Strange deliberations: John Betjeman and protestant nonconformity.
John Betjemans devotion to the Church of England and the unique and prevailing Anglican temper of his character and imagination have been amply explored in recent scholarly studies. (1) Yet this devout Anglo-Catholic also sustained a lifelong preoccupation with the dissenting Protestant tradition. In fact, he experienced a paradoxical gravitation toward and repulsion from Nonconformity, and its grip on his imagination was obsessive. The British dissenting tradition, embracing a multitude of Nonconformist denominations and sects of nearly endless variety, along with a "low church" strain of Anglicanism, is manifest across the spectrum of his writings in a veritable potpourri of allusions. An index of British Nonconformity in Betjemans writings would include General Baptists, Strict and Particular Baptists, Seventh Day Baptists, Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists, Bible Christians, Plymouth Brethren, Moravians, Lutherans, Independents and Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Unitarians, Quakers, Christian Scientists, Swedenborgians, Sandemanians and Glasites, the Peculiar People, Countess of Huntingdonites, Fifth Monarchists, Covenanters, Millenarians, Muggletonians, Agapemonites, Irvingites, Bryanites, and nondenominationals, as well as those "low church" Anglican parishes that are borderline dissenting--evangelical, reformed, and Calvinistic. Whether mainstream denomination or marginalized sect, active or defunct, they were all of great interest to him. But as his biographer Bevis Hillier notes, he was particularly absorbed "in recherche Nonconformist sects" (Young Betjeman 348). "I liked things dim," Betjeman confessed in his poetic autobiography, Summoned by Bells (59), and surely part of the appeal of Protestant Nonconformity lies in his innate fondness for all things obscure or humble.
The more obscure the faction, the greater the fascination it offered, and he would resonate with accord. As A. N. Wilson notes, Betjeman was "obsessed by the byways of religious experience, sympathising with those who sought out strange ways to God" (266). In The Spectator he wrote of his interest in the Muggletonians, a seventeenth-century sect that lingered on into the nineteenth. Visiting their old meeting house in London, recently converted into a carpet business, he came away with a prized acquisition: a gas bracket which had illuminated the "strange deliberations" of this moribund affiliation ("City and Suburban"  684). The cult of the Agapemonites and their ornate 1892 church in Clapton preoccupied him as both poet and architectural historian, in part for the stunning Art Nouveau statues of the beasts of the Apocalypse carved below the steeple but no less for the scandalous stories of their leader, the Reverend J. H. Smyth-Piggott, who seduced wealthy female adherents into sexual and financial submission and who fancied himself Christ reincarnate. (2) The Peculiar People, based largely in Essex, and who survive today as the Union of Evangelical Churches, evoked an effusive pastoral recollection from Betjeman in the very year that they relinquished their memorable name:
It is a place of narrow lanes which take sudden right-angle bends revealing rows of weather-boarded cottages, small hills with elms on them, and finally the great salt marshes, with their birds and sea lavender.... It is the remotest possible country, and the only sea coast near London which has not been exploited. I went there first by bicycle years ago to attend the chapels of the Peculiar People, that Essex sect which goes in for healing, whose women wear black bonnets and whose hymn book, I recollect, has the delightful couplet "Shall chapel doors rattle and umbrellas move / To show how you the service disapprove?" ("City and Suburban"  615)
The obscurity of the sect is complemented by its secluded setting, thus far uncorrupted by the encroaching of the modern world.
Indeed, his imagination was especially enlivened by the sight of a Nonconformist chapel in a pastoral setting. Part of what made England's coastal towns so lovely, he insisted, was the prevalence of dissenting chapels. The essays that derived from his "Coast and Country" series of BBC radio broadcasts offer many intriguing examples. Stirred by its remarkable beauty, he apostrophizes a coastal Devonshire town: "Ilfracombe, with your chapels, evangelical churches, chars-a-bancs and variegated terraces, long may you lie embedded in your gorgeous cliffs and hills!" (First and Last Loves 227). Highworth's "pleasant late Georgian Congregational church" seems to sit in a prelapsarian setting in which "wistaria and vines trail" over "walled gardens with pears and plums" (231, 232). Saved from the "modern barbarism" of over-development, Clevedon's natural beauty is praised in terms of Nonconformist evangelism and hymnody, "a refuge in time of trouble, a beautiful haven of quiet" (231). He is most effusive, however, about Port Isaac, on the North coast of his beloved Cornwall. "Port Isaac has no grand architecture," he admits. "A simple slate Methodist chapel and Sunday school in the Georgian tradition hangs over the harbour and is the prettiest building in the town" (214). Alluding to the tendency for Nonconformist services to go on and on, long past the conclusion of Anglican services, Betjeman notes that "Church is over, but Chapel is still on" (217). Yet there are ironic resonances in this observation, perhaps a suggestion that dissenters have outstripped Anglicans in some corners of Britain. In a poetic burst he attributes the crowning glory of Port Isaac's scenic beauty to the simplicity of a Nonconformist worship service: "As I stand on this viewpoint above the town, the sea gulls are crying and wheeling, the flowery cliffs take the evening sun, the silvery slates of the old town turn pale gold. Above the lap of the harbour water, the wail of gulls and thunder of the sea beyond the headlands, comes the final hymn from the Methodist Chapel across the green and gently rolling harbour flood" (217).
Betjeman's life embodied the Protestant heterogeneity that infuses his writings. Though he was confirmed in the Anglo-Catholic tradition at Oxford's Pusey House and spent the vast majority of his adulthood as a committed and practicing "high church" Anglican, he was attracted to the obscurity of Nonconformity as well as to its spirit of independence and rebellion. (3) Indeed, he was sufficiently drawn to Protestant dissent that he spent several of his early adult years in the Quaker faith and even flirted briefly with the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion. Perhaps there was a familial disposition for Protestant Nonconformity and its various branches. Members of his father's family were Congregationalists; his mother dabbled in Christian Science, and his son Paul was briefly converted to Mormonism. At some point in his youth or early adulthood, Betjeman discovered that his teddy bear, a lifelong companion whom he had named Archibald Ormsby-Gore, was a fervent Nonconformist of a stern and censorious conventicle; his lone children's book, Archie and the Strict Baptists, is a loving tribute to his bear and to this obscure denomination. (4) Besotted with the language and culture of dissenters, he titled his first collection of poetry Mount Zion, and several of its poems respond to this spiritual tradition. (5) As an architectural historian, Betjeman brought a surprisingly objective eye to the special details of Nonconformist architecture; he celebrated the growth of their chapels in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and lamented their slow decline in the twentieth. In middle age, he attended Billy Graham's 1954 London Crusade as a correspondent for The Spectator, imagining a spirit of evangelism starting to sweep the capital. Perhaps the crowning achievement of his waning years was a series of BBC radio broadcasts on hymns that he gave the Nonconformist title, Sweet Songs of Zion. (6) Betjeman's treatment of Protestant Nonconformity encompasses a wide array of genres, subjects, and tones, but four recurring rhetorical aims provide a useful structure for analyzing this aspect of his work: praise for the cultural contributions of Nonconformists, laughter at the emotional excesses of their worship, fear of a Calvinistic vision of damnation, and attempts to soothe his own soul by the examples of dissenters' faith. An examination of the varied cultural and spiritual manifestations of Protestant Nonconformity in Betjeman's poetry and prose exposes a hidden facet of his imagination and thus provides a clearer lens with which to understand his work and to appreciate his achievement.
Since Betjeman's emotional responses and intellectual attitudes toward Protestant Nonconformity fluctuate dramatically, perhaps the fairest place to begin is with his appreciation of its cultural contributions, namely in preaching, architecture, and music. Betjeman took public notice of the splendors of Calvinistic preaching in a 1946 BBC radio broadcast on Augustus Montague Toplady. Perhaps best known today as the composer of "Rock of Ages," Toplady was to Betjeman among the most fascinating of eighteenth-century writers. On his death in 1778, he left enough sermons and other theological writings to fill six volumes with "love of God, vituperation of John Wesley and his followers ... and above all Calvinism, that great uncompromisingly logical system of theology of which Toplady was a violent upholder" (Trains and Buttered Toast 196). Calvinistic, evangelical, and vituperative Toplady may have been, but Betjeman found in him a surprising tenderness as well as a travelling companion in his journey through belief and doubt.
