An Unfulfilled Promise

Way back in March I promised to share a new poet I’ve grown to admire. I thought it was high time I kept my word. :)

Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984) struck a chord with me from my very first perusal of his works. He was called a modern-day Tennyson, and I can see why. His lyrics flow on with such grace and careful poise; his subject matter is often sentimental. The critics didn’t know what to do with him, but the people loved him. And in 1972 he became the Poet Laureate of England. He was a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh’s at Oxford (who among you would recognize the large teddy bear he carried with him througout his college days?), attended C.S. Lewis’ Magdalen College (though he never completed his degree) and came to Christ, as he claimed, by the lure of the sheer beauty of the Church. Many of his poems capture the mystery and holiness of the Anglican service, from choir boys chanting timeless anthems to rosy light falling through ancient stained glass windows.  He was as famous for his crusade to save England from the irrevokable ravages of development as he was for his poetry, which often addresses the same cause. And most of the pictures I’ve ever seen of him are of a great, jolly-looking man with an enormous smile on his face. I can’t help but like him.

Here is the first poem of his I ever read, which still remains a great favorite of mine. It caught my heart with its lament for the England I love. But I found a sad parallel in what I see happening in my beloved historic corner of the South.

Inexpensive Progress

Encase your legs in nylons,
Bestride your hills with pylons
O age without a soul;
Away with gentle willows
And all the elmy billows
That through your valleys roll.

Let’s say goodbye to hedges
And roads with grassy edges
And winding country lanes;
Let all things travel faster
Where motor car is master
Till only Speed remains.

Destroy the ancient inn-signs
But strew the roads with tin signs
‘Keep Left,’ ‘M4,’ ‘Keep Out!’
Command, instruction, warning,
Repetitive adorning
The rockeried roundabout;

For every raw obscenity
Must have its small ‘amenity,’
Its patch of shaven green,
And hoardings look a wonder
In banks of floribunda
With floodlights in between.

Leave no old village standing
Which could provide a landing
For aeroplanes to roar,
But spare such cheap defacements
As huts with shattered casements
Unlived-in since the war.

Let no provincial High Street
Which might be your or my street
Look as it used to do,
But let the chain stores place here
Their miles of black glass facia
And traffic thunder through.

And if there is some scenery,
Some unpretentious greenery,
Surviving anywhere,
It does not need protecting
For soon we’ll be erecting
A Power Station there.

When all our roads are lighted
By concrete monsters sited
Like gallows overhead,
Bathed in the yellow vomit
Each monster belches from it,
We’ll know that we are dead.

John Betjeman (High and Low, 1966)

For more on this fascinating artist and Christian gentleman, visit the official John Betjeman site

And I’m looking forward to diving into Summoned by Bells, his autobiography in verse. I obtained a copy from that same little English book shop in Birdhole Lane. :)

2 Responses to “An Unfulfilled Promise”

  1. Deb says:

    Lanier,
    I agree…what a sad affair is the homogenization of the USA. In the Denver area where I live, there is tremendous growth for miles and miles in every direction. Where all these people come from and how they can afford these huge houses is beyond me. Wheat fields are now housing developments, pastures for cattle and horses are now highway on-ramps surrounded by big box stores. I yearn for the Colorado of my youth. If my husband’s job afforded it, I think we’d be far more comfortable in the country or a small town. But, he’s a teacher and a musician, and there aren’t too many French horn playing jobs in small towns! :)

  2. claudia adams says:

    I agree with this poignant poem. I do hope there is a remnant of the England I am going to visit! He also must have foretold the future of our community! Thank you for introducing me to “Sir John”.

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