Within ‘Death in Leamington’ Betjeman delves into themes of death and silence. The tone is calm and contemplative, allowing the reader to experience a very similar mood. The unknown woman’s death is described simply and at the same time beautifully, allowing death to exist in the room but not overtake it.
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Summary of Death in Leamington
The poem takes the reader through the death room of an unnamed woman. It looked out over Leamington Spa and held on to a quiet peace, even after her passing. Silence permeates every line of this poem, even the ones that contain dialogue as the nurse speaks out loud. Unaware that the woman has passed away, the nurse talks to her. Her voice breaks this silence, therefore drawing a reader’s attention to its absence. The nurse, upon realizing the woman has died, slips back into quiet and moves respectfully out of the room.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Death in Leamington
‘Death In Leamington‘ by John Betjeman is an eight stanza poem that’s separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a fairly consistent rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. There are few moments in which what should be full rhymes are more like half-rhymes.
Also known as slant or partial rhyme, half-rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example, “star” and “Spa” in lines two and four of the first stanza. There are also examples within the lines of text, rather than at the ends. For instance, “lonely” and “patiently” in lines one and two of the second stanza.
Poetic Techniques in Death in Leamington
Betjeman makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Death in Leamington’. These include alliteration, enjambment, and anaphora. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “match” and “mantle” in line three of the fourth stanza and “Chintzy, chintzy cheeriness” in line three of the fifth stanza.
He also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. There are a few examples in ‘Death in Leamington’ but the most obvious is in stanza four. Each line of this stanza starts with the pronoun “She”. A reader might also look to the first two lines of the sixth stanza for another example. They begin with the phrase “Do you know that the…”
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several examples within this particular poem. They include the transitions between lines three and four of the first stanza and three and four of the eighth stanza.
Analysis of Death in Leamington
In the first lines of ‘Death in Leamington,’ the speaker begins by describing the nature of the “Death” mentioned in the title. The deceased person is a woman and she died in the “upstairs bedroom”. When she passed, the scene was peaceful. The only light was that which shone through the window from the “ev’ning star”. The setting is expanded and the reader learns that this unknown woman lived in the town Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, England.
From the peace of the first stanza, the poet introduces a more solemn mood in the next four lines. He explains how this woman’s “lonely crochet” was laying “patiently and unstirred” beside her. As the poet uses personification to give her crocheting human emotions, he also imbues the scene with these same feelings.
The crocheting is there waiting to be picked back up again, but it doesn’t know that the “fingers that would have work’d it” are “dead as the spoken word”. The simile that ends this stanza is an interesting one. It relates back to the quietness of the previous lines, the woman’s inability to speak, and the silences that permeates the rest of the poem.
Next, the speaker explains how the woman’s nurse entered the room. She’s unaware that the woman is dead and is coming in “with the tea-things”. The lonely mood of the text is continued in this stanza, but the nurse doesn’t quite feel it. The speaker does though, as does the reader. She goes into the room and is “alone with her own little soul”. The speaker compares the nurse’s state of being to the way in which the objects in the room are existing. They too are alone with their little souls.
The fourth stanza is a great example of how using anaphora can create a list of features or actions. In this case, the poet emphasizes all the little things the woman does as she moves around the space. Each activity is related to changing the atmosphere of the room. From blowing the “big round window” to covering the “fire with coal”.
For the first time in ‘Death in Leamington’ sound plays a role other than to be absent. The speaker describes the woman’s voice, as she calls out that its time for tea, as “tiny”. So, even when there’s sound, it’s minimal. Betjeman’s speaker also describes the nurse’s voice as cheery and out of place in the quiet, death-filled room. In the last line of this stanza, “Half dead half alive” references the division within the space. While the old woman on the bed is dead, the nurse is alive.
The next lines read half as dialogue, spoken by the nurse, and half as a commentary on the death in the room. The nurse appears to comment on the state of the space, asking the dead old woman, who she still doesn’t know is dead, if she realizes that the “stucco is peeling” and that the plaster is dropping off the “Italianate arches”. The woman’s death is symbolized in the degradation of the room.
It’s finally in the seventh stanza of the poem that the nurse realizes the woman in the bed is dead. The word “silent” is used in this first line, emphasizing the quiet that the reader should be well aware of at this point. The woman’s face is lifeless, gray and already decaying.
The same calm, peaceful mood that was introduced in the first stanza comes back into the poem in the seventh. From the window, the “calm of Leamington” in the evening drifts into the room.
In the last stanza of ‘Death in Leamington,’ the speaker describes how the nurse reacted to death. She moved slowly, respectfully, and quietly out of the room. The woman moved out of the room and then to the stairs. The last action she takes in the text is to “Turn… down the gas in the hall”. No one needs it now.