19 May 2024

‘To praise Eternity contained
in Time and coloured glass’:
the poetry of John Betjeman
who died 40 years ago in 1984

The larger-than-life statue in St Pancras Station of the poet Sir John Betjeman by Martin Jennings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Today (19 March 2024) marks the 40th anniversary of the death of the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), who died on 19 May 1984. Betjeman, who was the Poet Laureate from 1972, once described himself in Who’s Who as a ‘poet and hack,’ had a passionate interest in Victorian architecture and in railways, and he contributed to guide books as well as being a popular figure on television.

Betjeman was a troublesome poet who persisted in believing, and in his poetry he explored his thoughts about his Anglican faith, about Englishness and about Christianity in general. He remains one of the most significant literary figures of our time to declare his Christian faith, and one of the great makers of the Christian imagination in the last century.

In a letter written on Christmas Day 1947, he said: ‘Also my view of the world is that man is born to fulfil the purposes of his Creator i.e. to Praise his Creator, to stand in awe of Him and to dread Him. In this way I differ from most modern poets, who are agnostics and have an idea that Man is the centre of the Universe or is a helpless bubble blown about by uncontrolled forces.’

During his life, he crossed paths at different times with two other great Anglican literary giants: the poet TS Eliot, who was once his teacher, and the apologist 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, when he was an active parishioner in Clondalkin, Co Dublin. Many of his poems recount his encounters members of the Church of Ireland and his love of Church of Ireland country parish churches.

Early life, Oxford and CS Lewis

Magdalen College, Oxford… … John Betjeman was an undergraduate, and CS Lewis was his tutor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

He was born John Betjemann on 28 August 1906 in Highgate, and he was baptised in Saint Anne’s Church, Highgate Rise. Although his family was of Dutch ancestry, on the outbreak of World War I his parents, Mabel (née Dawson) and Ernest Betjemann, changed the family name to the less German-sounding Betjeman.

At Highgate School, his teachers included TS Eliot. From there he went to the Dragon School, Oxford, and Marlborough College, Wiltshire, where his friends and contemporaries included the Irish poet Louis MacNeice, the spy Anthony Blunt, and the illustrator and cartoonist Graham Shepard.

At Marlborough too, his reading of the works of Arthur Machen (1863-1947) won him over to High Church Anglicanism – it was a conversion that would influence and shape his writing and his work in the arts for the rest of the life.

Betjeman entered Oxford with difficulty, having failed the mathematics part of the matriculation exam, and was admitted to Magdalen College. However, his tutor, CS Lewis, regarded him as an ‘idle prig,’ while Betjeman found Lewis unfriendly, demanding and uninspiring, describing him as being ‘breezy, tweedy, beer-drinking and jolly.’

Betjeman appears to have spent most of his time at Oxford indulging his social life, developing his interest in church architecture, and following his own literary pursuits. He had a poem published in Isis, the university magazine, and in 1927 was the editor of Cherwell, the student newspaper whose contributors included WH Auden, Graham Greene, Cecil Day-Lewis and Evelyn Waugh.

But Betjeman never completed his degree at Oxford. He twice failed the compulsory Scripture examination, Divinity, known to students as ‘Divvers,’ and was later allowed to enter the Pass School. His tutor, CS Lewis, told the tutorial board he thought Betjeman would not achieve an honours degree of any class. Betjeman passed ‘Divvers’ at a third sitting, but finally left Oxford at the end of Michaelmas term 1928 after failing the Pass School.

For the rest of his life he blamed his failure on CS Lewis, and the two writers were never reconciled, even later in life. Nonetheless, Betjeman had an enduring love of Oxford, and received an honorary doctorate in 1974.

After Oxford, he worked briefly as a private secretary, school teacher and film critic for the Evening Standard before becoming an assistant editor at the Architectural Review. His first book of poems, Mount Zion, was published in 1931 by an Oxford friend, Edward James.

Betjeman developed the Shell Guides with Jack Beddington for Britain’s growing number of motorists. By the beginning of World War II, 13 Shell 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.

Betjeman in Ireland

John Betjeman and family at Collinstown House, Clondalkin, Co Dublin, where they lived in the 1940s

Betjeman was rejected for active service in World War II but he moved to the Ministry of Information, and came to Dublin in 1941 as the British press attaché to the British High Commissioner, Sir John Maffey (later Lord Rugby), working from 50 Upper Merrion Street, Dublin.