Every day, for hours and long into the night, Toplady would commune with his Maker. His spiritual diary, which survives, records his intimate moments of prayer. There would be times of dryness when he believed nothing and the face of the sun was darkened and the silence of the Devonshire night brought no hope for him and his early death, which he foresaw, would project him, he felt, into blackness and oblivion. Then came the showers of mercy and assurance to compensate him when he was "dissolved in wonder, gratitude and self-abasement." (201-02)
Though he was an Anglican vicar, Toplady was of a decidedly "low church" stamp, and much of his preaching actually occurred in dissenting chapels. Consequently, as Betjeman was aware, his influence is most strongly felt in the Nonconformist tradition: "Here and there where daylight strikes through clear glass windows onto high pews and galleries of little old chapels of the Independent and Strict Baptist denominations and, I believe, in about half a dozen Anglican churches, the prose works of Toplady are still quoted" (196). But it was Toplady the preacher, rather than Toplady the theologian, who left a significant impression in eighteenth-century England. His "glowing faith in God" gave him "such eloquence in the pulpit that the galleries of churches and chapels were as full as the pews with groaning and weeping multitudes" (199). Such a preacher as Toplady, though he was a dissenting Anglican, would "surely appeal to Catholics and Protestants alike, to all Christians and even to those who do not believe" (202). To illustrate, Betjeman provides an extract from Toplady's affecting sermon, "Jesus Seen of Angels," wherein he imagines Heaven's own suffering during the Crucifixion: "If ever sorrow was in heaven; if ever the harps of the blessed were suspended, silent, and unstrung on the willows of dismay; if ever angels ceased to praise" (202). Such sensitivity of spirit and image touched Betjeman deeply, informing his religious and poetic perspectives. According to Candida Lycett Green, her father "retained a lifelong interest" in Toplady, and his bookshelves "groaned with his Calvinistic writings" (Letters, Volume One 17n).
Though he did not regularly attend the meeting houses of dissenters, he sustained a deep if quiet appreciation for their great preaching tradition. He did love a good sermon and referred to himself as a "sermon-taster." (7) He was even inspired to try preaching himself, though a sense of inadequacy always characterizes his words. The first occasion was in 1946 (coincidentally, the same year that his talk on Toplady went out over the wireless), when he spoke in a series of Evensong sermons delivered by well-known laymen. Having to follow his Oxford tutor and nemesis, C. S. Lewis, did not help matters, but his self-doubt was surely misguided. The surviving sermon is a rhetorical masterpiece, filled with the sort of poetic flourishes that were then filling his poems (Gardner, Betjeman 21-22). When he next mounted a pulpit, in 1952, he restricted himself to a less personal topic, a parish growth scheme. On the final occasion, in 1953, he stuck to a subject with which he was much more comfortable, the architectural details of the church itself, and after that he declined further invitations. (8) Betjeman's Strict Baptist teddy bear Archie--who as his dissenting surrogate is the hero of Archie and the Strict Baptists--also appreciated good preaching. Archies pastor was capable of going "five hours without stopping. The longer the sermon, the more Archie liked it." Like Betjeman, Archie had a taste for the pulpit: "Sometimes, when there was no Pastor supplied, Archie would preach himself. He went on for eight or nine hours until the chapel was empty ..." (6-7). Betjemans light-hearted hyperbole concerning the prolix preaching of Nonconformists is of course counterbalanced by his praise for Toplady, as well as by a compliment he paid to the young Billy Graham in 1954: "He is not an emotional speaker, despite his wonderful eloquence. It is obviously within his power to make people weep and scream Alleluyah'. But he restrains himself" (Betjeman on Faith 12).
Restraint is not something that Betjeman usually associated with Nonconformity, but it is perhaps the most notable quality of its architecture. Though eventually dissenters' chapels would grow more elaborate, their earliest meeting houses were the embodiment of aesthetic sobriety and pious asceticism: "Outside, the building may look like a small farm or a cottage. Inside, the worn old floors, scrubbed benches, and plain walls hold
an expectant quiet which seems to go on even after the meeting is finished" (Coming Home 405). Betjeman believed these buildings were worth seeking out for their merits in design: "Up to 1840, they are graceful; later than that they are often strikingly original--more so than the dull copying restoration of the buildings of the Establishment" (English Cities and Small Towns 12). A 1940 article for Architectural Review, illustrated by John Piper, was Betjemans first detailed consideration of the chapels of dissenters as having serious social and architectural merit. Here he carefully differentiates the architectural preferences of the major denominations and traces the evolution of Nonconformist architecture from the mid-seventeenth century to the early twentieth. Demonstrating a scholars knowledge of Nonconformist history in England, he makes astute observations about the relationships between ecclesial architecture, theology, and social class. So carefully does Betjeman inhabit the psychology of the dissenting tradition, one might conclude from this essay that his genuine preference is for Nonconformist design rather than for that of Establishment churches: "These were indeed the thresholds of a better world than this, the brick and stone expression of individual conversion and acceptance, not the stilted copying of a religion based on Prayer Books and Missals and idol worship" (First and Last Loves 106-08). Nonconformist architecture reached its zenith, he argues, in the Victorian age, accomplishing what no Established house of worship could do in that era, which was to be the embodiment of "the true architecture of the people" (103). Commending the great communal spirit that went into the construction and adornment of these places of worship, he discovers a surprising link between Nonconformity and England's Catholic past: "Not since medieval days had the people clubbed together to adorn a place of worship.... And yet it was built more on the lines of a pre-Reformation Catholic church than the correctest Pugin or boldest Butterfield" (103, 106). (9) There was beauty in the stark simplicity of Nonconformist design, even in the gritty urban centers of England's northern cities, defined as much by Nonconformity as by their dark, Satanic mills. Complementing the public buildings on Leeds' City Square, the Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel is "an eighteen-forty reminder in black Protestant northern Gothic of the Nonconformist conscience which has made Leeds what it is" (First and Last Loves 32). One merit of Nonconformist design is that owing to its simplicity it works well--and consistently--whether in a pastoral or an urban setting.
The notion of a place or a people being defined by its Nonconformist architecture is the focus of a 1964 essay for The Daily Telegraph, "An Architecture of the People." (10) The slow decline of evangelical chapels in the twentieth century had already elicited from him painful observations. "I remember one in Bath called Kensington Chapel, which was Calvinistic yet Anglican, but which is now a furniture store," he wrote in 1958; and as early as 1937 he noted with dismay that "Two of the Nonconformist Chapels have been sold to chain stores" (Collins Guide 62, Betjeman on Faith 45). Now he laments that owing to population shifts "many old chapels are being destroyed or converted to secular uses" (Coming Home 406). Over time, Betjemans opinions of the value of Nonconformist architecture had grown considerably. In 1940 such buildings were valuable largely as testimony to a narrow period of British history: "Despised by architects, ignored by guide books, too briefly mentioned by directories, these variagated [sic] conventicles are witnesses of the taste of industrial Britain" (First and Last Loves 104). By 1964, it was not merely the architectural significance of these buildings that demanded their preservation; it was their embodiment of a spiritual and political life central to the British character. The chapels of Nonconformists "represented struggles of conscience and loss of property and privilege for the sake of religious conviction.... They are memorials to that freedom of conscience which has characterised our way of life" (Coming Home 404, 406). That Betjeman should sympathize with the political oppression of Nonconformists is not surprising, but what might surprise is his lifting up their chapels and meeting houses as symbols of the British spirit. "[I]f there is such a thing as an architecture of the people," he asserts, "it is to be found in nonconformist chapels" (404).
