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Home | 2016 | December

John Betjeman's poem 'Christmas'

Posted by Thersites on UTC 2016-12-18 14:00.

A few days before each Christmas our school held a service of carols and lessons in the local church. We inmates trooped in our classes the short distance from the school, caps on our heads, the dark-green mackintosh folded according to regulations and draped over the left arm. Despite the traditionally filthy weather of the season, I cannot remember ever having been allowed to put the mac on.

The service and singing were entertaining. Admittedly, amidst the general greyness of school life, we inmates would have found watching the buses driving in and out of the bus-station entertaining. But – mustn't grumble, spirit of Christmas and all that – the service was quite enjoyable really, the colours, the lights, the carols, even rating the teachers' academic gowns. Except for one thing. Every year someone would have to struggle through a reading of T. S. Eliot's [bloody] poem, the '[bloody] Journey of the [bloody] Magi'. The chosen one would attempt to perform it as though it made some kind of sense, with much affected melody and gurning, but fail miserably. Because the poem makes no sense at all.

It is a pompously literary attempt to rework an early 17th-century Christmas sermon into a mannered point-of-view tale that fizzles out into a completely obscure conclusion. Portentous but ultimately inscrutable. One read later that Eliot was drunk when he wrote it in 1927, which, combined with his anaesthetic addiction, his depressions and his marital problems left him slumped somewhat aside from the pathways of rational thought. But, by the late 1950s, he was the current literary god and quite untouchable.

So the '[bloody] Journey of the [bloody] Magi' gets declaimed, leaving the congregation depressed at their assumed inadequacy to grasp the literary titan's befuddled train of thought and his dreary, angst-ridden conclusion. Ezra Pound's statement that Eliot had got himself adopted by the British literary establishment by disguising himself as a corpse is really quite accurate.

How pleasant, then, to turn to John Betjeman, poet and human being. Human beings are never more needed than at Christmas – poets, too, if you think about it. His poem 'Christmas', from his book A Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954), is everything a Christmas poem should be: cheerful, amusing, light-hearted, profound and deeply Christian. It is immediately accessible: it delivers meaning immediately and on further reflection much deeper meaning.

Read this at a carol service and the members of the congregation are not hunched down in the pews, pondering conundrums of misery and doubt; they are smiling, filled with light and Christmas beatitude. At the time of those school carol services Betjeman's book had only been published a handful of years and smelt too much of freshness and modernity. Eliot just smells of the lamp.

Notes

At a distance of half a century some allusions may not now be immediately obvious, so a few preliminary comments may be useful:

The church season 'Advent' begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Christians traditionally think of it as the period of 'waiting' before the 'arrival/coming' of Christmas.

The 'Tortoise' stove was a patented design of solid fuel stove that was famed for its slow-burning properties ('tortoise', geddit?) and therefore a frequent sight in small parish churches. It will be very familiar to those who spend their time exploring churches and reading architectural guides.

Portway 'Tortoise' stoves

Left: 'A Charles Portway cast iron "Tortoise" stove No. 1'. Image: Bonhams. Right: 'Antique Original Victorian Tortoise Stove No3'. Image: English Salvage Ltd

Making the paint colours 'Crimson Lake' and 'Hooker's Green' initially appear to be place names is a typical Betjeman piece of fun.

The startling allusion to the 'shining ones' at the 'Dorchester Hotel' is not simply a piece of Betjeman silliness: the observance of Christmas includes all classes and orders, each in their own way, just as it includes the differences between village, town and city and between the religious and the secular. This thematic structure is well-defined but unobtrusive.

And one last observation: note how readable it is. Betjeman was a master of metre and form: the final two verses in particular are magnificently realised. The punctuation of the poem is a good guide.


Christmas

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 Hooker's 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
And 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? 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 to-day in Bread and Wine.

John Betjeman, from A Few Late Chrysanthemums (1954), in Collected Poems, John Murray, London, 1993, p. 153f. ©John Betjeman.