From 1941 to 1943, the Betjemans lived at Collinstown House, Rowlagh, Clondalkin, where their daughter Candida was born. The Georgian house, which was rented from the Jameson distillery family, has since been demolished. John and Penelope Betjeman were registered vestry members in Saint John’s Church, where he regularly read the Sunday lessons.

He 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 Semple’s Saint Mary’s in Saint Mary’s Place, near Dorset Street, known to generations of Dubliners as ‘the Black Church’ but now closed.

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.’

As press attaché, his roles in Dublin included smoothing relations between Britain and the neutral Irish Free State, contributing to radio programmes such as Irish Half Hour aimed at Irish recruits in the British army, and entertaining important British visitors, including the actor Laurence Olivier, who was filming his production of Shakespeare’s Henry V on the Powerscourt Estate at Enniskerry, Co Wicklow.

According to documents unearthed by a recent Channel 4 documentary, Betjeman told Whitehall that the only way to lure Ireland into the war was to end partition. He said a ‘defensive union of the whole of Ireland’ should be made ‘indissoluble,’ he urged Britain to stop attacking the Irish Free State, including ‘anti-Irish articles and cartoons,’ and he argued that ‘de Valera is Britain’s best friend in Ireland.’

Betjeman’s main sources of information included the journalists of The Irish Times he drank with in the Palace Bar in Fleet Street.

It is said the IRA planned to assassinate him, but the order was rescinded after he met an Old IRA man who was impressed by his works.

Betjeman wrote a number of poems based on his experiences in Ireland during the ‘Emergency,’ including ‘The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922,’ which includes the refrain ‘Dungarvan in the rain.’ ‘Greta’ was recently identified as Emily (Sears) Villiers-Stuart, an American married into a well-known West Waterford family who lived at Dromana House, near Cappoquin.

In Dublin, he also became friends with Patrick Kavanagh. The Irish poet celebrated the birth of Betjeman’s daughter with his poem ‘Candida,’ and another well-known poem contains the line: ‘Let John Betjeman call for me in a car.’

When Betjeman’s posting in Dublin ended in 1943, his departure made the front page of The Irish Times. After World War II, he returned to London, his wife Penelope became a Roman Catholic in 1948, and the couple drifted apart. He later developed a close, life-long friendship with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, whose family lived in Lismore Castle, Co Waterford.

Poet Laureate and popular poet

By 1948, Betjeman had published more than a dozen books, including five verse collections, and by 1958 sales of his Collected Poems had reached 100,000; it has now sold over two million copies. He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1972, and this role, along with his popularity on television, brought his poetry to a wider audience.

He voiced the thoughts and aspirations of many ordinary people while retaining the respect of many of his fellow poets. He died at his home in Trebetherick, Cornwall, 40 years ago on 19 May 1984, and is buried at Saint Enodoc’s Church.

Betjeman and Church architecture

Betjeman had a love of Victorian architecture and was a founding member of the Victorian Society. But he also loved old Church of Ireland country parish churches. In ‘Ireland with Emily,’ he writes of those parish churches in rural Kildare, Roscommon, Westmeath and Laois, first published in New Bats in Old Belfries (1945):

There in pinnacled protection,
One extinguished family waits
A Church of Ireland resurrection
By the broken, rusty gates.
Sheepswool, straw and droppings cover,
Graves of spinster, rake and lover,
Whose fantastic mausoleum
Sings its own seablown Te Deum
In and out the slipping slates.

His favourite church in Ireland was the Church of Ireland parish church in Monkstown, Co Dublin. This church was originally built in 1789, but was remodelled in 1830 by John Semple. In 1974, Betjeman 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.

Betjeman’s poetry and faith

Betjeman’s poems are often humorous, and his wryly comic verse is marked by a satirical and observant grace. As WH Auden observed, he was ‘at home with the provincial gas-lit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium.’

His poetry is redolent of time and place, continually seeking out intimations of the eternal in the manifestly ordinary. In a 1962 radio interview he explained that he could not write about ‘abstract things,’ preferring places and faces.

Betjeman was a troublesome poet who persisted in believing, and in his poetry he explored his thoughts about his Anglican faith, about Englishness and about Christianity in general.

He remains one of the most significant literary figures of our time to declare his Christian faith. In a letter written on Christmas Day 1947, he said: ‘Also my view of the world is that man is born to fulfil the purposes of his Creator i.e. to Praise his Creator, to stand in awe of Him and to dread Him. In this way I differ from most modern poets, who are agnostics and have an idea that Man is the centre of the Universe or is a helpless bubble blown about by uncontrolled forces.’

