Thursday, 2 December 2010

Second Window - Christmas - A Poem by John Betjeman

Spryng Chapel Window
SS Peter and Paul
Lavenham, Suffolk


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 Hookers 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 the villagers can say
'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
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,
This 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 today in Bread and Wine.

Sir John Betjeman "poet and hack", (his phrase), needs no introduction from me. Even those in the UK for whom poetry is an irrelevance, know of him, although they probably only know about the friendly bombs he wished to fall on the town of Slough.

Betjeman had a life-long love-affair with Edwardian England (in many ways the last period of Victorian England) . It included old churches, old railways, old gas-lit streets, old country towns, old dons and old invalids; it also gave him a distaste for much of what was considered to represent progress. Betjeman was named Poet Laureate in 1972.


  1. Today, for whatever reason, I am reminded of our trip to England 5 years ago at Christmas. We were visiting our daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren. They were living there for a year as he had a plant project there for his company in Mundesley. Before we took the train north, Ron and I spent one glorious day and a half in London (not near enough time) and I remember walking to Piccadilly Circus and the pretty shop and lights...(sigh) Hoping you are well and thank you for this post! Cathy

  2. friko i really like the way this writing wanders from image to image with the one tiny thread holding it all together. it's so clever and more especially so lovely step-by-step to follow its unfolding. steven

  3. For some strange reason I came to a stop on the line "from Crimson Lake to Hookers Green" thinking of another type of hooker and wondering why the line did not read "from Crimson Hooker to Lake Green" and thus my mind kept looking for more cynicism in the poem but of course, it wasn't there. Thus, cultural ignorance means I have to re-read the poem.

  4. I remember "doing" this poem for O level when I was 14 years old and being a keen Betjeman fan. Thank you Friko for the memory.

  5. Friko - should you ever be travelling through St Pancraes there is a statue there of John B. - as he is credited with saving the station.
    Its quite a nice statue as it shows him to be a chubby, slightly confused elderly gent ... a sort of human version of Paddington Bear (whose statue is on Paddington station)

  6. Can't do much better than Poet Laureate, in my opinion. If it was good enough for Rudyard Kipling, it's good enough for me. :)
    Thanks for sharing this delightful poem, Friko. I enjoyed it.
    -- K

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

  7. Is it still like that at Christmas time? I was only ever in London once, and that was in a dreary November and the first of the Christmas decorations on the stores look sad and damp.
    I enjoyed opening this door of the Advent Calendar.

  8. I'm really enjoying your Advent calendar, Friko!

  9. Friko thank you for posting such a beautiful, meaningful poem.

  10. very nice...i really like his poetry...i would so love to visit across the pond...

  11. He's a new poet to me. I love the wandering imagery and the somewhat cynical tone until the last stanza.

  12. Lovely Advent giftie, thanks Friko.
    I saw his statue last year in the a little goosebumpy...

  13. He was/is a national treasure. I remember his funeral, covered by local television. A rainy day, his coffin being carried across the St Enodoc golf course, to the tiny church where he was laid to rest. I went on my own little pilgrimage during this year's Cornish holiday.

    Nice choice, Friko.

  14. Friko, I love this poem. The turn of the 19th-20th century is my favorite period in history, in both Europe and the US. My Christmas 'screen saver' is a scene from a Victorian home in London created by the Oxford Group, years ago. Thank you

  15. With your advent posts, you are day by day restoring Christmas to a holiday to savor. Bravo!

  16. Here's a funny coincidence, Friko. Just a day or two ago, I heard this poem read on BBC London radio. Of course, I know of the poet, but had never before heard the poem.

    Thank you for giving me another opportunity to enjoy its words.


  17. I love our visits, my dear Friko

    Aloha from Waikiki

    Comfort Spiral



  18. I love this poem with its humor and tradition smiling at each other.

    I will catch up on your advent days. I don't want to miss any.

  19. This matched my mood today. Thank you for the Advent gift, Friko!


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