Anglophile Australian Prime Minister of the 1950s, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies KT, remarked that his ideal place for retirement would be a book-lined cottage in Kent. He was thinking of a kind of Englishness far seem in the work of John Betjeman&msash;Sir John Betjeman CBE, poet laureate, Anglican, and eccentric observer of things English and the struggle between faith and doubt. In The Guardian (26 Aug 06) Terry Philpot looked at the role faith played in Betjeman’s poetry—which I enjoy greatly.
Never an apologist for the Church of England—some of his poems satirise it—neither was he apologetic about his faith. If there is a running theme in Betjeman’s religious poetry, it is about the “honest doubt” which followed him all his life. This is seen in the conditionality with which he usually refers to his beliefs to friends, in letters and in his work. For example, he told the diarist James Lee-Milne that he “hoped” and thought that hope was greater than charity. He also talks of “wanting” to believe and “clinging” to the sacraments. Indeed, his attachment to a sacramental life was vital to sustaining his faith.
The coexistence of faith and doubt can be seen in lines like ” ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’: /strong, deep and painful, doubt inserts the knife.” His eucharistic faith is poignantly stated in the poem Christma “That God was Man in Palestine/And lives today in Bread and Wine.”
There were two especially significant experiences that affected his religious life. In childhood, a dreadful fear of hell was communicated by his Calvinist nurse. In later life came his fear of oblivion (“I would rather be alive in hell than extinct,” he told one interviewer) but that early fear never left him. Even very late in life he would refer to the eschatological terror that he continued to feel. He also exhibited a deep fear of death and loneliness at end, as seen in poems like The Rest Home and Death in Leamington. […]
Outwardly, Betjeman lived a traditional Anglican existence—a regular churchgoer, bell ringer, church warden and parochial church council member. Yet behind these appearances, there was, for a poet whom some still regard as a nostalgic versifier, a profound and troubled spiritual existence. That he grappled with this into old age and that his work testifies to a lifelong unyielding search for truth rather than a discovery of it, shows how much Betjeman has to say to citizens of an age in which, in other ways, he found much to reject.
Betjeman appeals to me through his acute sense of place. As Charles Moore writes in The Telegraph(26 Aug 06):
Sometimes his imagination amazes. He listens to the autumn poplars in Harrow-on-the-Hill and imagines that the whole place is being invaded by the sea. He looks up at the cliffs above Matlock and perceives them poised like a great wave “a tossed and stony ocean nearing”. Indeed, the sea ebbs and flows throughout his poetry, giving it much of its beauty, strangeness and sadness.
Betjeman understood better than almost any writer of his generation how what is seen-and heard and smelt and tasted-affects what is felt, and recalls it later. His experience of his father’s anger or his mother’s love, of his first schoolboy crush or his early Christian faith, might have universal application, but only took form in the particular-at the end of a drive from London to Cornwall, on Hackpen Hill near Marlborough, in evensong in City churches. […]
Bells occur so often in Betjeman’s poems because their sound dies at once and yet carries so much upon the air. They stand for the human relationship between the present, the past, and the eternal. They remind us of one place and one time, yet speak of all time: “Imprisoned in a cage of sound / Even the trivial seems profound”, he wrote about a funeral bell, in a poem entitled, with characteristic specificity, “Uffington”. Perhaps he was speaking about his own verse, too. The Global Positioning System that some people now have in their cars directs the driver to a minutely exact place. Betjeman works in the reverse way: he takes you from the minute place and positions you globally.
His Collected Poems contain, as well as an index of first lines, an “Index of Places”, which I have never seen in any other book of verse. Start there and work outwards. Betjeman was passionate and utterly professional about his duty to turn this personal and local experience into art. “The gap from feeling to accomplishment!” he lamented. It is a gap that almost all amateur poets fail to bridge. Betjeman succeeded. I have often heard his poems read aloud to non-literary audiences, and there is always a gasp, an explosion of laughter, or a sigh which says, “Yes, that’s it.” He has “got” our embarrassment, or snobbery, or regret, or longing, our strange relation between what we say and what we really mean. And the flattering thing is that these are his feelings, too.