As with architecture, so with church music: "Hymns are the poems of the people," Betjeman proclaimed on BBC radio (Sweet Songs of Zion 21). His desire to preserve the dissenters chapel, so ideally "designed for preaching and singing" (Coming Home 406), was matched by a desire to preserve its musical contributions. His interest in hymnody was an old one, though he did not share this interest with the public until the mid 1970s when the BBC launched his series of twenty-eight radio broadcasts called Sweet Songs of Zion. As Stephen Games remarks, "Betjeman seems to have taken part in the series because he wanted to rescue hymns and their culture from being forgotten, just as he had spent his life trying to rescue buildings and places that were at risk" (3). To be sure, Betjeman gave ample attention to the contributions of "high church" Anglicanism, but Nonconformity courses steadily through the series and even informs the title of the program. He wrote and designed broadcasts on individual hymnodists, such as Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and Fanny Alexander; but he also had thematically based programs that ranged from the Oxford Movement to the Yattendon Hymnal, from the organ loft to the mission field, from Germany to America and back to England. Indeed, part of the appeal to Betjeman was surely the recovery of the obscure, especially Nonconformist obscurity. "Of all the strands that make up the picture of English hymnody," he enthuses, "probably the most overlooked is the mission hall. You can still see them in the poorer parts of our cities: street corner conventicles with names like Hope Mission, Zion Hall, Bethel and Bethesda.... They were a vital part of Victorian religion--for many people, the only bit of colour and excitement and hope in a life of otherwise unremitting toil and tedium" (Sweet Songs 67). Betjeman also appreciated the musical "vigour" of such hymns: "Many of them captured the dance rhythms of the popular ballads of the day, on that well-known principle of denying the devil all the best tunes" (70-71). Sweet Songs of Zion demonstrates just how absorbent hymnody is, for it was the universality of hymn-singing and the catholicity of hymn theology that most appealed to Betjeman: "[O]ne of the nicest things about hymns is that we all sing one another's: Protestants sing hymns by Papists and Roman Catholics sing hymns by Methodists and everybody the whole world over sings hymns by Anglicans" (249). These broadcasts, argues Stephen Games, thus "became an object lesson in how Christianity's numerous strands--often hostile to each other in their origins--now lived together harmoniously on the hymnbook's pages" (15).
The series began appropriately enough with the trove of Nonconformist musical treasures composed by such familiar names of Nonconformity as Isaac Watts, William Cowper, and the Wesleys. All hymn lovers, Betjeman reminds us, owe a debt of gratitude to Isaac Watts, the "father of all English hymnody" (Sweet Songs 21). "There was a sort of confidence and optimism about Watts," he tells us; his "Calvinism was tempered with just a hint of the universalism that from his day became a feature of much Nonconformity." Not at all narrow or sectarian, Watts "had a splendid, universal vision" (23). Perhaps because the author of "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" was subject to persecution for his beliefs, Betjeman applauds the monument in Westminster Abbey, "that shrine of the Establishment" (28), that Watts eventually earned. (11) Charles Wesley, who along with his evangelist brother John sought "to turn laborious duty and piety into assurance and joy" (44), was English hymnody's most prolific writer. A more meaningful appeal, though, was the catholicity of Wesley's hymns: "But in no sense were Charles Wesleys hymns narrow or superficial. They were catholic in scope, profound in their exploration of Christian experience and genuinely poetic in their imagery. They truly enlarged the whole concept of hymns in worship" (49). Betjeman identifies "And Can It Be" as the fullest expression of a faith that has room both to express awe in the face of metaphysical mystery and to be converted to a life of evangelical holiness:
'Tis mystery all: th'Immortal dies! Who can explore His strange design? ... Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature's night; ... My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee. ... And clothed in righteousness divine, Bold I approach theternal throne, And claim the crown, through Christ my own. (53-54)
To Betjeman, this seems not to be a hymn of Methodist sectarianism but an expression of the full range of Christian experience and belief, embracing the Catholic contemplation of divine mystery as well as Protestant revival and conversion. (12)
Despite Betjemans theological admiration of Charles Wesley, it was William Cowper, a "convert of the Evangelical Revival," in whom he found a kindred soul. (13) One of the great poets of the late eighteenth century, Cowper took up residence at Olney, Buckinghamshire, to serve as lay assistant to the rector, the Rev. John Newton, erstwhile slave-trader and author of "Amazing Grace." A feature of the highly popular prayer meetings at Olney was the weekly introduction of a new hymn, and the sixty-eight that Cowper contributed to the Olney collection were "almost obsessively concerned with individual piety and the state of his own soul" (Sweet Songs 33). These include "God Moves in a Mysterious Way," "O for a Closer Walk with God," and "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood." According to Betjeman, such hymns capture Cowper's "torment of mind as he hovered between evangelical assurance and hideous fears that he was not in fact among the elect at all but predestined to damnation" (33). Such a confession might serve as Betjeman's autobiographical assessment as well, for a fear of damnation plagued Betjeman throughout his life and in particular during his waning years, when he was writing and producing these broadcasts (cf. Gardner, Betjeman 51-63). In contrast with the spiritual bliss of Cowper's hymns, Betjeman finds Cowper's poetry to be riddled with doubt, much like his own. His poem "The Castaway," says Betjeman, "is appalling in its horror of the great darkness waiting to swallow him up" (Sweet Songs 35). Against this "abject self-abasement" (36) is the "note of evangelical certainty" (35) in the hymns: "The same tension between a feeling of his own intense unworthiness and his faith in God's forgiveness runs through almost all of Cowper's hymns" (36). He sensed this as well in the hymns of Welsh Protestants, which have a "note of profound sorrow married to a deep reverence and sense of the power of God" (81). This pendulum of faith and doubt that runs through Betjemans work echoes the sense of personal inadequacy that Nonconformists brought to a serious desire to worship, and it partly accounts for Betjemans psychological affinity for Nonconformity as well as his spiritual and poetic sympathy for Cowper. (14)
If Betjeman respected the cultural achievements of Nonconformists, he was not always so sympathetic to their manner of expressing their spirituality and faith. Particularly in his earliest publications, such as Mount Zion (1931), he treated dissenters with a range of emotions from condescension and gentle mockery to sarcastic humor laced with gothic anxiety. Randolph Churchill astutely noted that Betjemans aim was the "beautifying of the grotesque in life and architecture" and that the result was a "genuine sublimation of the ridiculous" (qtd. Hillier, Young Betjeman 357). Indeed, from the very start Betjeman revealed that his poetic taste was for uncovering the obscure in life, rather than in making grandiose analyses or noble observations. As Craig Raine observes, "It is useless to approach poetry like this in the Arnoldian spirit of high seriousness" (320), and yet there is seriousness lurking beneath the grotesque surfaces of these poems.
The proliferation of splintering Nonconformist groups is cause for comic relief in "Competition," a poem which recounts the rapid rise and fall of dissenting chapels, along with their competitive spirit to sing louder than their neighbors, pack their pews fuller, and presumably win more souls from Satan's clutches (Mount Zion 30-31). Though the poem lacks sophistication, it is noteworthy in its undermining of the eschatological anxiety of death and judgment that typifies Betjeman's usual thinking. (15)
In the margins of the published text, Betjeman included dates to show the rise of each of four chapels: 1810 (independent Methodist), 1840 (New Jerusalem or Swedenborgian), 1860 (Wesleyan), and 1875 (Strict Baptist). As one congregation grows out of the fall of another, a sense of gloating triumph accompanies the swelling numbers of the Nonconformist faithful. Betjemans tone is clearly mocking, but it seems to shade more toward gentle teasing for the emotional excesses of Nonconformist praise and worship. The buildings themselves seem threatened ("bursting," "Crack," "rock") by the movement of the Spirit as the congregations sing their hymns, but more to the point, the chapels are threatened by time and indifference ("Dust in the galleries, dust on the stairs") and by competition amongst themselves:
Short lived! Short lived! in this world of ours Are Triumph and Praise and Prayer. What of the Mount Carmel Baptists (Strict), For they've central heating there? (16)
The poem echoes the incessant Nonconformist reminders of life's brevity, but wittily reverses the terms so that it is the glory of an individual dissenting chapel that is short-lived. And why not, one wonders, as the fortune of an individual chapel seems to be tied to the technological advances of its competition. In fact, Betjeman traces the history of these chapels through the modernizing advances of light and heating as the "Gas-lit" fixtures and "incandescent light" of the older chapels give way to the "electric light" and "electrolier" of the newer chapels. Though the satire is subtle, it is barbed. Betjeman skewers Nonconformity for its modernizing impulse: as its bright electricity supplants traditional candle-lit services, so its theology of sin and salvation harshly displaces a traditional Anglican faith.
A more accomplished poem is "The Sandemanian Meeting House in Highbury Quadrant" (Mount Zion 32). Here Betjeman treats the faith of dissenters with greater seriousness than in "Competition," though even in this poem his tones range from elegy to comedy. The Sandemanians, also known as the Glasites, were a sect that blossomed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as an offshoot of Scottish Presbyterianism. They adhered to a literal reading of Scripture and limited their contact with the secular world to the point that they did not actively pursue converts to their faith; "little they care," Betjeman notes, "That the LORD OF THE SCRIPTURES is LORD OF ALL." Their typical Sunday service lasted all day, being divided by a meal and fellowship that they called a "Love Feast." In Betjemans poem, adherents come from all over London ("From Canonbury, Dalston and Mildmay Park") to a meeting of this doomed sect, a poignant journey into the past undermined by a bizarre but comical ritual that Betjeman imagines in their services behind their locked doors.
