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The Monday Poem > John Betjeman Poems (for MON 10th FEB) A bit early while I have time!

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message 1: by John (new)

John Frankham (johnfrankham) Two poems by John Betjeman. Aspects of death - bathos and humanity?
A master of using attractive verse forms and metres, while never a slave to them, I think?

MORTALITY (from High and Low - 1966)

The first-class brains of a senior civil servant
Shiver and shatter and fall
As the steering column of his comfortable Humber
Batters in the bony wall.

All those delicate re-adjustments
"On the one hand, if we proceed
With the ad hoc policy hitherto adapted
To individual need ...

On the other hand, too rigid an arrangement
Might, of itself, perforce ...
I would like to submit for the Minister's concurrence
The following alternative course,

Subject to revision and reconsideration
In the light our experience gains ..."
And this had to happen at the corner where the by-pass
Comes into Egham out of Staines.

That very near miss for an All Souls' Fellowship
The recent compensation of a 'K'---
The first-class brains of a senior civil servant
Are sweetbread on the road today.

ALDERSHOT CREMATORIUM (from A Nip in the Air - 1974)

Between the swimming-pool and cricket-ground
How straight the crematorium driveway lies!
And little puffs of smoke without a sound
Show what we loved dissolving in the skies,

Dear hands and feet and laughter-lighted face
And silk that hinted at the body's grace.

But no-one seems to know quite what to say
(Friends are so altered by the passing years):
"Well, anyhow, it's not so cold today" ---
And thus we try to dissipate our fears.

'I am the Resurrection and the life':
Strong, deep and painful, doubt inserts the knife.

message 2: by Leslie (new)

Leslie | 15985 comments I like the contrast between the two you chose John! I think I like the first one better but the second seems more universal.

message 3: by LauraT (new)

LauraT (laurata) | 13133 comments Mod
I felt the second a lot: both my parents asked to be cremated...

message 4: by Jenny (last edited Feb 07, 2014 03:49PM) (new)

Jenny (jeoblivion) | 4869 comments Thanks for posting these John.

I am finding the first one not easily accessable, and I wonder whether that has to do with my not being English enough (or at all) to fully get the references.

Like Laura, I felt the second one quite a bit, I like it a lot.

I also really like that you've added the dates to the poems, and when looking at them was actually quite surprised, because they seem 'older' in tone and style, in fact they remind me a bit of 19th century poetry.

message 5: by John (new)

John Frankham (johnfrankham) Jenny,

Yes, Betjeman's style comes from the 1930s, say, when his first collection was published, but he was a champion of the Victorian style, particularly in architecture, battling to save many buildings against the 1960s more brutalist styles. St Pancras Station in London from where the Eurostar leaves for the channel tunnel retains its old design and has a giant statue of Betjeman inside. He was our poet laureate (ie royal poet) for many years.

Yes, I now realise how English the first poem is. The phrases used to show civil servants advice to government ministers are typical even today, and I certainly used similar ones in my (less distinguished) career - very polite on top, but really quite steely and Machiavellian underneath. For instance, if I said 'an interesting and courageous idea, Minister', it really means 'what a silly and risky one'! But the point is, I think, to prick the pretensions, particularly by the use of 'sweetbread', which is our phrase for (sheep's) brains sold in the butcher's shop!

message 6: by Bionic Jean (new)

Bionic Jean (bionicjean) I particularly liked the first of the two, probably because (being English) I recognised the type so well! For non-English people, if you ever get the chance to watch the excellent 1980's series "Yes, Minister" or (later) "Yes, Prime Minister" by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, you will recognise this character to a "t" in Nigel Hawthorne's portrayal of the Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby.

Neither of these are poems I'd read before, and seem quite biting for John Betjeman, whose wit I usually find more gentle. I too like his formal structuring, and think it can make his poetry a lot more accessible. Perhaps this is one of the reasons he was made Poet Laureate?

message 7: by John (new)

John Frankham (johnfrankham) And the structure helps them trip off the tongue, too:

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
It isn't fit for humans now,

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,

message 8: by Bionic Jean (new)

Bionic Jean (bionicjean) Now those I do know! Which kind of proves your point John ;)

message 9: by Leslie (last edited Feb 09, 2014 06:44AM) (new)

Leslie | 15985 comments Jean wrote: "I particularly liked the first of the two, probably because (being English) I recognised the type so well! For non-English people, if you ever get the chance to watch the excellent 1980's series "Y..."

I almost commented on how very British the first poem was... I think that one reason I liked it so much was that I was a big fan of those shows! In fact, I have been sporadically listening to Yes Minister on BBC Radio recently.

But I thought sweetbreads were calves' brains not sheep?

edit - hah! sweetbeads not sweethearts! stupid auto-correct got turned on by accident...

message 10: by Dhanaraj (new)

Dhanaraj Rajan | 2962 comments I too am in the company of those who loved the second poem. It is easily accessible and it is one of the well loved themes of many poets.

message 11: by John (new)

John Frankham (johnfrankham) Leslie - I've had to look sweetbreads up, and I'm not sure I want to go into detail into what kinds of offal they are! but you're right, more

message 12: by John (new)

John Frankham (johnfrankham) .. Continued ... More Often calves than sheep.

message 13: by Jenny (new)

Jenny (jeoblivion) | 4869 comments John, entirely forgot to thank you for shedding some light for me on the first poem!

@Jean, I will keep an eye out for 'Yes, Minister', thank you!

message 14: by John (new)

John Frankham (johnfrankham) Jenny - my pleasure.

message 15: by Bionic Jean (new)

Bionic Jean (bionicjean) Jenny - it's delightfully witty! People always wondered how Nigel Hawthorne remembered his circuitous speeches. And just occasionally the studio audience would give him a round of spontaneous applause!

message 16: by John (new)

John Frankham (johnfrankham) Jenny, Jean - having been a civil servant for 40 years, I can promise you Yes, Minister was just like it really was (but we didn't have as many laughs!)

message 17: by Leslie (new)

Leslie | 15985 comments John wrote: "Jenny, Jean - having been a civil servant for 40 years, I can promise you Yes, Minister was just like it really was (but we didn't have as many laughs!)"

Should I laugh or weep at this news?!

message 18: by John (new)

John Frankham (johnfrankham) Laugh, I think. A similar programme about the legal profession, school or university common-rooms, and others would really make one weep!

Seriously, our MPs and ministers are much maligned, and have the public good at heart, mainly. It's just that developing and implementing a policy in a democracy with so many different opinions does require a measure of deviousness and two-facedness, I reckon.

message 19: by Leslie (new)

Leslie | 15985 comments True. I guess I just find it a bit frightening to realize that the civil servants are the ones who really run the show instead of the elected officials, just by being permanent while the officials are by their very nature temporary...

message 20: by John (new)

John Frankham (johnfrankham) Good point about our different systems. But, good Ministers do win on points in the end.

In the year before a general election, civil servants do talk to the opposition about their policy intentions, so that new policies can be considered in advance so there is no policy vacuum.

But, indeed, an imperfect system over here.

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