‘Senex’ by John Betjeman is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines, or quintains. These lines follow a specific, very consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAAB. In regards to the meter, there is another pattern taking place that corresponds to the rhyme scheme. The “A” lines, specifically lines one, three, and four, have four sets of two beats, or eight syllables. The “B” lines have three sets of two beats, making a total of six syllables.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is obsessed with “flesh.” There is a whole group of young women he sees all the time. Every one of them drives him crazy. He wants to touch their “flesh” but is unable. He asks God to rid him of his desire.
In the next lines, he describes cycling through town and finding bikes leaning against bushes. Lovers hid inside the hedge doing what he can’t, and he knows it. He becomes enraged and shouts at them (and at his emotions), demanding that they leave him alone.
The poem concludes with the speaker wishing that the “flaxen” hair of those he lusts after would become dust in his mind. This way he’d be able to forget about the girls playing tennis, biking, and walking.
You can read the full poem Senex here.
One of the most important techniques used in ‘Senex’ is repetition. It can be seen throughout the lines, appearing at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. It is most prominent at the end of the first and second stanzas in which three lines in each end with the same word. In the first stanza “flesh” ends lines one, three, and four. In stanza two, “girl,” ends those same numbered lines. The same thing occurs in the fifth stanza as well with the word “Lord.”
Betjeman’s use of repetition throughout his poetic works is noteworthy. This poem in particular has some striking examples. These occur within the lines themselves, such as in lines three and four of the fourth stanza. These lines rhyme, with the word “flesh” used twice, but there is also an interior rhyme between “view” and “knew.” The same can be said for lines three and four of the second stanza with three “—ing” words rhyming within the lines.
There are also moments of consonance and assonance within the text. This is when a consonant or vowel sound is repeated multiple times. An instance of consonance can be found in lines three and four of the fourth stanza. Here, the “s” sound appears six times, giving the line a distinctive slurring sound. There is another moment in which assonance and consonance are used together in lines three and four of the third stanza. These lines are scattered with “s’s” and “i’s.”
Before beginning this piece it is important to consider the title. The word “senex” is an uncommon one. It refers to an archetypal man. This person is old and perhaps foolish, or at least unaware of the social cues around him or how he is perceived. This applies directly to the text as the speaker struggles to come to terms with the fact that he cannot become intimate with the young women he sees on the street.
Analysis of Senex
Oh would I could subdue the flesh
And merry misery.
In the first stanza of ‘Senex’ the speaker begins by exclaiming over the state of someone’s “flesh.” It is his wish that God allows him to, “subdue the flesh / Which sadly troubles [him]!”
The word flesh is repeated three times in this stanza. This shows how physical the speaker’s desire is. It is tied directly to someone’s body, or a particular kind of body. It appears that the speaker is plagued by thoughts of this body and how he can at once gain access to it, and banish it from his mind.
He wonders over what might change in his mind if he were able to “subdue” the flesh and then “view the flesh.” Perhaps, he thinks, it will be as though he “never knew the flesh” and the “merry misery” that comes along with it.
To see the golden hiking girl
To see and not to care.
The second stanza outlines what the speaker wants for himself. It is a life without care, and without his thoughts forever resting on the type of “girl” he wants. There is a great deal of repetition in this stanza as well as the speaker thinks through the different kinds of girls he wants. They include, “The tennis-playing, biking girl, / The wholly-to-my-liking girl.”
The girls are always active, sometimes “golden” or blonde, and always completely to his “liking.” There does not seem to be too much distinction between one girl and another. What is common between them is that he doesn’t know them. They are on the street riding a bike or walking and he just sees them from afar. This is central to his frustration. He can’t get any closer.
Now is a good time to relate these stanzas up to the title, ‘Senex.’ This particular speaker appears to be someone that fits this description. Perhaps he is older, unable to get the attention of young women, or maybe he is simply foolish, thinking he has a chance at all.
At sundown on my tricycle
Stacked waiting in the hedge.
The third stanza begins with the speaker describing how he spends his “sundown.” He goes out on his “tricycle” and rides around the “Borough’s edge.” Just as he is riding through town, so too are many others. There is a whole group of people who have made their way to a particular hedge.
The bikes are “Stacked waiting” there for their owners to return. This scene does not sit well with the speaker. It is “icy as an icicle” to him because he knows that means that there are couples hidden away in the bushes doing all the things he wishes he could be doing.
Get down from me! I thunder there,
And buttocks in your paws!
The speaker’s rage erupts in the fourth stanza. He “thunders” or shouts out to those hidden in the hedge to “Get down from me!” He compares the lovers to dogs that won’t leave him alone. They are flaunting their relationships and intimacy with “buttocks in [their] paws.”
Oh whip the dogs away my Lord,
That flaxen hair is dust.
In the final line, the speaker addresses God once more. He asks that the Lord, “whip the dogs away.” They are an embodiment of his lust that he can’t shake off no matter what he does. It is ruining his life all this dwelling on something he can’t change.
In the last lines, he uses sexually charged language to depict someone kneeling down to pray on “bare knees” and with “sulky lips.” He states that he wants the “flaxen hair” of the girls he sees to be “dust.” This is not a genuine wish, but something he has turned to as he knows there’s no other way to rid himself of the need for the girls.