was damaged during World War II, but was restored in 1951, when parts of the earlier church were discovered lying beneath the nave.

The church has no central portal, instead the wide staircase leads to two doors, one into each of the side aisles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 17: 18-23 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’

The Palazzo Podesta with its huge arched loggia on Piazza del Duomo and the Torre Chigi and the Torre Rognosa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)(Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Wednesday 8 November 2023):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Community Health Programmes’. This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (8 November 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

We pray for the work of St Andrew’s Theological College, the Church of Bangladesh’s theological training centre. May they continue to nurture and educate prospective clergy.

Dante Alighieri came to San Gimignano in 1300 as the Ambassador of the Guelph League in Tuscany (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

God, whom the glorious company of the redeemed adore,
assembled from all times and places of your dominion:
we praise you for the saints of our own land
and for the many lamps their holiness has lit;
and we pray that we also may be numbered at last
with those who have done your will
and declared your righteousness;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God, the source of all holiness
and giver of all good things:
may we who have shared at this table
as strangers and pilgrims here on earth
be welcomed with all your saints
to the heavenly feast on the day of your kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

The Piazza della Cisterna is the main square of the town … the well which was the main source of water for the town dates from 1346 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The vineyards and fields of Tuscany on the slopes beneath San Gimignano (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)