Away from the barks and the shouts and the greetings, Psalm-singing over and love-lunch done, Listening to the Bible in their room for meetings, Old Sandemanians are hidden from the sun.
The aspect of the Sandemanians that attracts Betjeman is their obscurity. Alhough their meeting house is at a busy London junction, few people even notice it or the worshippers, and fewer still know what goes on behind its "fast-shut grained oak door." In one regard, Betjeman makes a crucial error of assumption, suggesting that the Sandemanians are indifferent to modern technology: whether "Steam or electric, little they care," he writes. In fact, the Sandemanians' most famous adherent was none other than Michael Faraday; his view of the interconnectedness of all nature--a central tenet of Sandemanianism--led him to his vital discovery of the link between electricity and magnetism (Graves 111). Though Betjeman missed out on this sidelight, his poem at least balances his amusement at what he imagines of their services, "the barks and the shouts and the greetings," with respect for the Sandemanians' quiet devotion and isolation from a sinful world. As the Sandemanians make it impossible to know anything of their nature, the poet's condescension toward what he does not understand seems to be a natural response. (17)
"An Eighteenth-Century Calvinistic Hymn" (Mount Zion 23) is a more severely satirical treatment of the spiritual pathology of Nonconformists, and a clear embodiment of what Craig Raine calls Betjeman's "elastic sense of beauty and joy" (323). In one extant manuscript of the poem Betjeman offered the subtitle "The pleasure of pain," sketched a woman vomiting, and noted that the poem was modeled after the hymns of William Gadsby, a famous nineteenth-century Strict Baptist pastor, evangelist and hymnodist (Peterson 409; Hillier, Young Betjeman 70, 421n18). The poem's primary satiric target is the Calvinist's tendency toward spiritual masochism, as Betjeman sees it, namely, the belief that physical pain is proof of divine blessing, proof perhaps even of spiritual election: "Thank God my Afflictions are such / That I cannot lie down on my Bed," says the poem's speaker. If a life free of pain is to the speaker "Proof of my Guilt," then to endure pain is surely "Proof" of the speakers blessing. Thus the body must be denied and negated; pain must be endured now, rather than in eternity:
Oh! I bless the good Lord for my Boils, For my mental and bodily Pains, For without them my Faith all congeals And I'm doomed to HELL'S NE'ER-ENDING FLAMES.
To the speaker suffering is necessary to prevent pleasure, yet ironically the pain has become pleasurable. Indeed, the speaker seems to take immense pleasure not only in having denied herself the usual earthly pleasures (such as "Dancing, Backgammon and Cards") but in having endured boils, chronic bleeding, and nausea. The catalogue of ailments has become a point of pride for the speaker, and this introduces a secondary satiric target, the spiritual pride of Calvinists poorly disguised as humility, evinced in the speakers arrogant claim that "I am not too sure of my Worth, / Indeed it is tall as a Palm." The point of "An Eighteenth-Century Calvinistic Hymn" is really laughter, not theological criticism, and thus Betjeman downplays the Nonconformists obsession with damnation. This is a subject, we shall see, that he would revisit as he developed and matured as a poet. (18)
His short story "Lord Mount Prospect" (1929) has much in common with the poems of Mount Zion. A blend of comic and gothic, "Lord Mount Prospect" tells the story of a university society formed, surely out of the excess of time and imagination that accompany Oxbridge indolence and languor, to discover and celebrate obscure Irish peers. A series of comic encounters with the decaying Irish ascendancy commences before the society discovers in the pages of Who's Who perhaps the most recondite peer of all, the eponymous viscount of the Mount Prospect demesnes of County Galway. Lord Mount Prospect's entry provides only one biographical tidbit, but it is an irresistible nugget: he is an Ember Day Bryanite. A search in an eccentric almanac (Haydn's Dictionary of Dates) for information about this sect reveals some unusual beliefs, for instance that Elijah was left as viceroy of Heaven when God became incarnate and that the sun is only four miles from the earth. (19) Appetites whetted, the society members will not rest until they have tracked down the elusive viscount. The story's narrator decides to visit an Ember Day Bryanite chapel in north London in order to gain insight into the mind and personality of Lord Mount Prospect; as in "Competition," a gaggle of dissenting chapels awaits the curious seeker who visits Hungerford Green.
As with his Nonconformist poetry, Betjemans fictional tone is decidedly mixed, in this instance combining gentle mockery with spiritual appreciation: "Above the noise of tram-car bells, above the gear changing of the cheaper motor cars, ... above the rich peal of a parish church and the insistent tinkle of a chapel-of-ease urgently in need of funds could be heard quavering sopranos and the cockney hoarseness of men and women pronouncing a warning of the wrath to come" (Coming Home 13). Though he appears to transform the hymn-singing of dissenters into a piercing and boisterous cacophony, Betjeman soon modulates to confess a delight in the "Joyous opening strains of an hearty nonconformist service" (14). He is less tolerant of the spoken word; their preachers come from the lunatic political fringe of anti-Semitism and anti-vivisection and "prophesied with equal fervour of a doom hanging perilously near us." Even a street-corner evangelist was busily "proving the inevitability of another deluge" (13).
In "Lord Mount Prospect," Betjeman transforms the ecclesiastical gothic in architecture into a literary form. Despite the exuberant singing and preaching emanating from the many chapels, the atmosphere remains somber, dreary, and ominous. The narrator walks the green, scanning the notice boards for the names of the various denominations on the chapels and meeting-houses, with "faint heart" and "fearful of breaking silence with irreligious feet" (14). At last he spots the Bryanite chapel, the most forbidding edifice of all: "There in the remotest corner of the place was the black pedimented outline of an enormous building, more like a warehouse than anything else.... The plot was bigger and darker than I had supposed and the chapel loomed so large and high on my approach that it was almost as if it had moved forward to interrupt me. It was plain and square with a coating of plaster which had peeled in many places and fallen on to the untidy grass below." Further contributing to this gothic scene, the gates are "padlocked," the windows "bolted and boarded up," and "The great doors were shut" (14-15). This is not just an abandoned chapel but a dead faith, yet the symbols of permanent closure point back at the souls of non-dissenters, excluded from the fervent faith expressed in the various conventicles of Hungerford Green.
Undeterred and oblivious to the symbolism in the state of the Bryanite chapel, the members of the society decide to venture to Ireland in order to track down the viscount. Unsurprisingly, his ancestral pile is reduced to ruin and decay, a classic Irish country house "whose fittings and mildewed portraits, whose hangings and crumbling walls, whose awful silence was [sic] stirred only by the hum of a late fly, the squeak of a bat or the little ticking noises of hurrying beetles" (19). In this scene more gothic still than that of the London chapel, there is no sign of Lord Mount Prospect, and the society members wonder sardonically if he "had been caught up in a bodily resurrection to sit for ever with other Ember Day Bryanites" (19). At last the visitors make their way to the chapel, and there in the pulpit they make the gruesome discovery of "a black-gowned figure, whose head was a skull off which all but the spectacles had withered, whose arm rested on a pile of papers, and whose fleshless finger ... rested at the phrase and three thousand, two hundred and thirty secondly ... Indeed, as the narrator concludes, "Lord Mount Prospect has preached his longest sermon" (20). The obsession with interminable sermons and pedantic biblical exegesis has earned the dissenter his most fitting eternal reward, and this scene, a perfect mix of gothic and comic, neatly embodies Betjemans mixed feelings about Nonconformity.
Although Betjeman often found comic relief in the excesses of Protestant Nonconformists, some of his works express a pronounced hostility, in particular towards what he perceived as a rigid, self-righteous, censorious, and unforgiving Calvinism. The evangelical and Calvinistic "low church" parishes of the Church of England earned some of his most severe contempt, in part for their prejudice against the dregs of Catholicism manifest in mainstream Anglicanism, and also because of the harsh judgmentalism he associated with Calvinist theology. "Bristol and Clifton" (1940) represents the worst attitudes of "low church" reverse-snobbery. (20) The poems speaker voices a deeply-seated antipathy to anything that smacks of Roman ritualism:
So now we've had some radiators fixed Along the walls and eastward of the aisles; This last I thought of lest at any time A Ritualist should be inducted here And want to put up altars. He would find The radiators inconvenient. Our only ritual here is with the Plate; I think we make it dignified enough. I take it up myself, and afterwards, Count the Collection on the vestry safe.
