“And Is It True?”: Betjeman’s Weary Christmas Faith

It’s a manic time at the Davenant Institute as term ends, doubly so for me as a student here. Without the time to write a full article, I thought I’d share a far-too-little-known Christmas poem by the late English Poet Laureate, John Betjeman (1906-1984).

An English national treasure, Betjeman is best known as a bard of post-war England. He was a man of train station cafes, itchy trousers, and the metro-suburban sprawl. Philip Larkin once praised him by saying “how much more interesting and worth writing about Betjeman’s subjects are than most other modern poets. I mean, whether so-and-so achieves some metaphysical inner unity is not really so interesting to us as the overbuilding of rural Middlesex“. Quite right.

Yet Betjeman was also a thoroughly Christian poet – a great lover of churches, and full of the kinds of withering, side-tickling observations which only an English churchwarden could make (a role he had in common with T.S. Eliot). His personal life makes me wonder just how sincere his faith was, but it’s not as flagrantly incompatible with Christianity as, say, W.H. Auden’s, and so I withold any judgement, and take him as food for the soul (which I do with Auden too, if you were wondering).

In fact, the older I get, the more arresting I find Betjeman’s descriptions of his faltering faith. In 1954, he wrote about the Greater London Crusade, Billy Graham’s first visit to England, for The Spectator – very positively, it must be said (despite being firmly traditionally Anglo-Catholic, Betjeman had a strong ecumenical streak). Yet in contrasting his spirituality to that of Billy Graham, he wrote this:

I have no memory of a blinding light striking me at the corner of a street, or of a fit of the shudders while people knelt around me in prayer. I cannot point to a date, time and place and say, ‘That was when I was converted’. I cling to the sacraments and live for the day, have many moments of doubt when the only thing that buoys me up is the thought that I would sooner the Incarnation were true than that it were not. This, at its lowest ebb, is my faith; but frequent confession and communion have proved to me, unwilling though I sometimes am to believe, that prayer works, that Christ is God, and that He is present in the Sacraments of the Church of England. Thus, though I frequently lapse and am rarely exalted, I am conscious of being under divine providence, to use a bit of jargon for which I can think of no clearer substitute, and thankful that I was brought up by Christian parents.

Time was, I’d have sneered at such a seemingly limp-wristed Christianity. I write this on my fifth wedding anniversary – full of joy and thanksgiving at all the Lord’s goodness in that time, but feeling in my bones that several years of the trials of adult family life have earned Betjeman my fatigued “amen”. A growing appreciation of the sacraments in those five years contirbutes to that too; I understand more than I did five years ago their role as a form of God’s Word for the weak and weary, as necessary as both Scripture and preaching. A dependence on the eucharist shines through in Betjeman’s Christian poetry, Anglo-Catholic that he was. Being more clasically Reformed, I’m sure we’d have had some disagreements about communion – but I find that the (possibly) excessive sacramentality of his ilk usually shines a necessary light on the (often) deficient sacramentality of mine.

At his best, one finds in Betjeman a world-wearied faith, which still says “where else can we go Lord? You alone have the words of eternal life.” And when he approaches Christmas, plodding through the snow, he does so (to quote a carol) as one of those “beneath life’s crushing load,/Whose forms are bending low,/Who toil along the climbing way/With painful steps and slow.” He wonders whether he will really find the sign the angels said would be in the manger. But he goes, and he seeks – and of course, he finds.

And so, with all that said, I share Betjeman’s poem “Christmas”, penned in 1954 – the same year he went to watch Billy Graham at Harringay Arena. At the bottom, you can find a recording of Betjeman reading it himself.

Christmas

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
    And 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? 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.

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