As the Vox Humana Swells

Let me take this other glove off
As the vox humana swells,
And the beauteous fields of Eden
Bask beneath the Abbey bells.
Here, where England's statesmen lie,
Listen to a lady's cry.

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans,
Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate'er shall be,
Don't let anyone bomb me.

Keep our Empire undismembered
Guide our Forces by Thy Hand,
Gallant blacks from far Jamaica,
Honduras and Togoland;
Protect them Lord in all their fights,
And, even more, protect the whites.

Think of what our Nation stands for,
Books from Boots' and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
Democracy and proper drains.
Lord, put beneath Thy special care
One-eighty-nine Cadogan Square.
Although dear Lord I am a sinner,

I have done no major crime;
Now I'll come to Evening Service
Whensoever I have the time.
So, Lord, reserve for me a crown,
And do not let my shares go down.
I will labour for Thy Kingdom,

Help our lads to win the war,
Send white feathers to the cowards
Join the Women's Army Corps,
Then wash the steps around Thy Throne
In the Eternal Safety Zone.

Now I feel a little better,
What a treat to hear Thy Word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen
Have so often been interr'd.
And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date.

I've always had a liking for the popular British poet John Betjeman. He's a guilty pleasure. There are better poets and more serious poets. Still I like him. Indeed, his oft-anthologized In Westminster Abbey (quoted above in full) is the embodiment of his comedic style: ironic and tartly particularized, yet somehow thrown into the mix is a broader humanity. The narrator’s prayer to God to kill the empire's enemies is squeezed in before the her luncheon date. This tea time imperialist, who prays for God to protect "Gallant blacks from far Jamaica" a little less than Britain's Caucasian soldier's, seems more laughably hypocritical than dangerous. We can't just dismiss her as a mean little jingoist because her concerns are not really with the fate of the empire as much as her own petty vanities and personal finances.

Consequently, the poem transcends simple satire of chauvinist dogmas by relishing such things as gloves, luncheon dates, and fashionable addresses, all the mundane trivialities of self-regard. These innocuous details preserve some larger tone of humanity that is characteristic of Betjeman's work. It's all there in the officious unsnapping of a glove during a particularly throbbing organ stop.

Like Browning's characters, Betjeman's narrators can reveal more about themselves than they know they are revealing, but unlike Browning, Betjeman's speakers seem to speak on some cuttingly recognizable or trivial level. Bishop Gandolf, Ferrara and the cloistered Spanish monk are certainly hypocrites, and they are just as concerned with social position, wealth and keeping up public appearances, but with Betjeman there is something of Chekov's ability to both care and castigate the all too human failures that beset us. Such delicate and humane comedy does not come easily. As any actor will tell you, comedy is hard, but comedy without cruelty is harder still.


Popular posts from this blog

Two Jars

Four Arguments for the Elimination of the Liberal Arts

The Betrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Adverbs