The speaker is vain, materialistic, and stunningly oblivious to the negative impression he creates, imagining rather that he is a figure of respect and honor. At the end, the persona lets fly a hypocritical jab at the piety of a worshipper who, though the service is over, is still on her knees praying: "here's the verger waiting to turn out / The lights and lock the church up. She cannot / Be Loyal Church of England" (Collected Poems 56-58). "The Corporation Architect" (1950) suggests a worthy fate for a church that promulgates such hypocrisy, when an accident in a fireworks warehouse next door causes the church to ignite. In the disaster one of the parishioners dies, an architect who serves as the poem's speaker. Again, anti-Catholic prejudice is the poem's primary feature.
Bermondsey gas was bright in a very Low Church in Nunhead (The which, despite its names, is a protestant part of London) Forward I bent in my pew, shading my eyes and waiting For the Minister (not a priest who sacrifices at altars) To give the blessing when oh! such a pyrotechnic explosion
rocks the church, showering stained glass fragments all over the architect and then causing the gas-lit church itself to explode. Despite the gory imagery, Betjeman's tone is comical, and the amusing illustrations by Haro Hudson that accompany the original publication counter-balance the scene of terror. Having died a good Protestant, the speaker maintains even in death his hostility to anything Roman and idolatrous: "So this was the world! Goodbye! I glanced at the Holy Table / Thankful even in death to see no Eastward position" ("The Corporation Architect," 30).
This blend of the sinister and the ridiculous may be the best way of Describing Betjeman's view of protestant-leaning" low church" Anglicanism. (21) "Calvinistic Evensong" (1937) explores the effects of the oppressive theology promulgated in such environments. Betjeman imagines Evensong in an Anglican parish withered by a stifling Calvinism; its congregation is reduced to six elderly women who in "Cold silence wait the Calvinistic word" from a "Black gowned and sinister ... Curate-in-charge of aged parish fears." Death imagery permeates the poem: the parson preaches on death; shriveling in numbers the parish begins to reek of decay; and the trees in the churchyard hungrily await their next feeding of parishioners' corpses:
Pregnant with warning the globed elm trees wait Fresh coffin-wood beside the churchyard gate. And that mauve hat three cherries decorate Next week shall topple from its trembling perch While wet fields reek like some long empty church. (22)
The spirit of Calvinism, manifested in that psalm "Which deals most harshly with the fruits of sin," is a life neurotically spent fearing death, followed by a rotten consummation. Graveyard humor pervades the poem, as Betjeman finds relief from this same anxiety by laughing grimly at it. His comic description of the music during this otherwise dead service adds a lively and ironic touch: "Boy! pump the organ! let the anthem flow / With promise for the chosen saints below!" If the singing of six elderly Anglican women cannot match the gusto of the organ, perhaps it is because these Calvinistic "chosen saints" are chosen not for "below" Heaven but "below" ground (Collected Poems 32). A more disturbing "low church" poem is "Suicide on Junction Road Station after Abstention from Evening Communion in North London" (1937). With its parodic echoes of an evangelical hymn ("We praise thee, O Jehovah!"), the poem's satirical lightness shades into existential bleakness as the speaker departs a worship service in a state of sin and psychological despair and prepares to end his life before an oncoming train: "And a thousand sins on this lonely station--/ What shall I do with them all?" (Collected Poems 37). In the unanswered question, the poem implicitly blames the death on a harsh and unforgiving theology. (23)
Betjemans interest in this austere and unsparing version of Calvinism was deeply personal, even obsessive. In 1937, the same year he wrote "Calvinistic Evensong," he wrote to his old friend Alan Pryce-Jones to tell him how much he looked forward to the latter's return to England: "We will be able to sample churches, Sunday after Sunday. Lord's Day after Lord's Day.... We must explore BRISTOL. There is a lot of LOW there. St Mary-le-Port is black-gown Calvinist. Alms are collected in a 'decent basin' ..." (Letters, Volume One 170). A few years earlier Betjeman had imagined Archie, his teddy bear, ministering in this sort of Calvinistic, "low church" parish:
Archibald has accepted the Incumbency of Raum's [sic] Episcopal Chapel, Homerton, E17. (24) It is a proprietary chapel and in communion with a part of the Church of England. It has always been associated with the Evangelical party and he will have to wear a black gown in the pulpit as the Surplice is considered ritualistic. He will distribute Holy Supper at the Lord's Table after the seven o'clock evening service every fourth Sunday in the month. I hope, as do we all in Homerton, Clapton, Walthamstow and Hackney Marshes that his ministry will be successful and fruitful. (25) (Letters, Volume One 87)
Despite this fanciful reimagining of Archie's denominational commitment, Betjeman did not find much that was positive in "low church" and evangelical Anglicanism, even though a close friend had embraced this expression of faith. Maurice Bowra, Dean of Wadham College, Oxford, had "proclaimed himself an Evangelical," probably because Wadham's anti-Tractarian proclivities were still lingering well into the twentieth century. Unable to accept this as true and thinking of their many mutual Anglo-Catholic friends, he insisted that Bowra's "Evangelicalism was only skin deep" (Tennis Whites and Teacakes 96). (26)
The problem with Calvinists, whether Anglican or dissenting, was what Betjeman termed a "smug fatalism" (Trains and Buttered Toast 198), that is, a self-satisfied sense of spiritual assurance and certain salvation at the expense of the masses doomed to Hell's flames. It was this "smug fatalism" that compelled Betjeman's gaze. He observed it in the writings of Augustus Toplady, that black-gowned curate who supplied the pulpits of "low" parishes, though his services were certainly better attended than those in "Calvinistic Evensong." While he had praised the spiritual ardor of Toplady's rhetoric in 1946, nearly thirty years later Betjeman's perspective was different. Toplady was "a convert of the revival and also a man of dark and mysterious passions. He became a fervent--one might say rabid--Calvinist, bitterly opposed to John Wesley and everybody whom he supposed guilty of promoting or even tolerating that most British of all heresies, Arminianism--the idea that we might have some small contribution to make towards our own salvation" (Sweet Songs of Zion 40). He also spotted this spiritual smugness in Maurice Regan, his employer at the Architectural Review in the 1930s, whom he despised for both philistinism and parsimony, "which exceeds even the evangelical standards of right and wrong that the Regans prescribe for themselves" (Letters, Volume One 124). Renaming them the Kegans in an eponymous poem written in the 1930s (but not published until 1982), he mocks the Evangelicalism that infuses their family seaside holidays: "We've left our hearts in Wimbledon / Our feet are in the waves, / ... / And if we see impurity, / Remember 'Jesus saves'" (Collected Poems 361). Small wonder he had such difficulty accepting Bowra's claim.
Despite his condescension and hostility, Betjeman was morbidly fascinated with the psychological profile attracted to this theology; moreover, he exhibited a periodic and masochistic inclination toward it himself, perhaps because it embodied the mindset of the nanny whose cruelties he had endured as a child. His lifelong spiritual fears can certainly be traced to child abuse at the hands of his "hateful nurse," Maud; tormented by the demons of Calvinism and convinced she would be consumed by eternal flames, she expressed her anxiety by abusing the boy, locking him in a cupboard, force-feeding him, and worse. As he recounted in Summoned by Bells, she would punish him by
Thrusting me back to babyhood with threats Of nappies, dummies and the feeding bottle. She rubbed my face in messes I had made And was the first to tell me about Hell, Admitting she was going there herself. (6)
In "N.W.5 & N.6," he recalled how her spiritual fears taught him to dread God's wrath and to doubt himself--anxieties he would never outgrow:
"World without end." It was not what she'ld do That frightened me so much as did her fear And guilt at endlessness. I caught them too, Hating to think of sphere succeeding sphere Into eternity and Gods dread will. I caught her terror then. I have it still. (Collected Poems 232)
Despite the physical abuse, it was the psychological torment that most disturbed him, particularly her fatalism about eternal damnation, her certainty that Hell was her spiritual fate. Betjeman remembered asking his nurse if he would go to Heaven when he died. The nurse, "Sadist and puritan as now I see," answered, '"You will. I won't,"' and her callous reply exposed him to the fear and uncertainty that would hound him all his life (231). Though she never told him that he would spend eternity in Hell, her Calvinistic anxieties about damnation were highly contagious. The echo of the Gloria patri in her prayers only made matters worse. His childish misperception turned a promise of eternal bliss for those of Christian hope into a threat of eternal damnation: "That was the first phrase I can remember which really struck amazed terror to my heart. Something without an end. It was an appalling idea. And stars going on without stopping for millions of miles behind one another" (Coming Home 250).
