Kingdom Poets: Sir John Betjeman

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[For a while now I’ve been following a blog called Kingdom Poets, written by a Canadian poet named D.S. Martin, whose writings have appeared in a number of publications including Ruminate, Books & Culture, and Image Journal. He’s the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They’re both available at: www.dsmartin.ca. He tells me his next book will feature poems inspired by the life and works of C.S. Lewis.

Mr. Martin agreed to let us re-post occasional entries from his blog, which he describes this way: “The Kingdom Poets blog is a resource of poets of the Christian faith, regardless of background; there is no attempt made to assess orthodoxy, but simply to present poets who speak profoundly of faith in God.” This poem by Betjeman does just that.  –The Proprietor]

Sir John Betjeman (1906—1984) was more popular with the British public than he ever was with the literary establishment. His verse did not share the modernist characteristics of his peers, but reflected the techniques of earlier times. He received a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1969. He was also appointed Britain’s Poet Laureate in 1972 — a post he held until his death.

As a boy he attended Highgate School in London, where he was taught by T.S. Eliot. His school career was less than impressive, though. At Magdalen College, Oxford, his tutor C.S. Lewis thought of him as an “idle prig” who spent his time socializing rather than doing his work; Betjeman ended up leaving Oxford without a degree. Even so, he managed to gain the attention of Louis MacNeice and W.H. Auden, who both influenced his work.

Over time, Betjeman became committed to the Anglican church and Christian faith. He said: “…my view of the world is that man is born to fulfil the purposes of his Creator i.e. to Praise his Creator, to stand in awe of Him and to dread Him. In this way I differ from most modern poets, who are agnostics and have an idea that Man is the centre of the Universe or is a helpless bubble blown about by uncontrolled forces.”

His poetry often has a satirical tone, and is characterized by references to English localities and particularities of culture that are already becoming dated. Betjeman was public about his faith, although he readily admitted his doubts, as in the following poem.

The Conversion of St. Paul

What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging into doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below —
My parish church — and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St Paul.


17 Comments

  1. Lanier Ivester

    @lanier

    What joy to see old Betjeman featured here on the Rabbit Room! Thank you, D.S.–and thank you for choosing such an unflinchingly honest sample of his work. It expresses so much of what I love about Betjeman. He’s one of the most plain-dealing poets I have ever encountered.

    I have heard that Evelyn Waugh loosely based the character Sebastian from ‘Brideshead Revisited’ on Betjeman. I think he must have been quite a character at Oxford!

  2. Jud

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a more concise description of my own experience as a Christian. I’ve always wished I’d had a St. Paul moment of conversion because it makes for such an interesting story, but the truth is I simply don’t. In fact I don’t have any conversion moment at all, really, at least not one I remember clearly. I’ve just always been a believer in Christ, I guess.

  3. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    I’m so glad to read you guys’ comments. This poem describes my own journey so well: moments of holy lucidity interspersed between long periods of doubtful wandering. One of my favorite things about Martin’s quick bio of Betjeman is that C.S. Lewis thought of him as an “idle prig”. It’s probably what he would have said about many of us–the “idle” part, at least. I imagine Betjeman getting in trouble for staring out the window during class. As they said in the film Ratatouille, “Not anyone can be a great cook–but a great cook can come from anywhere.”

  4. KathyK

    Thank you so much for uncovering not only this wonderful poet but a website devoted to poets. Poetry is so overlooked in this modern world and especially poems of faith.

    Reading this poem is like catching a glimpse of oneself in a mirror or window where least expected, getting caught in a moment of confusion and then exclaiming, “That’s me!”

  5. kelli

    Isn’t it curious how a poem that echoes one’s soul can bring such freedom?

    It is good to know I’m not the only one who often gropes along in the darkness and then turns to dance in the ethereal realm (even if only for a moment).

  6. carrie luke

    Case in point. My day has been spent in the Holy wandering and wondering, longing to ‘see’ so that I could believe. I finally sit still and read a verse that speaks.
    “Turning around to gaze upon a love profound.”

    I’m stirred. I’m moved and found.

    Thank you, RR for making such beauty accessible. I did not grow up a reader, and am making up for lost time. It’s very easy to do that here.

  7. Amber Leffel

    Carrie, I share everything you said in your comment, from the “longing to see so I could believe” (oh how I have been stuck here lately… Well, maybe not stuck) to not growing up a reader and wishing I had. Bless you. (All.)

  8. Stephen Clark

    Very decent poem. I really wish I would have seen it a few weeks ago as it would have perfectly integrated into my Sunday school lesson on the conversion of Paul.

    Also, as a part-time poet (so part-time only my wife and an occasional coworker reads one) whose poems focus mostly on the things of God, I find comfort in Betjemen’s style. At first, the simple fact that this poem rhymes, while out of taste in our post-modernist world, offers assurance to me that there is beauty to be found in order, peace to be found in a plan, and an all-powerful, all knowing God behind it all. Also, the poem acknowledges the different experiences we as Christians, well experience. This poem focuses on the conversion itself, but the lifetime process of sanctification or growth in Christ is also very different for each of us. Rather frequently, I see new aspects to my growth, little things I tend to overlook, which I approach as insignificant only to find later that they were pivotal moments in my spiritual life.

