‘Diary of a Church Mouse’ is one of Betjeman’s most popular poems. With its perfect rhyme scheme, humorous subject matter, and deeper, satirical undertones, it is enjoyed by readers of all ages. The poem delves into themes of religion, community, and devoutness. Betjeman employs a tone that is lighthearted and exacting as he examines the habits of those who pretend to be more devout than they are. He creates a mood that is equal parts amusing and thoughtful.
The poem comes from the perspective of a church mouse. This creature lives every day of the year within the confines of the church. He’s often alone and starving, but he does not move anywhere else. He likes the church and is devoted to living there. He speaks about the different feasts that humans get to engage in and how they don’t benefit him at all. But, there is one feast that is different. That is the Harvest Festival.
When the church is filled with corn, wheat, gourds, and more, he’s able to nibble and munch on these items until he’s full. But, there’s a catch. At this time of year, the church is invaded by other creatures, mice, and rats, that want to take advantage of this plethora of food.
The speaker is clearly irritated by this fact and reminds the reader that he never goes into the fields of other mice and eats their food. They are well sustained all through the year and he isn’t. The mice that come into the church once a year are compared to the human beings that do the same. He judges these mice for their selective attendance and is at the same time alluding to that same feature in human churchgoers.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Diary of a Church Mouse’ by John Betjeman is a sixty-two line poem that’s contained within one stanza of text. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme, conforming to the pattern of AABBCC, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. Betjeman also chose to structure the lines rhythmically. The majority of the lines contain four sets of two beats, for a total of eight syllables. There are a few variations to this pattern though, as seen in the first two lines of the poem that contain nine syllables each.
Betjeman makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Diary of a Church Mouse’. These include alliteration, satire, personification, caesura, and enjambment. The first, alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “same” and “strange” in line fifty-nine and “mice” and “minds” in line twenty-eight.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. This entire piece is one long example of personification. Betjeman chose to make use of a mouse as the narrator for this text. He speaks and thinks like a person. But, at the same time, Betjeman also uses zoomorphism. This is the opposite of personification and involves giving human beings non-human, animal characteristics. The mice in this story are all representative of churchgoers and their varying degrees of dedication. There are the “pagan” minded mice as well as those who refuse to be “baptized”.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. The thirty-sixth line of the poem is a good example of this technique in action. It reads: “And yet he comes … it’s rather odd”.
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. For example, the transition between lines five and six.
Satire appears within a poem when the writer intentionally uses humour or ridicule in order to criticize a certain group of people. The reasons for this criticism varies but it is usually in regards to politics, social issues, or any other contemporary issue. In the case of ‘Diary of a Church Mouse’ Betjeman satirizes those who only attend church on holidays but claim to be devoted Christians. He depicts them as different kinds of mice and judges them from the position of one “church mouse” that lives in the building year-round.
Here among long-discarded cassocks,
Damp stools, and half-split open hassocks,
The cleaner never bothers me,
So here I eat my frugal tea.
In the first lines of ‘Diary of a Church Mouse,’ the speaker begins by explaining where he lives. The speaker, who is soon revealed to be a mouse, takes pleasure from nibbling on “old service books”. He hides down in among the “cassocks” and “Damp stools” where the vicar will never find him.
The mouse’s days are solitary ones. There are no others of his kind in the church and he is mostly along “Behind this Church of England baize”. This phrase refers to a wooden material, typically green, that resembles felt. His solitude is emphasized by the things that are in the room with him. They’re not much company, considering that they’re only “two oil-lamps and half a broom”. No one thinks to look inside his hiding place and the objects within appear to be discarded. Even the “cleaner” never bothers the mouse. Not only is he lacking in companionship he also has access to very little food. His “tea” is “frugal” or minimal.
My bread is sawdust mixed with straw;
My jam is polish for the floor.
When I can satisfy my want
With ears of corn around the font.
His situation seems all the worse in the next lines as the church mouse explains that even the food he has is no good. His bread is “sawdust mixed with straw” and his “jam” is really “polish for the floor”. In the next three lines, he compares himself, a creature that lives 24/7 in the church, to those who don’t. There are some within the congregation, as well as priests, who are able to feast on “Christmas and Easter / And…Whitsun” but not the mouse. He doesn’t leave the church and therefore must make do with what he has there.
