‘On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man’ is almost certainly based on Betjeman losing his own father which just makes it that more poignant. The poem’s stanza nearly all contains a pattern whereby the narrator reflects positively on the time spent with his father and then ends on a dour note as he describes the reality of death.
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Form and Tone
‘On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man’ is an elegy to the poet’s father. It is written in ballad meter which means that the poem lends itself to being read aloud. As you would expect, in places the poem is quite somber. Although it borders on macabre at times as Betjeman’s narrator talks very bluntly about death, staying away from clichéd euphemisms such as “quietly passed on”. It is written in eight stanzas of all four lines each. There is an inconsistent ABAB rhyme pattern throughout. I think this represents the “up and down” nature of ‘On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man’ as Betjeman struggles to deal with his emotions.
Analysis of On A Portrait of a Deaf Man
The kind old face, the egg-shaped head,
A closely fitting shroud.
In this first stanza, the narrator reflects on their father’s appearance. The description paints the image of a man that wasn’t perfect but rather beautifully imperfect. The tone is very much one of reverence here as the narrator reflects fondly on his father’s imperfections. In the penultimate line, he describes briefly his father’s dress sense before likening it to a burial shroud. Given the jovial and upbeat nature of the preceding three lines, this makes this line particularly jarring, and as you will see this is a device used throughout ‘On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man’.
He liked old city dining rooms,
The London clay come in.
The narrator continues to describe his father. The first line is possibly pertaining to his father’s love of the Victorian era. This is evidence that the poem is indeed autobiographical. Interestingly Betjeman wrote an entire autobiography in verse. We see once again the cold and harsh descriptions of the burial process. This one is particularly harrowing as it invokes an image of his father’s corpse “choking” on the soil that envelops him.
He took me on long silent walks
But not the song it sung.
Here we get a break from the pattern of talking positively and then contrasting that with bleak imagery. Although there is still interesting contrast in this stanza as the narrator describes silent walks, but later references bird song. Betjeman was far too clever for this to be a mistake. The silence could be a reflection of the poet’s feelings at the time. Silence is a word you could associate with funerals and in fact the deceased. Perhaps in this stanza, the line between reflection and reality is blurred?
And when he could not hear me speak
Of maggots in his eyes.
This stanza returns to the previously established pattern as Betjeman reflects fondly on the way his father treated him whilst on their walks together. And then brings the fore the hideous image of maggots in his father’s decaying eyes. This really is quite morbid and emphasizes how Betjeman feels there is a certain finality about death. He doesn’t talk of his father’s soul in heaven but instead focuses on his physical body and what happens to it in the absence of life.
He liked the rain-washed Cornish air
And painted it in oil.
Once again we have a stanza here that is just reflective without any of the horrific imagery. Perhaps this is because of how grotesque the image from the previous stanza was? Maybe the flow of the poem is designed, not unlike in a story, with breaks in the tension. These peaks and troughs probably simulate perfectly the emotions of a person going through the loss of a loved one, where some days are better than others. The words in this stanza are still very deliberate though, ploughed-up, bare, rain-washed. All of these could have negative connotations.
But least of all he liked that place
For Londoners to fill.
This stanza is almost a mirror to the previous as it is very negative and talks about his father’s loathing for the cemetery. This is what is meant by “Carrara-covered earth” Carrera is a city noted for its marble buildings and it clear that Betjeman is using this as a metaphor for a cemetery. The words also help to create a miserable image. With words the words “hang”, and “earth” is easily associated with death.
He would have liked to say goodbye,
Stick through his finger-ends.
There is (almost) an element of black comedy in this stanza. The rhyme and repetition gives a slightly playful tone to what is a very bleak image. This is perhaps gallows humour? With the poet making fun of the situation to avoid breaking down, perhaps?
You, God, who treat him thus and thus,
I only see decay.
In this final stanza, we see the narrator’s anger at his loss come through. He curses a god that he seemingly has a lack of faith in. Throughout ‘On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man’ he eschews the divine in favour of the idea that death is a very permanent reality. He espouses the idea there is no beyond by emphasizing the physical nature of a person’s death. The stanza does follow the previous pattern of many of the other stanzas. Ending on a bleak note. Given the religious beliefs of Betjeman, this final stanza is particularly thought provoking. He seemingly believes in a god, else why would he be talking to him? But simultaneously has no faith in him. Declaring that the evidence he sees in front of him, his father’s decaying body, stands in defiance of what God wants a person to believe about the existence of a better place. IE heaven.
About Sir John Betjeman
Sir John Betjeman was much a much-loved poet and radio/TV personality. He was taught by TS Elliot and was given the honour of being named poet laureate in 1972 and was also given a CBE amongst his many honours. His poetic style often invoked humour and he had a wide, “everyman”-like appeal. Often writing about mundane day to day issues. He was a great admirer of the Victorian era. As were his parents who manufactured furniture that was stylistically Victorian. He was a Christian and as a result of this his beliefs often crept into his poetry but despite his beliefs, his views on religion were quite cynical. He clearly considered himself a Christian but seemingly often doubted the validity of the religion.