Jonathan Baker finds great poignancy in the faithful Anglicanism of John Betjeman
BETJEMAN AND THE ANGLICAN IMAGINATION
Kevin J. Gardner SPCK, 256pp, pbk
978 0281063444, £14.99
BETJEMAN ON FAITH
An Anthology of His Religious Prose Kevin J. Gardner
SPCK, 192pp, pbk
978 0281064168, £12.99
The poet and critic Hugo Williams said of John Betjeman that he makes all other modern poets look ‘desperately amateur or desperately professional.’ Williams surely means that in Betjeman we find such a command of form, of metre, of rhythm and rhyme, that he is clearly a master-practitioner of the poet’s craft; but there is also that clarity and apparent simplicity which can be deceptive. Betjeman is not ‘difficult’, there is little need for the supporting apparatus of footnotes and other critical paraphernalia. James Joyce joked that Ulysses ‘would keep professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.’ That Betjeman lies at the opposite end of the spectrum, thin fare for the academic or DPhil student, means, of course, that a good critical book about his poetry is all the more difficult to write.
Kevin J. Gardner has had a very good stab at it with Betjeman and the Anglican Imagination. He tackles all three of Betjeman’s great themes (place, sex, God), and understands how they interweave and overlap. But the focus is on God, and particularly on what Gardner calls, in his introduction, his ‘contention that [Betjeman’s] poetry is specifically “Anglican” in nature and a vital part of a living tradition of Anglican poetry and worship.’
Betjeman himself wrote: ‘I am a Church of England Catholic. I love the Church of England.’ Gardner is very good at elucidating the way in which Betjeman understood these two short sentences to relate one to another. Betjeman loved the Church of England, yes, because of her special place in the cultural as well as the physical landscape of the English nation: but much more did he love her because he believed her claim to be a part of the whole Church Catholic to be true. Christ, at this Highbury altar, I offer myself to Thee: so ends the poem written in 1946, one of Betjeman’s most serious statements of faith, ‘St. Saviour’s, Aberdeen Park, Highbury, London, N.’
It was this conviction that her sacraments were true (and so Christ truly present in them) that led Betjeman to assert, in the course of a sometimes ferocious correspondence with the convert to Roman Catholicism, Evelyn Waugh, that it would be nothing short of sinful to abandon the communion of the Church of England. Betjeman may have doubted the existence of God – and Gardner is good on his doubt as well as his faith – but he never doubted the catholicity of the Church of England.
Betjeman and the Anglican Imagination is thorough, informative and usually sound in its judgements. Where it fails, sometimes, to capture the essence of Betjeman is in its rather unrelentingly earnest prose. Betjeman is surely a poet where lightness of touch, impishness and a sense of mischief are essential parts of the mix: we miss those qualities in Gardner’s account.
If Gardner the author doesn’t always quite get it right, Gardner the editor has performed an unmitigated good in bringing to birth his second volume, Betjeman on Faith. This is a collection of Betjeman’s prose on religious themes, and it contains newspaper and magazine articles, transcripts of talks for radio and television, and even a complete sermon. Many of these pieces are published here for the first time, and most have never appeared in a collection such as this before. Taken together, they reveal Betjeman to be a writer of extraordinary spiritual depth and acuity, often genuinely moving to read. Even the pieces which are more overtly historical than devotional never let the reader forget that the purpose of church buildings is to point beyond themselves, that appreciating the architecture and the furnishings is nothing without an apprehension of the God to whose glory they exist. The conclusion of the talk on St Endellion in Cornwall for BBC Radio broadcast in July 1949 is typical, as Betjeman, standing on the cliff tops, compares the swirl of the north Atlantic with the rocks beneath his feet: ‘Yet compared with the age of these rocks the sea’s life is nothing. And even the age of the rocks is nothing compared with the eternal life of man. And up there on the hill in St Endellion Church, eternal man comes week by week in the Eucharist. That is the supreme mystery of all the mysteries of St Endellion.’
The mystery of the Incarnation, the reality and power of the sacraments, Christ’s presence in the Holy Eucharist; these are the themes which mark the whole collection, and they provide the framework for the spiritual advice which Betjeman firmly, if reluctantly, dispenses: pray, go to Holy Communion, support your parish church. A couple of the longer pieces stand out for other reasons: ‘Selling our Churches’ (April 1954) reminds us forcibly that buildings are not the enemy of mission, but essential to it; ‘Vicar of this Parish’ (1976) is a marvellous account of parson Kilvert, of diary fame. But all the writings in this collection really form a unity around Betjeman’s convictions about God, Christ and the sacraments, and the assurance of grace to be found in the quiet routines of the national Church. Betjeman’s gentle but firm confidence that this is so gives the study of this admirable collection great poignancy. ND