In Westminster Abbey is a satirical poem in which Betjemen imagines an upper class woman going to Westminster Abbey to pray during World War Two. Given the circumstances, one would imagine the tone to be sombre and reverent, but it soon becomes clear that the lady is there primarily to pray for her own needs, and her selfish motives underscore the text. The whole poem can be read here.
Structure and Form
This is a dramatic monologue, whereby the poet adopts a persona and the poem is told from this person’s point of view. The poem is set out in seven stanzas, each of six lines, which are known as sextets.
The rhyme scheme is the same throughout, ABCB DD. It is set out in ‘common meter’, a rhythm often found in hymns and ballads. The first and third lines are written with four stresses, thus trochaic tetrameter, while the second and fourth have three stresses and are iambic trimeter. The concluding lines in the rhyming couplet return to the iambic tetrameter rhythm.
By using trochaic rather than iambic rhythm and therefore placing the stress at the start of the line, Betjeman succeeds in making the tone more emphatic. This suits his purpose as the speaker is a woman who is used to giving orders and clearly she thinks that God is not beneath her command.
One is almost inclined to read this poem in the Received Pronunciation that would have been commonly heard on the BCC in years gone by. The pompous tone is possibly best expressed in a line from the last stanza:
What a treat to hear thy word.
The consonance in the ‘t’ and ‘d’ sounds are clipped and formal.
In Westminster Abbey Analysis
We are immediately aware of the Speaker’s pretentious nature as she begins:
Let me take this other glove off
As the vox humana swells,
She is thus happy to let the Lord wait while she readies herself and drops in a little Latin to make us aware of her status. The language, as she refers to the ‘beauteous fields of Eden’ is elevated and grandiose. The alliteration in the fourth line almost makes it seem a little trite. As she implores God to ‘listen to a lady’s cry’ we are already doubtful of her sincerity.
A patronizing tone emerges here as she asks God to ‘bomb the Germans’; a request which seems at odds with the word ‘Gracious’ with which she begins her request. This clever use of juxtaposition is successful in poking fun at her. The fourth line in which she condescends to pardon God if he should make a mistake shows how devoid of actual piety she is, since it is God who traditionally pardons sinners, not the reverse. The concluding line in which she explicitly states ‘Don’t let anyone bomb me’ shows her self-centred intentions.
Further deficits in her character emerge as she reveals herself to be openly racist. While she prays for the safety of ‘Gallant blacks’ she would ultimately prefer that God prioritise the whites. The adjective ‘Gallant’ manages to be both patronising and offensive.
In this stanza the Speaker lists the things which make living in the United Kingdom so attractive to her. It is thus no surprise when she mentions ‘class distinction’. Bathos is used effectively when ‘Democracy and proper drains’ are placed together for humorous effect. By asking God to ensure that her home is spared during bombing raids she gives her address as ‘Cadogan Square’. This is one of West London’s most affluent areas and confirms our suspicions that she is one of the wealthy elite. In holding her up to ridicule Betjeman is using this poem to criticise all those belonging to the upper classes who were only concerned with their own interests.
Just as in verse two, the woman supposes that she is on an even-footing, and in fact may even be superior to God Himself. Although she is willing to accept that she’s ‘a sinner’ she wants God to know she has committed ‘no major crime’, and she assures him she’ll turn up to church when she has the opportunity. This shows the lack of any true piety or personal relationship with God. All of this is for ‘show’, which should perhaps have been obvious since she chose to go Westminster Abbey, as opposed to any local church to say her prayers.
She also reveals an obsession with money. Rather than pray for the preservation of life, she is more concerned that her shares should take a drop amid the tumultuous world affairs.
By this stage the reader is in no doubt that the Speaker will absolutely not ‘labour for (Thy) God’s Kingdom’ as she blithely promises. But when she elaborates on the nature of her services rendered, we are unsurprised to learn that they involve the hypocritical practice of sending ‘white feathers to the cowards’. This is ironic since she wishes to remain always in the ‘Eternal Safety Zone’ herself. Once again, she will only do what suits her, and on her own terms.
After her pious ramblings, the woman feels she can leave with a lighter spirit, leaving the readers wondering whether to laugh or cry. Given the calibre of this individual, we ponder about the ‘leading statesmen’ interred here, and what sort of qualities they manifested. Betjeman signs off with the trite line ‘Because I have a luncheon date’ and we can imagine the Speaker having popped in to the Abbey for a mere five minutes, to make herself feel better before heading on to enjoy more pleasurable pursuits.
About John Betjeman
John Betjeman (1906-1984) was a prolific English writer and poet who was named Poet Laureate in 1972. Many of his poems were anti-establishment, as he cast a scathing eye over modern society and its pretentiousness. He was beloved by many, and the poet Philip Larkin was a particular fan of his work.