Perhaps to combat this dread, Betjeman sought imaginative fellowship with kindred souls suffering the effects of a harsh and damning Calvinism. (27) His narrative poem, "An Incident in the Early Life of Ebenezer Jones, Poet, 1828," recounts the story of a future poet scarred by his exposure to Nonconformist cruelty. The terrifying "Incident" occurs in a school nestled in a deceptively pastoral setting that resists the encroaching tides of North London suburban growth: "Dissenting chapels, tea-bowers, lovers' lairs, / Neat new-built villas, ample Grecian squares, / Remaining orchards ripening Windsor pears." This is the native territory of middle-class dissenters, who are praised yet gently mocked for their Protestant work ethic ("blest with this worlds possessions") and for their stubborn conscience and sectarianism ("Seceders from the Protestant Secessions"). Intruding on this scene of quiet bliss and youthful scholarship is a stray dog, seeking respite from the heat at the "godly feet" of the assistant schoolmaster. Shockingly, the schools "Big, bull-necked Minister of Calvins God" picks up the dog by the neck in a fit of rage and flings him to his death at the bottom of the stairs, while little Ebenezer cries out in horror, "YOU SHALL NOT!" The punishment for the future poet Jones is both physical and spiritual: "Blind desolation! bleeding, burning rod!" This is a pain which Betjeman feels with instant empathy: "Not Satan's thunder-quake / Can cause the mighty walls of Heaven to shake / As now they do, to hear a boy's heart break" (Collected Poems 49-51). As Betjeman sees it, the Calvinistic wrath of the schoolmaster, rooted perhaps in theological insensitivity to animals as vital parts of God's creation, is a force of greater spiritual violence than Satan's; at the same time, Heaven is more responsive to the suffering of a child than to the devil's impotent threats. The final line overlays Betjemans childhood memories with those of Ebenezer Jones, his own soul rent not only by the tale of young Jones's broken heart but also by the larger discovery that the pastoral world of dissenting chapels masks a cruel and callous heart. Teeming with the spiritual anxiety that plagued Betjeman throughout his life, "An Incident in the Early Life of Ebenezer Jones" has neatly captured Betjeman's paradoxical repulsion from and masochistic attraction to the bitterest strains of Calvinism in Protestant Nonconformity.
Notwithstanding the spiritual horror that Betjeman encountered in the extremes of Calvinism, his mature vision granted Protestant Nonconformity a sort of alienated respect, not just for its cultural contributions (as we earlier saw) but as a legitimate aesthetic and theological system. For himself it was not a viable alternative to the Church of England, but it was one that he could accept for others. (28) Although he often echoed the established Church's "faint note of contempt" or even "hostility" toward dissenters, Betjeman found much in their spirituality, mission and beliefs that earned his personal sympathy. (29) In his exhaustive introduction to the Collins Guide to English Parish Churches, he pauses in his scholarly examination of the history and architecture of the Church of England to weigh seriously the theological alternatives that Nonconformity offered:
Their religion of personal experience of salvation, of hymn-singing, ejaculations of praise; the promise of a golden heaven after death as a reward for a sad life down here in the crowded misery of back streets, disease and gnawing poverty; their weekday socials and clubs which welded the membership of the chapels in a Puritan bond of teetotalism, and nongambling, non-smoking and well-doing: these had an appeal which today is largely dispersed into the manufactured day-dreams of the cinema and the less useful social life of the dance hall and sports club. Chapels were crowded, gas-lights flamed on popular preachers, and steamy windows resounded to the cries of 'Alleluia, Jesus saves!' A simple ceremony like total immersion or Breaking of Bread was something that all the tired and poor could easily understand, after their long hours of misery in gloomy mills. Above all, the Nonconformists turned people's minds and hearts to Jesus as a personal Friend of all, especially the poor. Many a pale mechanic and many a drunkards wife could remember the very hour of the very day on which, in that street or at that meeting, or by that building, conviction came of the truth of the Gospel, that Jesus was Christ. Then with what flaming heart he or she came to the chapel, and how fervently testified to the message of salvation and cast off the old life of sin. Beside these simple and genuine experiences of the love of Christ, the old-established Church with its system of pew rents, and set prayers and carefully-guarded sacraments, must have seemed wicked mumbo-jumbo. (77-78)
Nowhere in Betjeman's work is there such an extended and sympathetic treatment of the spiritual lives of Nonconformists.
Indeed at times he could actively imagine himself among their number. (30) This vicarious identification is perhaps most apparent in his children's story about his teddy bear, Archie and the Strict Baptists, where Archie serves as Betjeman's surrogate. Echoing the poet's childhood horrors, Archie too is "locked up in a horrid utility' cupboard" together with his companion Jumbo, an elephant (13), but he craves nothing more than to go to a chapel to hear some wonderful Nonconformist preaching: "And all the time, away down in the Vale was the homely little Strict Baptist chapel, where he longed to be" (14). Suggesting perhaps a deeply suppressed wish to join the Nonconformists, Betjeman has Archie making himself a pair of wings in order to escape his home to attend chapel. As Betjeman concludes, "He flies to chapel every Sunday now and has nearly converted Jumbo to being a Strict Baptist too" (28). Archie is also the subject of his confessional poem, "Archibald" (Collected Poems 350), in which it is clear that the teddy bear, despite being a Strict Baptist, was his sole comfort in a household with distant, quarreling parents and an abusive nanny. Written in a moment of extreme doubt over the destination of his immortal soul, Betjeman transfers the harsh and judgmental voices of the adult authority figures in his life to the bear, whom he imagines telling him he is damned:
The bear who sits above my bed More aged now he is to see, His woollen eyes have thinner thread, But still he seems to say to me, In double-doom notes, like a knell: "You're half a century nearer Hell."
What do we make of this scene in which the once-comforting old bear has turned on his doting master? Archie may actually represent nothing more than the assurance of spiritual redemption that Betjeman craved yet lacked. Doubting the likelihood that he was redeemed, he transfers that desire to his bear, as if to gain vicarious spiritual satisfaction by Archie's proximity.
Betjemans sense of being excluded from the faith of others was an additional source of tremendous poetic inspiration. In "Undenominational" (Collected Poems 28), for instance, he describes the spiritual fervor of an Evangelical revival, placing himself near but significantly not in the action and reflecting on the personal meaning of this sort of religious experience:
I slipped about the chalky lane That runs without the park, I saw the lone conventicle A beacon in the dark.
Though piqued by the seriousness of the faith of this dissenting congregation, Betjeman is at first patronizing of their manner of worship. He sneers at the "rod" with which the pastor "ruled" his congregation and revels in a metrical arrangement of the titles of the hymn-tunes the worshippers so vigorously sing:
"Glory" "Gopsal" "Russell Place" "Wrestling Jacob" "Rock" "Saffron Walden" "Safe at Home" "Dorking" "Plymouth Dock"
Though he tries to disengage himself from the revival, the speaker is too close to the conventicle, emotionally and physically, not to be affected by it. The poem achieves, as Derek Stanford observes, a "genuine evangelistic note" (127). Thus the poets initial instinct of superiority to the congregation and its minister is supplanted by a sense that their faith is "still the church of God" and that it can be "A beacon in the dark," a light of truth to lead the poet through the uncertain mists of his spiritual journey:
Revival ran along the hedge And made my spirit whole When steam was on the window panes And glory in my soul.
Although his spirit is renewed by this spiritual ecstasy, the poet is unable to join the service and remains detached from this Nonconformist community.
In "Matlock Bath" (Collected Poems 258-59) Betjeman again overhears the hymn-singing that issues from a Nonconformist congregation, this time in the eponymous Derbyshire town:
From Matlock Bath's half-timbered station I see the black dissenting spire-- Thin witness of a congregation, Stone emblem of a Handel choir; In blest Bethesdas limpid pool Comes treacling out of Sunday School.
