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Hallo again to all.

It has been 35 years since John Betjeman, Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, died in his beloved village of Trebetherick in northern Cornwall. Betjeman had published ten books of poetry during his lifetime, and the bulk of them were released together as Collected Poems in 1958. This was considered the Betjeman corpus of poetry–his work in other genres, such as church architecture and railway stations, and seashells, are separate treasures—until a group of 228 additional poems were assembled and published this year by American scholar Kevin Gardner. Bringing together Betjeman’s more ephemeral work from periodicals and archives, Harvest Bells may be one of the loveliest books of 2019.

Betj was busy from the middle 1930s with a demanding schedule of literary productivity as well as radio broadcasts and (eventually) television documentaries. His mood is a combination of nostalgia and wit, wry observation on the changing of urban culture, an appreciation of the built environment and its impact on human emotion—all punctuated by the faithful sound of church bells. His purpose was to save and to share through poetry, journalism, and action the best of the immediate past in grateful acknowledgment of its beauty and goodness. Betjeman has the distinct voice of the central decades of the twentieth century during which a kind of Englishness and Anglicanism were entering a period of decay and loss of influence but still retained a posture of what would turn out to be hollow confidence. A characteristic verse from this period about diversity of churchmanship:

But what’s so wonderful to me
Is all these men are C of E.
And when I hear how people blame
The Church for not being all the same,
I tell them just to keep in mind
How God created humankind.
He didn’t have a single mould,
But what he did was really bold:
He planned to have a rich variety
Within his one Divine Society,
And that Society for me
Is the warm and friendly C of E.

Along with an abundance of ecclesiastical verse, there is also natural pathos of an extraordinary kind:

Country noises do not shake
The surface of the silent lake.
The silent lake through which I see
Is life and death at rest in me.
The hope and scratching of the thrush,
The bees about the currant bush,
The crackle of the garden fire,
The swooping of the chapel choir,
The barking dogs where children play,
And windows flung across the way,
And melancholy bells that make
A hidden current through the lake:
The silent lake through which I see
Is life and death at rest in me.


There are at least 50,000 pages of Betjeman’s letters and manuscripts (85 boxes and 24 meters of shelf space) in just one Canadian archive at the McPherson Library of the University of Victoria. Smaller collections are in Buffalo, at Yale and the University of Texas, and at the Bodleian. We have certainly not heard the last of Betjeman, who 'reminds us that poetry is food for the soul, and that it echoes across the ages even when the pen has ceased its scratching across the page.'

See you next week.

Our Signatures

Richard Mammana


All of us at Anglicans Online

20 October 2019

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