Within ‘Ireland With Emily’ Betjeman delves into themes of identity, heritage, landscapes, and Irish history. The tone is romantic and caring, allowing Betjeman to create a calm and contemplative mood as a reader hears his perspective on what Ireland is like and who the people are.
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Summary of Ireland with Emily
The poem takes the reader through a variety of landscapes. The narrator speaks on religious sites, the people who frequent them and the land they sit on. Through these scenes, a reader learns more about what it’s like to visit Ireland the wild side of nature one might see there. All the images are very much romanticized and the people– simplified.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Poetic Techniques
‘Ireland With Emily’ by John Betjeman is a six stanza poem that’s divided into stanzas of nine lines each. These lines follow a rhyme scheme ABABCCDDB, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. The consistency of this rhyme scheme is musical, without being overwhelming. It complements the content of the poem by easing the reader from one scene to the text.
Betjeman makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Ireland With Emily’. 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. This technique is used frequently in this poem. It appears in every stanza. For example, line eight of the fifth stanza reads: “Soared the arches, splayed and splendid”.
Betjeman also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This can be seen very prominently in the first three lines of the fourth stanza where the word “Stony” begins all three.
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 instance, the transitions between lines five and six of the first stanza and seven and eight of the third.
Analysis of Ireland With Emily
Bells are booming down the bohreens,
White the mist along the grass,
Now the Julias, Maeves and Maureens
Pointed windows richly stained
With many-coloured Munich glass.
In the first stanza of ‘Ireland With Emily,’ the speaker begins by using alliteration to describe the booming of bells “down the bohreens”. This last word, “bohreen,” refers to a country lane or narrow, unpaved path. The “booming” contrasts with the simplicity of the road and the likely quietness of the scene. The scene is a peaceful one, made more so by the addition of “mist along the grass”. This also alludes to the time of day. It’s morning and everyone is on their way to mass.
The first elements of the poem all come together, allowing the poet to reach out and describe the “Twisted trees of small green apple”. The syntax in this line is somewhat jumbled as to conform to the poet’s chosen rhyme scheme. This is a technique known as anastrophe. The trees stand guard in front of the “whitewashed chapel”. It has golden gates, and a grained doorway, made of wood.
Last, the speaker adds that there are “pointed windows” that are filled with stained glass from Munich, Germany. Despite what seemed like simple beginnings, it is clear there are a number of details in the scene that the poet, or at least the speaker he is channeling, is interested in. A reader should be aware of the speaker’s attention to detail and desire to depict the spaces he describes as clearly as possible.
See the black-shawled congregations
On the broidered vestment gaze
Murmer past the painted stations
In the second stanza of ‘Ireland With Emily,’ the speaker takes the reader inside the church and points out the “black-shawled congregations”. This is a reference to the crowd and the colour they’re primarily wearing. They are “shawled” in it. This speaks to the way the clothes hang and cover their bodies fully.
The speaker continues, asking the listener if they see the crowd looking up towards the front of the church. They are “gaz[ing]” on the “broidered vestment” of the clergymen.
There is also a reference to the “painted stations” of the cross and the “Sacred Heart displays” within the church. Religion is quite important in these first lines as Betjeman paints a portrait of the whole of Ireland. It is a theme that he returns to again towards the end of the poem.
As Thy Sacred Heart displays
Kneeling all in silver haze?
In the next lines, the speaker declares that he’s looking at a very particular section of Ireland, Kildare. There, he recalls the sight of “scented meadows”. These places looked and smelled beautiful. They trigged all his senses and have therefore remained in his mind and become more romanticized as nostalgia has taken over. He also comments on “Roscommon,” another place name. This is either a reference to the country town in the central portion of the country or more likely County Roscommon in the northeast. The poet also brings in the “ash-tree,” making the scene feel more real.
In the last three lines of the second stanza, he mentions two more place names, “Westmeath” where the “lake-reflected” and “Leix” where the “hill-protected”. In the last line, Betjeman uses the word “kneeling”. This connects back to the overall religiosity of the country, an important element and one that the poet believes adequately depicts the people and landscapes. While it is not clear at this point, or in any of the stanzas which follow, it should be assumed that the speaker is talking to Emily. She is an unknown in this poem. She doesn’t physically appear in any of the scenes the poet describes, except obliquely. But, because the name is in the title it’s obvious that she is of importance to the poet.