The mouse speaker makes sure the reader understands his situation by reiterating that these feasts do nothing for him. They are all the same to him and none of them fill his “meagre frame”. His situation doesn’t seem pleasant and a reader might wonder why this little creature does not seek out sustenance elsewhere.
Luckily for the little mouse, there is one festival on which he’s able to feast. This is “Autumn’s Harvest Festival”. Celebrated on the 22nd or 23rd of September, the Harvest Festival is celebrated outside and inside churches. For the mouse, this festival is an important one as he can “satisfy [his] want / With ears of corn around the font”. Here, he’s speaking about the ears of corn that are brought into the church for decoration at the festival. They’re set out around the “font,” or the basin that holds the consecrated water used for baptisms.
I climb the eagle’s brazen head
To burrow through a loaf of bread.
Come into church my food to share
Who have no proper business there.
The next lines explain what the mouse does to find its feasts on this holiday and the different foods it’s able to indulge in. He climbs the “eagle’s brazen head” and is able to eat into a loaf of bread. There are “marrows,” a kind of gourd, hanging from the “pulpit stair” and they’re “enjoyable to taste”. He has to be quick, moving from place to place and stay out of sight.
The mouse adds that if he doesn’t eat these things then they’re just going to go to waste. It is at this point in the poem that he introduces the other mice into the story. There are those with “pagan minds” that only come into the church to share his food. This clearly irritates the mouse speaker. He refers to them as “annoying” and as having no “proper business” in his church. These “pagan” minded mice represent those human churchgoers who only attend services on holidays.
Two field mice who have no desire
To be baptized, invade the choir.
A large and most unfriendly rat
Come in to hear our organ play,
And under cover of its notes
Ate through the altar’s sheaf of oats.
Betjeman’s clever satiric approach to depicting human churchgoers as mice is expanded in the next lines. The mouse speaker refers to the “Two field mice who have no desire / To be baptized, invade the choir”. From the tone of these lines, it’s easy to tell that this is something the mouse readily disapproves of. He doesn’t believe that they should be able to come into his church, disregard its traditions, and take advantage of what it has to offer.
Next, the speaker moves on to talk about a rat. He is “large and most unfriendly” as one would expect. This creature comes into the church and actively declares that there isn’t God. The mouse is baffled by this. He doesn’t understand why anyone would enter the church if they didn’t believe. His actions are all the more irritating for this declaration. “This year,” the mouse states, this rat “stole a sheaf of wheat”. The use of alliteration and internal rhyme in this line is quite impactful and beneficial to the overall rhythm of the line.
The mouse continues to judge those who invade his church. There are mice who have plenty, those that live in the fields, that come into his building. They are personified and described as coming to “hear our organ play”. But, in reality, they’re there to eat through the “altar’s sheaf of oats”. It’s not the eating that bothers the mouse as much as their invasion of his space and disregard for the church in general. He’s there every day, all year and they come, without invitation or respect, and take advantage of what his church has to offer.
A Low Church mouse, who thinks that I
Am too papistical, and High,
Except at this time of the year
Not once inside the church appear.
In the next lines of ‘Diary of a Church Mouse,’ the speaker refers to a “Low Church mouse”. One of these creatures thinks that the speaker is too “High” and “papistical” or devoted to the Roman Catholic Church. Despite this mouse’s strong opinions, he doesn’t seem to think its wrong to “much though Harvest Evensong” within the speaker’s church. This mouse that comes in from the outside doesn’t care if the speaker starves the rest of the year. The speaker has to share his food with “rodents who / Except at this time of year / Not once inside the church appear”. This is a big issue for him, but he can’t do anything about it.
Within the human world I know
Such goings-on could not be so,
For human beings only do
How very full the church can be
With people I don’t see at all
Except at Harvest Festival.
In the last lines of ‘Diary of a Church Mouse,’ the speaker suggests that in the human world things have to be different. These lines are humorous and satiric as clearly it is quite the opposite. The mice themselves are representatives of the very human actions of devout, and much less devout, visitors to the church.
The speaker thinks that because Christian texts tell the religious to care for their church and attend frequently, then they must do so. He believes that humans are like he is. They must visit the church each week and worship. After stating this, he second-guesses himself. The mouse adds that he has noticed that the “church can be” very full on some days, such as the Harvest Festival, and very empty on others.