John Betjeman


The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It’s dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver pale.
The world seems travelling into space,
And travelling at a faster pace
Than in the leisured summer weather
When we and it sit out together,
For now we feel the world spin round
On some momentous journey bound –
Journey to what? to whom? to where?
The Advent bells call out ‘Prepare,
Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.’
  And how, in fact, do we prepare
For the great day that waits us there –
The twenty-fifth day of December,
The birth of Christ? For some it means
An interchange of hunting scenes
On coloured cards, And I remember
Last year I sent out twenty yards,
Laid end to end, of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know –
They’d sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back. Oh dear!
Is this a form of Christmas cheer?
Or is it, which is less surprising,
My pride gone in for advertising?
The only cards that really count
Are that extremely small amount
From real friends who keep in touch
And are not rich but love us much.
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.
We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell’d go extremely well.
We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defence is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax.
Enough of these unworthy cracks!
‘The time draws near the birth of Christ’.
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago.
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.


From Collected Poems (2006) © The Estate of John Betjeman 1955, 1958


Reproduced with permission of John Murray and Hodder & Stoughton Ltd through PLSclear


Sir John Betjeman (1906-84) was Poet Laureate from 1972. Whilst this is not his more famous Advent poem, possibly written for one of his radio broadcasts, it proudly bears the Betjeman hallmark: rhyming couplets, trochaic rhythm in eight-syllable octameters with slightly longer lines in parts to slow it down, and that knack for everyday speech, human foible, rich personality and Englishness. A high-church Anglican all his life, we owe a lot to Betjeman’s steadfast faith and spokesmanship for churches.