In yews and woodbine, walls and guelder,
Nettle-deep the faithful rest,
These, oh, counties of them screen us
In the Kingdom of the West.
Stanza three dives back into the natural imagery the poem began with. The “faithful,” or the religious population of Ireland, rest in the beautiful landscape. They’re dead and are buried under the earth. This should remind one of the images of the churchgoers clad in black clothing. They can be found in and around the yew trees and the guilder roses. The landscape, which does not appear to be curated, is filled with nettles and “Winding leagues of flowering elder”.
Through these lines, the poet emphasizes the natural beauty of Ireland and how untamed that beauty is. There are “Ruins” to be found on land that was attached to a manor, or “demesnes”. These places are deserted. The lack of people in these scenes is an interesting addition to the poem. Although a few women’s names were mentioned in the first stanzas, the following are strangely empty of the Irish people.
Next, the poet describes the different kinds of towns in the area. There are those which are rich and those that are “mean as / These”. There are all sorts, rich and poor, and each is a part of the “Kingdom of the West”. As he has throughout ‘Ireland With Emily’ Betjeman has taken a romantic tone in his consideration of the country. Even the dead and poor are beautiful. This is continued into the next stanzas.
Stony seaboard, far and foreign,
Stony hills poured over space,
Where a Stone Age people breeds
The last of Europe’s stone age race.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Ireland With Emily’ Betjeman utilizes anaphora. The word “Stony” begins with the first three lines and then is followed by “Stones” in the fourth. The area he’s speaking about, Burren. This very stony area of the country is depicted clearly and beautifully by the poet. Betjeman uses alliteration to emphasize the seaboard.
The speaker also mentions that there are “Stones in every fertile place”. From this line, a reader can assume that there are few plants growing and there certainly aren’t crops. Moving away from the word “stone” Betjeman refers to boulders in the next line, and then uses the word “stone” again in the final four lines of the poem. The last phrase of this stanza is an interesting one. It is an example of Betjeman’s overly simplified and patronizing view of the Irish people. But, it appears as though he meant it as a compliment when it wrote it. He is trying to depict the Irish and their strong connection to their heritage.
They are “Stone Age people” that “breed” the last of the “stone age race”. The word “breed” is problematic, as is the reference to someone as a “stone age person”. But, his intentions are there, if obscured by our contemporary senses.
Has it held, the warm June weather?
Draining shallow sea-pools dry,
Soared the arches, splayed and splendid,
Romanesque against the sky.
In the fifth stanza, the poem takes a bit of a turn and the speaker directs his words more clearly to Emily. He asks her if “it held” the “warm June weather?” This line is an interesting one, especially when it is taken into consideration alongside the following descriptions of past actions the two took. It is likely that the speaker, who has left Ireland, is now looking to Emily to update him on what it’s like there now. Alternatively, he could just be wondering this thought out loud, or in his mind, to himself.
He goes on, recalling how they biked together “Down the bohreens fuchsia-high”. This line should remind a reader of the first stanza in which the word “bohreen” was first used. The landscape in these lines is tinged with red and a repetition of the “r” consonant sound.
Betjeman takes the reader back to religious imagery within line six. There’s a “ruined abbey”. The only thing that’s left is the “chancel,” or the part of the church near the altar that’s used by the clergy or choir. Even though it remains, it is not in good shape. The wild nature seen in stanzas three and four have taken it over. Now there is “Lichen” on its sides. The church was once a glorious sight. It is now less than it was, but in its degradation still strikingly beautiful.
There in pinnacled protection,
One extinguished family waits
Sings its own seablown Te Deum,
In and out the slipping slates.
In the final nine lines of ‘Ireland With Emily’ the speaker refers again to death, religion, and natural imagery. While describing the church and its surroundings, the poet speaks more broadly about the nature of the Irish people and what it’s like to be there amongst the beautiful scenery and haunting ruins found in the countryside. He describes the ground as well as the bits of “Sheepswool” and “straw”. Underneath Ireland, and at its heart, are “Graves of spinster, rake and lover”.
All types make up the history of the country and they all reside in their now “fantastic mausoleum”. In their death, through their graves and within their mausoleum, the dead sing out “Te deum”. This is a reference to a song sung at matins or on special occasions. It is short for “Te Deum laudamus” meaning “Thee, O God, we praise”.