Sunday, December 13, 2009

John Betjeman's 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 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?
The 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.

Betjeman was a strange man. In himself he was short and ugly, and he was a romantic dweller in the same imaginary world as Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton. But his poetry, while written in a traditional form had an immediacy that caught the imagination of ordinary people. We think of it now, as of a period, but it was written in that period and caught the atmosphere magnificently. He recognized the need to set it in real places, London shops, The Dorchester hotel, Slough that isn't fit for humans now, Aldershot sun, and anchor it in the experiences of ordinary people - who hasn't received a hideous tie, so kindly meant?

He was a High Anglican - typical of his social class and generation - with a simple faith, but in this poem in a gentle way he separates the nostalgia from the reality. Jesus Christ was God and he really did intervene in Time at a particular Place. We may not have the date right - December 25th in the year zero does not exist - but there was a Day and a Date.

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