Sunday Night Journal, October 7, 2018
Sunday Night Journal, October 14, 2018

52 Poems, Week 41: House of Rest (John Betjeman)


Now all the world she knew is dead
  In this small room she lives her days
The wash-hand stand and single bed
  Screened from the public gaze.

The horse-brass shines, the kettle sings,
  The cup of China tea
Is tasted among cared-for thing
  Ranged round for me to see—

Lincoln, by Valentine and Co.,
  Now yellowish brown and stained,
But there some fifty years ago
  Her Harry was ordained;

Outside the Church at Woodhall Spa
  The smiling groom and bride,
And here's his old tobacco jar
  Dried lavender inside.

I do not like to ask if he
  Was "High" or "Low" or "Broad"
Lest such a question seem to be
  A mockery of Our Lord.

Her full grey eyes look far beyond
  The little room and me
To village church and village pond
  And ample rectory.

She sees her children each in place
  Eyes downcast as they wait,
She hears her Harry murmur Grace,
  Then heaps the porridge plate.

Aroused at seven, to bed by ten,
  They fully lived each day,
Dead sons, so motor-bike-mad then,
  And daughters far away.

Now when the bells for Eucharist
  Sound in the Market Square,
With sunshine struggling through the mist
  And Sunday in the air,

The veil between her and her dead
  Dissolves and shows them clear,
The Consecration Prayer is said
  And all of them are near.


I'm a big Betjeman fan, and you can read about my reasons for being so in this post from 2006. He's one of the poets I knew I would include in this series when I started it, but I hadn't read him for a while and didn't remember any specific poem worthy of special notice. And then of course when it came time to pick one there wasn't much time, so I just opened up the book (Collected Poems of) and read at random. This one seemed pretty ordinary until the last stanza.

All the links in that old post seem to be dead, by the way. Twelve years is a long time on the Internet. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


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You may have chosen this at random, but there is a definite thread running through all these poems. I'm thinking about this kind of thing a lot lately.

This made me tear up a bit.


Yeah, me too.

I'm a little puzzled about the chronology and the dead sons. The fact that it's plural makes me suspect that they died in WWI. This poem was included in a book in 1954. So let's suppose "fifty years ago" is roughly 1900 and that her wedding was around the same time. Seems like the sons would have been too young for WWI. And possibly a bit old for WWII. And were there motor-bikes before 1914?

Or is "dead" figurative? Seems a bit much for that.

Well, if they got married in 1904 and the daughters came first, they could have been in their late 20s/early 30s in 1939. There were motorbikes at the end of the 19th century.


Yes, they could have been. I can think of several ways to work it out, but it still puzzles me a little. Minor point I guess.

You can listen to Betjeman reading the poem here.

Really liked your 2006 post on Betjeman, Mac. This that you wrote fits me to a tee: "his Englishness is part of his appeal to some of us: it’s a nostalgic, middle-class, wistful Englishness." And this about his Christianity being an "encompassing sense of the way things are" brought home how the devastation caused by the loss of that sense becomes clearer and clearer every day:

Christianity as found here is not (what so many of us make it, swimming against the cultural tide as we must) something to be incessantly analyzed and defended, but an encompassing sense of the way things are, something firmly fixed in the consciousness of the poet and most of his subjects. This is not to say that there is a facile or superficial devotion in his poems: faith appears as the struggle that it is, but also as something solid and sound, neither mere convention nor desperate gesture.

My granfather was birn around 1898 and fought in and survived WWI, incl. the Gallipoli campaign. He was recalled by many to have been motirbike mad in his youth.

I think the sons died in biking accidents. Nothing to do with the War. Betjamin mentions motorbike madness to explain the cause of death

That occurred to me, but multiple sons killed in motorbike accidents seemed implausible. One, yes. But more than one--that would be a pretty awful streak of bad luck. But could be true of course.

Motorcycles were definitely going strong by 1910 or so:

Thanks, Marianne, for the compliment and for finding that recording. The fact that he chose to record it is interesting--he must have liked it.

I wonder if "home of rest" is the equivalent of "rest home" or "nursing home." In the current Brit cop shows they usually just say an old or incapacitated person is "in care" or "in a care home."

Yes, they started calling rest homes care homes about 30 years ago. I had a colleague who called it the iron law of the inversion of terminology. When 'caring' means the opposite.

Yeah. Sigh.

And by the way I hope your recovery is progressing well.

Stinking relapse today! First day of fall break!


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