Late Flowering Lust by John Betjeman

As suggested by the title, Late Flowering Lust explores the establishing of a sexual relationship between two people drawing near to the ends of their lives. There is a fascination with approaching death that permeates the sexual language of the poem. Betjeman connects the concepts (love and death) together as one. The tone of the poem is chilling, with the focus on death above passion subverting the expectation of a sexual poem.

Betjeman splits the poem into 7 quatrains stanzas, with a continual ABAB rhyme scheme throughout. This consistent rhyme scheme is haunting considering the tone. It is almost as if the poet is lulling off to sleep, drawing closer to his final moments. You can read and listen to the full poem Late Flowering Lust here.

Late Flowering Lust by John Betjeman

 

Late Flowering Lust Analysis

Stanza One

My head is bald, my breath is bad,
(…)
When I was young in sin.

Betjeman begins Late Flowering Lust by characterizing himself in his later age as a shadow of his former youth. He presents himself with bad breath, ‘bald’ and unshaved, elevating the more grotesque parts of himself. The choice of characterization is self-deprecating, yet sets up the idea of the decrepit nature of the man. Betjeman presents himself as having ‘let himself go’ a little, with the unshaved ruggedness of character off-putting for his lover.

This stanza is entirely composed of self-characterization, with the only pronouns used linking back directly to the poet. ‘I’ and ‘my’ focus the attention closely on the man, taking in each detail as we progress.

Finally, to base this final line in the past tense, ‘I was’, the poet creates the idea that he has lost some element of former glory. The man he now does not compare, his ‘joys’ being stripped from him as he has grown older. The instant sense of disgust and disappointment from this stanza sets the tone for the poem.

The idea of hedonism comes through the glorification of ‘sin’. Late Flowering Lust borders on the grotesque, with the frequent semantics of death being linked to his age. The relation of ‘youth’, beauty and ‘sin’ is oddly Fan De Siècle, with Betjeman perhaps echoing the former tradition of decadence from the end of the 1800s and early 1900s.

 

Stanza Two

I run my fingers down your dress
(…)
And maybe feel the same.

Betjeman presents himself comically as a little drunk during the poem, the ‘brandy-certain aim’ further adding to the unattractive presentation Betjeman has already fostered in this first stanza.

The focus on ‘maybe’ reflects the loss of passion, linking to the lovers’ old ages. There is no raw sexual energy exhumed here, with the faint response being unexciting and disappointing for Betjeman. The mute energy of ‘maybe’ characterizes the passion between the lovers as boring and stale.

 

Stanza Three

But I’ve a picture of my own
(…)
To hold each other tight;

In stanza three of Late Flowering Lust, Betjeman uses the gothic image of two ‘skeletons; to represent the two lovers. Death lurks over the couple, with passion dissolving to fear. The lovers are little more than human husks, degenerating as the poem progresses.

 

Stanza Four

Dark sockets look on emptiness
(…)
Has got no tongue inside.

Betjeman furthers his degenerate presentation of the two lovers. Their hollow ‘dark sockets’ disturb the reader, the ‘emptiness’ of the characters unsettling.

Again, the harsh distinction between past and present in explored by Betjeman. ‘Once was loving-eyed’ has now degenerated into this disgusting image of a hollow eye socket. Betjeman subverts the expected intimacy of this sexual encounter into something ghastly and unsettling to read.

These disquieting descriptions continue, with the lack of a ‘tongue’ completing the image of ‘emptiness’. The skull is eyeless and tongueless, the ghastly image of two empty ‘skeletons’ darkly elevated. While this is suggestive of his disgust at growing old and the physical changes people go through as they age, the image could also be one about the nature of sexual encounters themselves. The loveless union of the two people stripped of romance, simply the hollow lustful bodies.

 

Stanza Five

I cling to you inflamed with fear
(…)
And wonder what will be–

The verb ‘cling’ is strong against the passivity of the proceeding stanzas. The word could be emblematic of how the two lovers are ‘cling[ing]’ to life. Stanza seven supports this reading, further exploring how close they are to death. It seems that within this ghastly world, the two lovers only have themselves left, ‘cling[ing]’ to one another in disquieting fear.

Betjeman also explores the fragility of humanity within the stanza. He characterizes his lover as ‘frail’. It seems that at any moment his lover could sleep into the embrace of death. They ‘cling’ onto each other as they cling to life.

 

Stanza Six

A week? or twenty years remain?
(…)
Or a gasping fight for breath?

Stanza seven of Late Flowering Lust is fractured and truncated by the implementation of caesura and end stop. Whereas other stanzas flow easily, the rhyme and enjambment pushing the reading on, this stanza is stagnated. Betjeman’s sense of panic at not knowing when he will die is palpable. The questioning tone, ‘week?’ ‘Remain?’, ‘death?’, ‘breath?’, illustrate his fear.

The caesuras within the lines disrupt the rhythm of this stanza. Betjeman struggles with the concept of death and uses this disruption as emblematic of that panicked energy.

The ending rhyme of the stanza, linking ‘death?’ and ‘breath?’ is chilling, insinuating the idea of a final breath. Betjeman fears that at any moment he, or his lover, could slip into the abyss.

 

Stanza Seven

Too long we let our bodies cling,
(…)
From this late-flowering lust.

Betjeman returns to the idea of ‘cling’, yet this time describes it with ‘too long’. It seems that they are but moments from death, their love cut short. When each moment is one closer to death, Betjeman reflects on how precious his time is, the deft ‘too’ echoing hauntingly.

The eponymous final line, ’late-flowering lust’ is an apt line and title as it represents both ideas within the poem. The first being that the two lovers are old, having found each other late in their lives. Secondly, the idea of ‘late’ being a representation of death. The lurking atmosphere of death shrouds the poem, with ‘late’ being a euphemism for someone who has died.

The tone of Late Flowering Lust is unsettling. Betjeman fuses horror and love, unsettling the reader in a dark love poem.

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