Even more profoundly in this poem, the Calvinistic hymns he hears, echoed in the poems lines, burden him with the distress of certain damnation. Images of Gods wrath in nature occupy his imagination: falling cliffs, giant crashing breakers, and "Whole woodlands snapp'd like cabbage stalks." He tries to bury his anxiety of falling spiritually by disguising it as the physical fear of slipping into the River Derwent below him, but his real dread--misconstruing the message as he did with "World without end"--is that the Rock of Ages will swallow him into an everlasting doom:
Perhaps it's this that makes me shiver As I ascend the slippery path High, high above the sliding river And terraces of Matlock Bath: A sense of doom, a dread to see The Rock of Ages cleft for me.
The speakers misinterpretation stems from thinking of the rock and the water with fear and from associating these symbols with his own childhood anxieties: "The shivering children wait their doom--/ The father's whip, the mothers petting." The poem's watery images concede the possibility of baptismal regeneration, but the fear of submersion into water and into God presupposes a failure to embrace both the message of Nonconformity and its spiritual aesthetics.
In the brief but compelling "Olney Hymns" (Collected Poems 78), a mediation between nature and Nonconformity offers Betjeman an alternative in which he can experience a vicarious spiritual union. In this poem he takes inspiration from the evangelical faith of the eighteenth-century writers John Newton and William Cowper, whose poems and hymns are now rooted in the consciousness of Protestant Nonconformity. (31) Their collaboration still enlivens the imagination as Betjeman experiences spiritual growth by the inspiration of their hymns and the village where they lived and wrote:
Oh God the Olney Hymns abound With words of Grace which Thou didst choose, And wet the elm above the hedge Reflected in the winding Ouse. Pour in my soul unemptied floods That stand between the slopes of clay, Till deep beyond a deeper depth This Olney day is any day.
Discovering evangelical spirituality in the naturally scenic Buckinghamshire soil, Betjeman finds a reciprocity between the words of faith in the Olney hymns and its landscape, its hills and trees and river. Reverberating with the diction and rhythms of evangelical hymns, his poem implies a kindred bond between Nonconformist faith and the pastoral countryside. To Betjeman, perhaps, Olney is as worthy a destination on the map of British spiritual pilgrimages as Lindisfarne, Little Gidding, or Iona. (32)
The story of Betjeman's personal faith is, no doubt, largely an Anglican story, yet as we have seen there are countless Nonconformist tangents to this narrative. The most surprising may be that of Billy Graham, whose Greater London Crusade of 1954 mesmerized much of the capital, including Betjeman. The crusade coincided with diocesan schemes in London and elsewhere to close and sell redundant churches. In the face of what he perceived as Anglican apathy toward its own history and culture as well as toward the mission needs of the cities, Betjeman found himself drawn inexorably by the genuine witness and message of the American evangelist. Writing in The Spectator "as an Anglo-Catholic to whom the revivalistic approach is unattractive," Betjeman nonetheless perceived the significance of Graham's accomplishments and even found himself compelled by his strength and character (Betjeman on Faith 11). Not that there was a sudden epiphany for Betjeman; this was no road to Damascus. His own spiritual experience was far different from that experienced at the altars of Nonconformist revivals. "For me the growth of Faith is gradual and not a sudden revelation," he averred. "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'" (11). Despite the differences in the aesthetics of salvation experiences, Betjeman appreciated that Billy Graham "has the great Evangelical love of Our Lord as Man. Jesus as a person is vivid to him ..." (12). This was very open-minded for an Anglo-Catholic, one wedded to prayer-book rubrics rather than to fervent and extemporaneous preaching. Betjeman's hope was that Graham's evangelism would revive Britain's Nonconformist and Anglican churches alike: "He is genuinely above religious differences, and ... his message is that people should return to their particular churches" (12). (33)
Graham's Nonconformist message thus encouraged Betjeman to examine his spiritual life and to seek a personal Christian renewal within the traditions of his own Church. Instead of calling to mind all his old
childhood anxieties of damnation and extinction, listening to Billy Graham helped him to quell his theological fears and to maintain his faith by participating in the traditions of Christian worship: "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" (Betjeman on Faith 11). This essay on Billy Graham contains Betjemans clearest confession of the place of Protestant Nonconformity in his mind and heart. Avoiding the emotional extremes found in his poetry, we see in this piece a simple admiration for the spiritual contributions of the dissenting tradition, to which Billy Graham was the twentieth-century's most significant heir. Quite possibly, Betjeman may have surprised himself with his affinity for Billy Graham, whom he believed shared his "sacramental approach to Christ" and in whom he found an unexpected catholicity: "[N]either catholic nor evangelical could quarrel with him," he avers, only "the protestant underworld of mad sects, or the arrogant uncharity of ultramontanes" (12). Unsurprisingly, the ravings of the Protestant fringe are never far from Betjemans imagination, but it is the catholicity here that stands out. Betjemans imaginative engagement with Protestant Nonconformity and his sublimation of it into his own identity do not change the fact that he was adamantly committed to the Church of England and in particular to Anglo-Catholicism; however, this unusual muse--the tradition of English dissent and Nonconformity--is central to his development as an imaginative writer. An understanding of his obsession with the dissenting tradition and of its many manifestations in his work provides a richer perspective with which to evaluate both his Christian commitment and his aesthetic achievement. (34)
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Payton, Philip. John Betjeman and Cornwall: "The Celebrated Cornish Nationalist". Exeter, UK: U of Exeter P, 2010.
Peterson, William. John Betjeman: A Bibliography. Oxford: Clarendon, 2006.
Raine, Craig. "John Betjeman." Haydn and the Valve Trumpet. London: Faber, 1990. 313-26.
Sparrow, John. "Preface." Selected Poems. By John Betjeman. London: John Murray, 1948. ix-xxii.
Stanford, Derek. John Betjeman: A Study. London: Neville Spearman, 1961.
Wilson, A. N. Betjeman. London: Hutchinson, 2006.
(1) Cf. Gardner, Betjeman: Writing the Public Life and "Anglicanism and the Poetry of John Betjeman," as well as Lowe, "The Church as a Building and the Church as a Community in the Work of John Betjeman."
(2) Cf. Betjemans letter to architect H. S. Goodhart-Rendel, 7 August 1959, Letters, Volume One 483. Two incomplete and unpublished poems on the Agapemonites offer further intriguing insight into his sympathetic interest in these marginalized dissenters. The manuscript fragments are archived in the Sir John Betjeman Collection, McPherson Library Special Collections, University of Victoria (MS PUF104), and the Betjeman Archive, the British Library (Add. MS 71936, fol. 180). In his 1973 film, Metro-land, a journey through the western London suburbs, Betjeman drew attention to the "sinister 'helmeted house'" of Smyth-Piggott in St. John's Wood (Hillier, Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter 335).
(3) In this regard, Betjeman was quite distinct from his friend and fellow Anglo-Catholic, the poet W. H. Auden, who wrote in his introduction to a collection of Betjeman's writings, "By the time I could walk, I had learned to look down with distaste on 'Prots'--they were said never to kneel properly but only to squat--to detest the modernism of our bishop, and mildly deplore the spikyness of Aunt Mill, who attended a church where they had the Silent Canon and Benediction" (10).
(4) Archie and the Strict Baptists, published in 1977, is based on a story Betjeman wrote in the 1940s and which he used to read to his children, Candida and Paul. Its illustrations, by Phillida Gili, are copies of watercolors made by Betjeman himself for his manuscript. The story recounts the determination of Archie to attend chapel services in the Strict Baptist sect. Though a rather extraordinary tale, its appeal is undeniable. Archie rides on the back of a hedgehog to get to one chapel, and he makes brown paper wings to fly to another.
(5) In his review of Mount Zion, Tom Driberg observed that Betjeman "has a curious complex about the monstrous architecture of the mid-Victorian temples of Nonconformity (that strange, mongrel Gothic), and about such kindred subjects as the art-and-craft garden cities and Camberley" (qtd. Hillier, Young Betjeman 356). Betjeman had originally planned to title the book Chapel and Spa (Morse 11).
(6) This complete series of broadcasts has been collected, edited and published by the indefatigable Betjeman scholar, Stephen Games.
(7) Letter to Alan Pryce-Jones, 17 April 1937, Letters, Volume One 171; "St. Endellion" (1949), Betjeman on Faith 97; "Monody on the Death of Aldersgate Street Station" (1955), Collected Poems 216.
