Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: Christmas By John Betjeman (1906-1984)


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
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 today in Bread and Wine.

Image by Ramon Perucho from Pixabay
Image by Ramon Perucho from Pixabay
Whatever your view of Advent or of religious belief; whatever your take on the relative merits of John Betjeman’s poetry, it is difficult not to be infected by the exuberant enthusiasm of this anthem for Christmas.

Infused with the same sense of unalloyed joy that is present in much of his work, Betjeman’s poem is a comfort blanket, a sweetener, a steroidal journey of discovery overlain with the magic of immediate apprehension. For the metropolitan terrain, over which his narrator flies like Raymond Briggs’ enchanted boy, is a snowglobe, a universe forever sealed against the intrusion of counterscapes, of darker imaginings.

Betjeman’s remarkable skill of realisation is a condition of his natural joie de vivre. Conceived in the velocitous rolling measures which mirror such gusto, Christmas is a poem of resounding rhyme and iambic rhythm, releasing energy into an otherwise quotidian landscape, finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

And in amongst the inventories of local detail – the blazing, in-lit public houses, the clanging corporation trams and stained-glass windows reflecting seasonal colours – we have wit in abundance: Larkin’s ‘cut-price crowds’ of ‘Bath salts and inexpensive scent /And hideous tie so kindly meant’, throng the shopping streets of a capital of unashamed commercial ‘fripperies’.

But most we see the overgrown teddy bear of Betjeman himself, whose view is childlike, unmediated by experience, inherently, indissolubly middle class. The sense of anticipation is palpable in this landscape recalibrated through a child’s eyes; the youthful conflation of the material and the metaphysical, the juxtaposition of the excited ‘sleepless’ kid and the tantalising final possibility of the presence of God amongst the carollers.

And in the end, the certainty that Betjeman’s vision is as time-locked, (the poem was written in 1954) as class-bound and as circumscribed as the ‘shining ones’ who rest secure at the Dorchester.

A happy Christmas to all our readers !