The poem is filled with specific examples of how progress, such as the construction of airports, and buildings, is making the world worse, not better. While amenities may be more easily accessed, there is a great deal more that’s being lost. Betjeman’s speaker, who may be the poet himself, is very clear in ‘Inexpensive Progress’ about the fact that he sees this progress as a net negative.
Explore Inexpensive Progress
‘Inexpensive Progress’ by John Betjeman is an impassioned poem about what industrialization is taking from the world.
The speaker begins by noting that as time progresses, the speed of progress is getting faster. Nature is disappearing everyone one looks. This includes the wilder places as well as the simple bits of nature that one sees in their everyday life. The speaker mentions strips of grass and hedges specifically. As one moves through their life, they’re going to be confronted with endlessly lighted streets, commands, roundabouts, and rules that they have to follow. It’s not just nature the speaker wants to protect, it’s also the historical villages and city streets that represent more than progress, efficiency, and amenities.
You can read the full poem here.
Encase your legs in nylons,
And all the elmy billows
That through your valleys roll.
In the first stanza of ‘Inexpensive Progress,’ the speaker begins by directing several interesting phrases to “you.” The person to whom the speaker is addressing their words is likely a woman, considering the first line is concerned with putting on tights. But, it should be noted that “nylons” can also be a symbol for the industrialization that figures in the rest of the poem.
The speaker also refers to “O age,” a new period in our history that is “without a soul.” Some things, like “elmy billows” and “valleys” are gone. They are sent “away” on the back of this industrialization.
Let’s say goodbye to hedges
Where motor car is master
Till only Speed remains.
The speaker also tells the listener that it’s time to ‘say goodbye to hedges,” even the most city-like form of nature is disappearing. This is emphasized throughout the addition of “grassy hedges.” These aren’t incredibly wild places the speaker is thinking about. They are things that one sees on a regular basis.
In the place of these natural sights, one is left with “things travel faster,” and the “motor car is master.” “Speed,” the speaker concludes this stanza, is the only thing that’s going to remain. The word “speed” refers not only to the movement of vehicles but also to how progress plays itself out and that people move through their everyday lives.
Destroy the ancient inn-signs
The rockeried roundabout;
The third stanza is similar in that it suggests that some things are going to be lost and others are going to change. The roads are going to be covered with signs like “Keep Left” and “Keep Out!” What people are going to see as they move through their lives are commands and warnings. By this point, it’s very clear that the speaker has an opinion about this change. They are against this kind of progress.
Stanzas Four and Five
For every raw obscenity
Must have its small ‘amenity,’
Which could provide a landing
For aeroplanes to roar,
But spare such cheap defacements
As huts with shattered casements
Unlived-in since the war.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker adds that because of how the way the world is going to be, “obscenities” are going to have small amenities. No one is going to be left without something they need right at the moment they need it, at least those with the means.
The fifth stanza expands and specifically notes that natural spaces are going to be destroyed. For example, old villages that could be historically relevant and provide the world with culture and interest are plowed down to make room for airplanes to land. These moments are meant to strike at a reader’s sense of nostalgia and care for their personal histories. Which of these options feels more appealing in the words the speaker is using?
Let no provincial High Street
Which might be your or my street
And traffic thunder through.
In the sixth stanza, the speaker also notes that cityscapes, including “High Street[s]” which are often the heart of cities, are going to be changed as well. There’s no reason in this new world to keep these streets the way they were. It’s time, in this progress-filled world that things change to fit the modern moment, or at least that’s the attitude the speaker is pushing against.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
And if there is some scenery,
Some unpretentious greenery,
It does not need protecting
Bathed in the yellow vomit
Each monster belches from it,
We’ll know that we are dead.
In the contemporary world, any scenery that could provide some pleasure does not need protection. Soon, there will be a “Power Station” there. The poem concludes with one more sestet. The speaker says that there will be a time when all roads are lighted and “concrete monsters” are everywhere. We are building a world that is slowly going to consume us. It’s at this time when we are “Bathed in the yellow vomit,” that “We’ll know that we are dead.” The speaker is alluding to the future and a time during which humanity is going to lose touch with its past and the things that should be important in life.
Structure and Form
‘Inexpensive Progress’ by John Betjeman is an eight-stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets follow a simple rhymes scheme of AABCCB; changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The lines also follow a consistent metrical pattern. The third and sixth lines that follow the “B” rhymes all follow a pattern iambic trimeter. This means that the lines contain three sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. The other lines, (one, two, four, and five) contain seven syllables.
Throughout ‘Inexpensive Progress,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “motor” and “master” in stanza two and “floribunda” and “floodlights” in stanza four.
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines four and five of the first stanza as well as lines one and two of the third stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “Away with gentle willows / And all the elmy billows.” These examples should trigger the reader’s senses and imagination, inspiring them into envisioning clear pictures.
- Anaphora: the repetition of words at the beginning of multiple lines. This can include phrases. For example, “And” which starts two lines in stanza two.
The tone is passionate and opinionated. The speaker, who may be the poet himself, is determined to speak out against the progress of industrialization. They value nature and history far more than they do new trains, airports, and “concrete monsters.”
The themes at work in this poem are progress and nature. The former is tied to industrialization and the inescapable roll of progress that the speaker, and all readers, are a part of. The loss of nature is a very key part of this (as is the loss of historical sites).
The speaker in this poem could be anyone who is interested in the progress of industrialization and is against the speed it’s taken. They are taking a very clear stance against the way that things that used to be valued are being lost.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Inexpensive Progress’ should also consider reading some other John Betjeman poems. For example:
- ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ – an upbeat poem that tells of the real-life love the poet had for Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.
- ‘Christmas’ – describes the traditions of Christmas time and how they compare to the story of the birth of Christ.
- ‘Executive’ – is told from the perspective of a young business leader who can’t stop bragging about his financial success.