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,’ which ends:

What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging into doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below —
My parish church — and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

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 Mystery of Faith in four poems

Betjeman was a life-long Anglo-Catholic. In four poems – ‘Churchyards,’ ‘Advent 1955,’ ‘Christmas’ and ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ – Betjeman makes the mystery of the Christian faith a central issue.

Professor Kevin J Gardner of Baylor University, in Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman: An Anthology of Betjeman’s Religious Verse (London: Continuum, 2006), says that in these four poems Betjeman finds the sudden and wondrous appearance of God in the most unlikely of places, giving him ‘a sense of spiritual security’ that ‘renders him susceptible to the embrace of mystery and miracle.’

1, Churchyards

‘For churchyards then, though hollowed ground, / Were not so grim as now they sound’ … a grave in Saint Michael’s Churchyard, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Although it is one of his less-known poems, ‘Churchyards’ is one of the four poems – alongside ‘Advent 1955,’ ‘Christmas,’ and ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican,’ and– in which Betjeman makes the mystery of the Christian faith a central issue.

He recalls the old English churchyards at the heart of village life, with their traditional headstones, and ‘Close to the church when prayers were said, / And Masses for the village dead.’ Today, the churchyard is giving way to a ‘garden of rest,’ although ‘Graveyard’s a much more honest name.’

Mid-Lent is passed and Easter’s near
The greatest day of all the year
When Jesus, who indeed had died,
Rose with his body glorified.
And if you find believing hard
The primroses in your churchyard
And modern science too will show
That all things change the while they grow,
And we, who change in Time will be
Still more changed in eternity.

2, Advent 1955

‘A present that cannot be priced / Given two thousand years ago’ … the Christmas scene seen in a stained-glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the second of these poems, ‘Advent 1955,’ Betjeman talks about how people today take the real meaning of Christmas for granted. No one seems to appreciate the real gift anymore. Yet this is God’s gift, the greatest gift of all, the birth of Christ.

‘The time draws near the birth of Christ’.
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.

3, Christmas

The third of these four poems, ‘Christmas,’ is one of Betjeman’s most openly religious pieces, in which the last three stanzas proclaim the wonder of Christ’s birth in the form of a question: ‘And is it true …?’

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.

The statue of Sir John Betjeman by Martin Jennings shows the poet holding his hat as he gazes up at the glass ceiling of the Barlow Shed in St Pancras station (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

4, Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican

His poem ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican,’ is another of the four poems in which Betjeman makes the mystery of the Christian faith a central issue.

If Betjeman’s imagination wanders in the joys of the beauty of worship and church architecture in ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge,’ then his mind wanders in the joys of beauty in a very different way in ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ – although he reaches similar conclusions.

‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ – which in Betjeman’s drafts is titled ‘Lenten Thoughts in Grosvenor Chapel’ – was the first spontaneous poem he wrote after his appointment as Poet Laureate in October 1972. It was first published in the Sunday Express on 13 May 1973, and was included in the collection A Nip in the Air (1974).

Alongside the joviality found in many of his poems, this poem has an unusual tonal complexity. Betjeman describes a mysterious and sexually alluring woman who receives Holy Communion each Sunday. In an attempt to refocus the devotional attention of the parishioners, the priest tells them not to stare around or to be distracted during his celebration of the Eucharist.

But Betjeman’s experience contradicts the admonitions from the priest. In a peculiar way, through this mysterious and alluring woman, he suddenly becomes aware of the presence of God. The intrigue and arousal surrounding the women he describes as the ‘mistress’ speaks to the poet of the mystery of God.

From 1972 until his death 40 years ago in 1984, Betjeman worshipped at the Grosvenor Chapel in London, which had been redesigned and transformed, with an Anglo-Catholic emphasis, in 1912 by Sir Ninian Comper. It was a favourite church of Bishop Charles Gore, and for many years the congregation included such people as the writer Rose Macaulay, author of The Towers of Trebizond.

In an interview with the Sunday Express, Betjeman said: ‘I saw this woman in church one Sunday. I didn’t know who she was. She was the most beautiful creature; and she had a slightly sad expression. And I didn’t even know her name – but it was probably all the better for that. She might have been terrible.’