  9. Leanne

    I’m with Stephen, the rhyming of the poem is comforting.

    What is a prig exactly anyway? I have the general sense, but not the precise definition. Poor guy, to have Lewis pin that label on him. He seems to have risen above this label, though, and having studied under Lewis and even of having been noticed by Lewis surely shaped his thinking.

  10. Dryad

    This was very–encouraging might be the right word. It sometimes discourages me from speaking when it’s time to share testimonies, and everyone was either saved from a life of sin, or had a blinding realization, etc. Saying, ‘I was saved when I was really little, but we’re not sure of the date’ just doesn’t carry much of a punch.

  11. D.S. Martin

    What a privilege it is to have my post about John Betjeman appear in “TheRabbit Room”. Thank you, Andrew. Thank you, too, to those who’ve taken the time to comment, or to sign in as followers at Kingdom Poets. My desire is to be a blessing and encouragement, and you have blessed and encouraged me.

    Thanks,
    Don

  12. Loren

    Thanks so much for sharing! I’m with many who have posted–I can completely relate to Betjeman’s poem. I struggle with a view I’ve heard frequently that one must be constantly passionate and on-fire or one isn’t really sold out for Christ. Is that even possible, I wonder? The soft truth is knowing God can work through me and in me even when I’m groping in the dark, and now and then the light flashes and illuminates the great, glorious hope of it all.

  13. Megan

    In response to Dryad–

    I recently shared my testimony in my community group at church (we’ve been taking turns so everyone in the group has a chance to share) and I too don’t have much to share about my “conversion” if there ever was such a thing. I was 5 and there is a date, but I don’t really think much of that date – I’ve always been a Christian. But when I shared my testimony I glanced over that part in a sentence and went on to tell about my doubts, struggles, joys, and experiences since that time. Just because some of us don’t have a conversion story doesn’t mean we don’t have a spiritual testimony.

    Though I’ve been a Christian all my life I strongly resonate with this line:
    And stumble on and blindly grope
    Upheld by intermittent hope.
    My hope is indeed intermittent, but I know that it is founded on something sure. These days I am still “turning round to gaze upon a love profound.”

  14. Jaine

    (This is the whole Poem)

    The Conversion of Saint Paul

    By John Betjeman

    Now is the time when we recall
    The sharp Conversion of Saint Paul
    Converted! Turned the wrong way round –
    A man who seemed till then quite sound,
    Keen on religion – very keen –
    No one, it seems, had ever been
    So keen on persecuting those
    Who said that Christ was God and chose
    To die for this absurd belief
    As Christ had died beside the thief.
    Then in a sudden blinding light
    Paul knew that Christ was God alright –
    And very promptly lost his sight.
    Poor Paul! They led him by the hand
    He who had been so high and grand
    A helpless blunderer, fasting, waiting,
    Three days inside himself debating
    In physical blindness: “As it’s true
    That Christ is God and died for you,
    Remember all the things he did
    To keep His gospel message hid.
    Remember how you helped them even
    To throw the stones that murdered Stephen.
    And do you think that you are strong
    Enough to own that you were wrong?”
    They must have been an awful time,
    Those three long days repenting crime
    Till Ananias came and Paul
    Received his sight, and more than all
    His former strength, and was baptised.
    Saint Paul is often criticised
    By modern people who’re annoyed
    At his conversion, saying Freud
    Explains it all. But they omit
    The really vital point of it,
    Which isn’t how it was achieved
    But what it was that Paul believed.
    He knew as certainly as we
    Know you are you and I am me
    That Christ was all He claimed to be.
    What is conversion? Turning round
    From chaos to a love profound.
    And chaos too is an abyss
    In which the only life is this.
    Such a belief is quite alright
    If you are like Mrs Knight
    And think morality will do
    For all the ills we’re subject to.
    But raise your eyes and see with Paul
    An explanation of it all.
    Injustice, cancer’s cruel pain,
    All suffering that seems in vain,
    The vastness of the universe,
    Creatures like centipedes and worse –
    All part of an enormous plan
    Which mortal eyes can never scan
    And out of it came God to man.
    Jesus is God and came to show
    The world we live in here below
    Is just an antechamber where
    We for His Father’s house prepare.

    What is conversion? Not at all
    For me the experience of St Paul,
    No blinding light, a fitful glow
    Is all the light of faith I know
    Which sometimes goes completely out
    And leaves me plunging into doubt
    Until I will myself to go
    And worship in God’s house below —
    My parish church — and even there
    I find distractions everywhere.

    What is Conversion? Turning round
    To gaze upon a love profound.
    For some of us see Jesus plain
    And never once look back again,
    And some of us have seen and known
    And turned and gone away alone,
    But most of us turn slow to see
    The figure hanging on a tree
    And stumble on and blindly grope
    Upheld by intermittent hope.
    God grant before we die we all
    May see the light as did St Paul.

  15. Kenneth Willis

    Dryad : like you, I have always regretted not having a dynamic ‘St Paul’ conversion; I was saved as a child. Yesterday, our church Children’s Leader told us that 85% of all (English-speaking?) Christians gave their lives to the Lord before they were 12 years old. Not much room left for St Pauls! Anyway, thank you for this interesting website; I am glad I found it.

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