By the time, 1955, that London publisher Rupert Hart-Davis launched his project of introducing Welsh poet R. S. Thomas to the English-speaking world, John Betjeman was already a ‘name’ in that world.
He’d been a film critic for the Evening Standard, an editor for the Architectural Review, and the writer of Cornwall and Devon for the Shell Guides, a series of county guides published by Shell Oil for Britain’s growing number of motorists. By 1948, he had published more than a dozen books.
When Hart-Davis asked Betjeman to present Thomas to London’s literary world, Thomas had published three books of poetry, Betjeman six. Three years later, sales of Betjeman’s Collected Poems reached 100,000.
Betjeman, a ‘name,’ was a generous and perceptive introducer of Thomas, a ‘no-name,’ writing:
This retiring poet [R. S. Thomas] had no wish for an introduction to be written to his poems, but his publisher believed that a “name” was needed to help sell the book. The “name” which has the honour to introduce this fine poet to a wider public will be forgotten long before that of R. S. Thomas.
Betjeman was correct. Yes, Betjeman went on to a knighthood (1969) and to be the Poet Laureate (1972), but his name will be forgotten, I think, “long before that of R. S. Thomas.
To begin my response, let me quote the full stanza from which I extracted two of Betjeman’s lines in my last blog:
Your peal of ten ring over then this town,
Ring on my men nor ever ring them down.
This winter chill, let sunset spill cold fire
On villa’d hill and on Sir Gilbert’s spire,
So new, so high, so pure, so broach’d, so tall.
Long run the thunder of the bells through all.
I hope you’ll take time to read those lines aloud. Give the rhythm full pealing power. Note the rhymes that ring through Betjeman’s lines like chimes: ten/then/town, men/them/down, ring/ring/ring, chill/spill/hill, fire/spire, pure/thunder, tall/all.
What a different poetic sensibility is found in the second stanza (I quoted the first in my last blog) of Thomas’s poem “The Belfry”!
But who is to know? Always,
Even in winter in the cold
Of a stone church, on his knees
Someone is praying, whose prayers fall
Steadily through the hard spell
Of weather that is between God
And himself. Perhaps they are warm rain
That brings the sun and afterwards flowers
On the raw graves and throbbing of bells.
Again, I urge reading aloud. There’s rhythm in Thomas’s lines, a flow that’s conversational, even meditative, unlike the booming rhythm of Betjeman’s lines. And Thomas uses the merest hint of rhyme, not at all comparable to Betjeman’s cascade.
Betjeman, who was born in 1906, five years after Queen Victoria died, is a Victorian poet; Thomas, born in 1913, is a post-Second World War poet. Although they were near contemporaries, their poetic sensibilities were separated by a century.
The same was true of their religious sensibilities. Betjeman was a twentieth-century doubter whose ideal was the muscular Christianity of the Victorian era – robust belief, self-assertive faith. His hymn was “Long run the thunder of the bells through all.”
Thomas was a twentieth-century doubter who knelt in silence, waiting for the hard spell of weather that was between God and himself to pass. His hymn was “Prompt me, God; But not yet. . . . The meaning is in the waiting.”
Does this imply that I don’t like Betjeman’s poems? Not at all. It would be great fun to stand in a church tower and belt them out over the countryside. But they do not feed my soul.
I was born in the twentieth century but am a twenty-first-century believer. Betjeman was born in the twentieth century but was a nineteenth-century believer. For the nourishment of my spirit, I need Thomas’s poetry, not Betjeman’s.
Betjeman was a hangover from the strident believing of Queen Victoria’s times, Thomas a harbinger of our willingness to be still and wait for God.
Poems quoted in this blog:
“Your peal of ten ring over then this town” – “On Hearing the Full Peal of Ten Bells from Christ Church, Swindon, Wilts.,” Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman: An Anthology of Betjeman’s Religious Verse, 104.
“But who is to know? Always” – “The Belfry,” Pietà, 28.
“Prompt me, God” – “Kneeling,” Not That He Brought Flowers, 32.