As church bells ring out across the land today, I would like to share a couple of poems by John Betjeman which capture something of the many emotions that their sound is able to conjure up. The first is called Uffington, named after the village in Oxfordshire famous for its prehistoric ‘White Horse’ hill figure, and in which Betjeman lived during the 1930’s. His local parish church there – St. Mary’s – is also well known, and often referred to as the ‘Cathedral of the Vale’. It is the bells of this church therefore, and the surrounding landscape, that Betjeman had in mind:
Tonight we feel the muffled peal
Hang on the village like a pall;
It overwhelms the towering elms –
That death-reminding dying fall;
The very sky no longer high
Comes down within the reach of all.
Imprisoned in a cage of sound
Even the trivial seems profound.
This is a deeply ambiguous poem, and it is perhaps significant that Betjeman wrote it many years after (it was written in 1966) he was actually living in the village of Uffington, and, as we know that the sporadic feelings of guilt he had always experienced became more frequent later on in life, it is plausible to assume that he looked back on earlier times in Oxfordshire with a mixture of nostalgia and regret. The first two lines of Uffington sound distinctly funereal, and throughout the poem there is a sense of oppression, a closing in of horizons that forces those within the range of the bells’ ringing to confront their own limitation, and thus their own mortality.
And yet, Betjeman manages at the same time to convey the feeling that the shrinking of horizons is also a movement of the heavens towards the earth; that ‘the very sky no longer high comes down within the reach of all’, is also a positive affirmation that the familiar sound of church bells can, in confronting us with our finitude and our imperfections, heighten our sense of meaning, so that ‘even the trivial seems profound.’ We are forced in by the bells, almost suffocated by the feeling of particularity which they generate, but in this very process we are also brought face to face with the utter strangeness of our existence, and thus moved to consider what lies beyond.
The second poem of Betjeman’s that I would like to share is entitled Autumn 1964 (For Karen), and, whilst still tinged with melancholy, expresses a delight in natural things that often touches us during the changes that take place during autumn, as well as a hope in the higher things that the sound of church bells adds to the multicoloured autumnal tapestry:
Red apples hang like globes of light
Against this pale November haze,
And now, although the mist is white,
In half-an-hour a day of days
Will climb into its golden height
And Sunday bells will ring its praise
The sparkling flint, the darkling yew,
The red brick, less intensely red
Than hawthorn berries bright with dew
Or leaves of creeper still unshed,
The watery sky washed clean and new,
Are all rejoicing with the dead.
The yellowing elm shows yet some green,
The mellowing bells exultant sound:
Never have light and colour been
So prodigally thrown around;
And in the bells the promise tells
Of greater light where Love is found.
This poem seems to lament the changing and fading colours of autumn, and the slow creep of change that occurs, whilst simultaneously delighting in it. Betjeman sets a tone of muted praise – something given particular expression by the slow rising of the sun to its full height in the sky, which washes ‘clean and new’ the hazy sky of early morning. There is a sense here of sadness for the decay that takes place in autumn, but also a pleasure in the slow process by which things are turned over and made new. The sun in fact could stand for God and His grace, which enlightens perfects and renews nature, washing it clean as we are cleansed in the Sacrament of Baptism.
We are also given a feeling that this experience, which is made to feel utterly familiar to us, is also something revelatory, an experience both old and new – ‘never have light and colour been so prodigally thrown around’ writes Betjeman, as if experiencing an autumn dawn accompanied by the sound of bells for the first time. The sound of the bells themselves are here less ambiguous than in Uffington – they complement the natural beauty of the autumnal scene, but their solemn beauty also speaks to us of a higher and more resplendent beauty, of ‘a greater light where Love is found.’ In Uffintgon we are brought to contemplate the mystery of our existence by confrontation and closeness; here we are invited to reflect on a more expansive vision, which, whilst affirming the purely natural, lifts us above it.
Betjeman’s use of church bells (a favourite motif of his) in these two poems is a an astute one, as it allows him to tap into deeply personal feelings about the passing of time and the tragic beauty of the world, via a symbol with which we are all familiar and which will very likely have similar associations for many. It is this ability to combine accessible imagery with deeply felt and keenly observed reflections on our mundane existence that makes him such a compelling poet, and one whose company it is always a joy to return to. Furthermore, his theological sensibility is exceptionally acute – he is able to approach the unavoidable mystery of existence ‘from the ground up’ as it were, taking those familiar experiences which we so often take for granted, and leading us to reflect on the grace of God which underpins them all.