John Betjeman

On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man by Sir John Betjeman

An Alternative Analysis

For some poets, an idea is all it takes to create something mesmerizing and beautiful — one single idea. The title of John Betjeman’s On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man’ paints a picture (or a portrait, if you prefer) of this one single idea: a deaf man. When a poem is entirely centered around a single subject, the level of detail and imagination that can be put into a single poem creates an in-depth and powerful look at something that becomes larger than life. In this poem, the reader meets the deaf man, comes to understand him, and is entirely captured by his character, so well-described in Betjeman’s concise and intelligent writing.


On a Portrait of a Deaf Man Analysis

Stanzas 1-2

The first thing the reader is told in the poem, which you can read here, presumable about the eponymous deaf man, is a physical description, which is an interesting place to start the creation of the image. On one hand, the physical description of an individual is typically the first impression an individual is given concerning them. We are told that his face has a kind look to it, that his clothes don’t fit perfectly, and that his choice in tie is both subtle and loud at once. These qualities suggest that perhaps the man isn’t the most well off financially, but maintains a kind demeanor. Following this, we are given a bit of context — the second verse reveals a sad element to On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man’ — to say that he “liked” old city dining rooms is to suggest that he no longer does, and to say “his mouth is open wide to let / The London clay come in” is to suggest that he is dead; his mouth open wide brings up the image of a skull, and clay can only be found in the ground regardless.

Stanzas 3-4

The continuing past tense of the poem serves to confirm that it is a lament for someone who has passed, and the descriptions being given are fond in memory. To remember that he knows the names of all of the birds, even if he didn’t know their songs, is such a specific and unusual thing to pick out of memory, but it still paints the picture of a kindly, intelligent man, who seemed to not consider his impediment as much of a handicap. In the next verse, this is elaborated on — the narrator recalls that even when he would speak to the man, there would be a sense of comfort, of companionship present between the two. They were clearly good friends, as the narrator is saddened by the thought that there is nothing left of him but a body to be eaten away and decomposed.

Stanzas 5-6

The deaf man, it seems, was from Cornwall, and enjoyed living on that peninsula; the descriptions of ploughed-up soil and rain-washed air suggest a rural environment that made the man happy, contrasted with the crowded image of the city of Highgate (a suburban area that would likely seem highly crowded in comparison to Cornwall). It is also possible that the place the man liked “least of all” refers to the Highgate Cemetery, a place of burial for a number of noted individuals (such as Douglas Adams and Karl Marx) that makes it a mild tourist attraction.

Stanzas 7-8

This next verse seems to confirm that the man was buried in Highgate, with a lot of unresolved elements to his life. The narrator believes that there are many he’d have liked to have properly said goodbye to before his passing, suggesting that he was taken suddenly and unexpectedly. But it’s too late now, the narrator reflects — his hands aren’t even in one piece anymore, and couldn’t shake a hand even if there was life in the hand to shake.

The last verse of On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man’ takes on less of a mourning tone and more of an accusing one; he narrator addresses God, and wonders what kind of entity could give such an outstanding man as the deaf man an affliction such as his condition, and then take him away from the world. He reflects that where he is being asked to pray to God — presumably a church, suggesting that this poem takes place during or shortly after the funeral — he can see nothing but death and decay around him to mark God’s presence in the world.


Historical Context

Betjeman was an English poet who lived in various places around England during his life (including Highgate and Cornwall). Although he was known for poems that were humorous in nature, ‘On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man’ showcased a more serious side to his talents. On one hand, the poem reflects the kind of landscapes and appreciations that would make sense for a man who spent so much time in rural and suburban areas. Betjeman was also a practicing Anglican, and typically allowed his beliefs to enter into his works. If he ever did experience a crisis of faith, it seems likely that it is reflected here (although it seems likely as well that he was a devout man, having worked in churches during his life, as well as having dealt with marital issues after his wife converted to Roman Catholicism).

It is also worth nothing, however, that by the end of his life, Ernest Betjemann, his father, had lost his hearing. In light of that, it seems likely that this poem is written as a lament to losing his father, who had a reportedly rocky relationship with his son. If so, this does much to explain the harsh tone of On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man’, and especially the anger in the last verse, directed at God — a common reaction to the death of a loved one, especially following something as cruel as deafness. It’s difficult to imagine the kind of pain that led to the creation of this poem if that is indeed its purpose, though it also seems as though writing had become a cathartic element of life for the author. It can be hoped that writing it had helped then, for something so painful and difficult as this for the young John Betjeman.

To view the first analysis, please click ‘Previous’ or Page 1

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Lee-James Bovey Poetry Expert
Lee-James, a.k.a. LJ, has been a Poem Analysis team member ever since Novemer 2015, providing critical analysis of poems from the past and present. Nowadays, he helps manage the team and the website.
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