(8) Full texts of Betjeman's three sermons can be found in Betjeman on Faith 98-103, 137-139, 167-170.
(9) Ironically, it was a dissenting (though highly liturgical) congregation that Betjeman believed had most correctly embodied the principles of the medieval Gothic: the Church of Christ the King, Gordon Square, built by the Catholic Apostolic Church, aka the Irvingites (cf. "Gordon Square Church," Betjeman on Faith 112-13; "Victorian Architecture," First and Last Loves 136). A. W. N. Pugin and William Butterfield were two of the Victorian "high church" architects most admired by Betjeman (cf. Trains and Buttered Toast 214; First and Last Loves 136; Betjeman on Faith 58). Dale Johnson discusses the influence of the Oxford Movement on the trend toward Catholicism in Nonconformist church design, even quoting a description of the Congregationalist chapel at Mansfield College as "the most Catholic place in Oxford" (175).
(10) This article appeared in his "Men and Buildings" series, which focused on Britain's threatened architectural monuments. It was retitled "Nonconformist Architecture" in Candida Lycett-Green's anthology, Coming Home.
(11) Betjeman's critical assessment of Isaac Watts compares fruitfully with that of Dr. Johnsons in his Lives of the English Poets.
(12) This unusual link between Anglo-Catholicism and Methodist revivalism partly explains Betjeman's deep affinity for Cornwall (cf. Payton 62, 80).
(13) A possible source of Betjeman's interest in Cowper is his great friend, Lord David Cecil, who wrote a biography of Cowper, The Stricken Deer (1929).
(14) Betjeman also reveals his love of Cowper in his 1948 essay "Winter at Home" (First and Last Loves 7) and in his 1940 poem "Olney Hymns" (Collected Poems 78), discussed below.
(15) Competition" was published in Mount Zion, his first collection, and again in his second, Continual Dew, but never added to his Collected Poems, perhaps because Betjeman believed that it was "absolutely valueless" (qtd. Peterson, John Betjeman: A Bibliography 401).
(16) A typed manuscript of this poem with the title "Zion" offers several intriguing variants, particularly in the last four lines: "Too brief, too brief, any earthly fame / Hymns of the world declare; / See, see the Particular Baptist Church, / For they've central heating there." This typescript is archived in the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo.
(17) Concerning the poems in this volume, John Sparrow wondered whether Betjeman had begun to "derive a deeper pleasure from any Sandemanian Meeting-house than from Salisbury Cathedral," but ultimately praised Betjemans "sense of period, ... his eye for detail; his relish for architectural and ecclesiastical eccentricities." Sparrow's comical paraphrase of Psalm 29.2 gets to the heart of Betjeman's treatment of Nonconformity in Mount Zion: "Oh worship the Lord in the beauty of ugliness!" (xiii, xiv)
(18) Greg Morse convincingly argues that Augustus Toplady "must have been on the poet's mind at the time of composition" of this piece (17).
(19) Betjeman took rather large liberties with the facts of the Bryanite movement. The founder was not "William Bryan" but William Bryant, who changed his name to William O'Bryan, and the sect was really called Bible Christians or Bryanites, not Ember Day Bryanites. Betjeman's supposed quotation from Haydn's is, incidentally, imaginary, and this nonexistent sect is actually an amalgamation. Bevis Hillier notes several similarities with the Muggletonians (Young Betjeman 348, 451n17). The beliefs of the actual Bryanites were not at all heterodox; they were a straightforward Methodist denomination who later joined with a number of other Methodists in England to form the United Methodist Church and in Canada to form the United Church of Canada. Despite his factual license, he seemed to be aware of the link between Bryanites and Methodists. In the story, one attempt to elicit a reply from Lord Mount Prospect involves a society member writing "to suggest a Union of the Methodist and Ember Day Bryanite churches" (Coming Home 15).
(20) Though Betjeman does not name the church, Bevis Hillier suggests that it is meant to allude to Emmanuel Church, Clifton, in the city of Bristol. Constructed during the great frenzy of Victorian church building, it was indeed Clifton's "low church," liturgically speaking (John Betjeman: New Fame, New Love 281-82).
(21) Only rarely did Betjeman offer something positive about "low church" Anglicanism. One such instance is his appreciation of how a predominantly evangelical faith enhances the bucolic setting of suburban Cheltenham, where "the single bell of a Low Church reminds us that there is a weekday evening prayer meeting somewhere" (First and Last Loves 15).
(22) Of these lines of poetry, W. H. Auden wrote, "I am, frankly, rather annoyed because they are not by me" (9).
(23) See Hillier, Young Betjeman (330-31), for more details on this poem, which seems to incorporate aspects of the Plymouth Brethren sect into a "low church" Anglican setting.
(24) Homerton was a place of tolerance for Londons dissenters in the eighteenth century, and a number of chapels and academies were established there. In an architectural comment on proprietary chapels, Betjeman wrote that at one "in Homerton, London, known as Ram's Episcopal Chapel, I attended worship, and the clergyman wore a black gown and bands for preaching. This charming eighteenth-century chapel is now, alas, demolished" (Collins Guide 62).
(25) It is difficult to ascertain at what point Archie was converted to the Strict Baptist faith; in 1931 Betjeman wrote to Camilla Russell, his fiancee at the time, "I ought to tell you that Archibald, my bear, has accepted a call to the Congregational Church on Wanstead Flats where he has been doing the duty of lay reader for some years" (Letters, Volume One 77; cf. 171). A few days later he wrote to tell her that Archie "is very interested in Temperance Work at Clacton-on-Sea" (79). The bear's social welfare impulses were somewhat hypocritical, however, for Betjeman wrote to Alan Pryce-Jones in 1933 that "Archie has been very drunk lately. He was asked to talk at the Young Men's Welfare Centre in Colchester, last Tuesday and arrived reeling with sherry" (117). Archie makes appearances in many of Betjeman's personal letters and is even the putative author of some of them.
(26) Bowra's actual views on religion are rather complex and contradictory; cf. Mitchell, pp. 310-19 and passim.
(27) As a schoolmaster at Heddon Court in 1929, Betjeman befriended a pupil who endured an oppressive Plymouth Brethren faith. Bevis Hillier recounts how Betjeman helped this young man, who later became an Anglican canon, to gain a sense of perspective about his faith and family and to cope with the traumas of the Brethren's "End of the World" theology (Young Betjeman 242-44).
(28) Except, that is, for his son Paul, whose conversion to Mormonism so outraged his father that he purportedly burst out, "he has wedded himself to a bloody fairy story?' The poet's friend Harry Williams, an Anglican collegiate dean, restored him to humor, reminding him that "every form of religion is slightly dotty" and that "God gets through to us not so much in spite of but by means of our ridiculous notions" (qtd. Hillier, Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter, 24). Paul would later marry a Lutheran and convert again.
(29) Betjeman seems to have agreed with Benjamin Jowett, Anglican theologian and Master of Balliol College, Oxford, who decried the split between Anglicans and Nonconformists as "the greatest misfortune that has ever befallen this country. ... For it has made two nations of us instead of one in politics, religion, almost in our notion of right and wrong; it has arrayed one class of society permanently against another" (qtd. Johnson 164).
(30) Once he began a letter to his publisher, Jock Murray, with the sardonic salutation, "From John Calvin, John Betjeman, John Wesley, John Knox" (Letters, Volume One 246).
(31) The Olney Hymns was a collection of evangelical hymns published in 1779 by the poets and hymnodists William Cowper (1731-1800) and John Newton (1725-1807). Newton was priest in the parish church of SS Peter and Paul in Olney, the Buckinghamshire village that had been home to Newton and Cowper since 1769.
(32) He made his own pilgrimage to Olney by bicycle in 1930 to honor Cowper s memory and to absorb his influence (Hillier, John Betjeman: A Life in Pictures 85).
(33) The reconciliation of Anglican and Nonconformist tension had been gradually occurring for some time; for instance, the homilist at the opening of Mansfield College, Oxford, in 1886, opined that "the great Evangelical movement of the last century, and the Anglo-Catholic movement of this century, are cooperating to produce a greater movement than either" (qtd. Johnson 166).
(34) My thanks are due to Bevis Hillier, for his careful reading of this essay and thoughtful suggestions for improvement, and to the Rev. Andrew Kleissner of Christ Church, Ipswich, Suffolk, for first reminding me of Betjemans "unfashionable delight in Nonconformity."
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|Author:||Gardner, Kevin J.|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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