‘I like there to be a mystery between me and my beloved,’ he continued. ‘And I don’t think there was anything wrong with looking at her in church, do you? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with loving the beauty of the human figure whether it’s in church or in the street … I’m not sure if [the poem] is any good but I hope it will please people. I’ve always wanted my verse to be popular because I wanted to communicate.’

Betjeman’s Dublin-born daughter, the author and journalist Candida Lycett Green, has identified the woman who inspired this poem as Joan Price, who used to go to church at Betjeman’s church, the Grosvenor Chapel. She was the Beauty Editor of Harpers & Queen – now Harper’s Bazaar – and was married to Michael Constantinidis, a sidesman at the Grosvenor Chapel.

Two important places of Anglican worship

Betjeman celebrates the social and cultural significance of the Church of England, yet he points to the social and spiritual failures of the Church, particularly the snobbery and hypocrisy of the clergy and churchgoers.

Two of his poems, ‘In Westminster Abbey’ (1940) and ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge’ (1954), are set in two of the most important centres of worship in England, one with political significance, the other with academic significance.

Taken together, these two poems give us a poet who believes deeply in Christ and who holds out hope for the Church of England and Anglicanism. One represents a place of public worship the closely links the Church with the political power in the nation; the other represents the very beauty of Anglican worship in a place associated not only with the academic, architectural and musical excellence of the nation.

1, In Westminster Abbey

‘Now I’ll come to Evening Service / Whensoever I have the time’ … ‘In Westminster Abbey’ is one of John Betjeman’s most savage satires (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘In Westminster Abbey’ is one of Betjeman’s most savage satires. This poem is a dramatic monologue, set during the early days of World War II, in which a woman enters Westminster Abbey to pray for a moment before hurrying off to ‘a luncheon date.’

She is not merely a chauvinistic nationalist, but also a racist, a snob and a hypocrite who is concerned more with how the war will affect her share portfolio than anything else. Her chauvinistic nationalism leads her speaker to pray to God ‘to bomb the Germans’ … but ‘Don’t let anyone bomb me.’ But her social and ethical lapses are a product of her spiritual state, which is a direct result of her nation’s spiritual sickness.

But she lets God know prayer and her relationship with God are low down her list of priorities:

Now I feel a little better,
What a treat to hear Thy Word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen
Have so often been interr’d.
And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date.

2, Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge

A Sunday morning at King’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Many years ago, in a book review in the Times Higher Education Supplement, Timothy Mowl of the University of Bristol described ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge’ as of the ‘least important’ of Betjeman’s poems, ‘because it is about a place, not people in a place.’

Here he is at his best as he fuses together in one poem his different passions, and in ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge’ 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 ‘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. In this poem, 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.

A final poem: Loneliness

‘The last year’s leaves are on the beech … The Easter bells enlarge the sky,’ John Betjeman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The chilling poem ‘Loneliness’ is included in Betjeman’s 1974 collection, A Nip in the Air. While it speaks of how ‘The Easter bells enlarge the sky,’ it shows Betjeman’s deep fear of death. He suffered nightmares about Hell because he was married to one woman (Penelope Chetwode) but was living with another (Lady Elizabeth Cavendish).

The last year’s leaves are on the beech:
The twigs are black; the cold is dry;
To deeps beyond the deepest reach
The Easter bells enlarge the sky.
O ordered metal clatter-clang!
Is yours the song the angels sang?
You fill my heart with joy and grief –
Belief! Belief! And unbelief …
And, though you tell me I shall die,
You say not how or when or why.

However, the poet Hugo Williams hears Betjeman speaking frankly to God: ‘If he has a well-developed sense of his mortality it is no more than any poet needs to make poetry out of.’ Betjeman’s religious values come through in his poems, and he affirms his belief even while fearing it might be false.

Betjeman celebrates the social and cultural significance of the Church of England, yet he points to the social and spiritual failures of the Church, particularly the snobbery and hypocrisy of the clergy and churchgoers. In his poems, he describes the perils of faith and the struggle to believe. He was a troublesome poet who persisted in believing, and in his poetry he explored his thoughts about his Anglican faith, about Englishness and about Christianity in general.

Poems by John Betjeman © John Betjeman Society.

This essay includes material prepared for tutorial groups with MTh students in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, on 19 February 2014 and 5 December 2015, and a paper published in Koinonia (Kansas City, MO), Vol 7, Issue 25 (Lent/Easter 2014), pp 12-18.

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