John Betjeman’s Slough focuses on the poet’s hate for the city of Slough, pointing out various things he finds disgusting and concluding that it should be bombed. Although he never states that he dislikes the city, it is obvious from his hateful descriptions and the overall tone of the poem that he despises it. Slough was going through a period of industrial change during the time of publication, with housing conditions becoming more cramped and green spaces being reduced.
Structure to Slough
Slough is broken into 10 stanzas each measuring 4 lines. There is a consistent rhyme scheme with of AAAB. The final line of each stanza breaks the rhyme scheme, purposely avoiding completing the internal rhyme. This sharp, disjointed end to each stanza reflects Betjeman’s opinion of Slough. He finds the city disgusting, and would prefer if it were bombed into nothing. From the people, to the very typography, Betejeman belittles the city, with the broken rhyme scheme a representation of the clunky and dysfunctional city.
The last line of each stanza is much shorter and sharper than the rest of the lines. This causes the last line to stand out, both because of its length and because of the broken rhyme scheme. The final word of each stanza is often presenting a negative aspect of the city, ‘hell’, ‘yell’ and ‘death!’ Being examples of this. The final word of each stanza rhyme in pairs, with stanza 1+2, 3+4, 5+6 etc. rhyming. You can read the full poem here.
John Betjeman begins the poem by calling ‘bombs’ to ‘fall’ upon the city of ‘Slough’. The exclamative first line draws the reader’s attention, elevating the call to destruction. The hateful passion elicited by the tone of the poem begins right within this first sentence.
Moreover, the oxymoronic ‘friendly bombs’ further the idea that Betjeman desires the complete destruction of the city. Whereas ‘bombs’ are a thing of war used to obliterate a city, Betjeman decides to collocate them with ‘friendly’. This suggestion that the act of levelling the city to dust would be something that Betjeman sees as ‘friendly’ shows his scorn of Slough. He despises the city and wants it to be bombed as it ‘isn’t fit for humans’.
The use of ‘now’ suggests that once the state of Slough was much different. Perhaps Betjeman once enjoyed the city, but due to the recent industrial changes within the area, the poet now things it is ugly, cramped and disgusting.
This industrial surge is also reflected through the loss of nature within the city. The lack of ‘grass’ for a cow to ‘graze’ upon suggests the eradication of green spaces. Contextually, within Slough, green spaces were reduced to make space for new factories. Betjeman mourns the loss of these spaces, viewing the greying city with angry eyes.
The call to action of stanza one is replicated within the first line of this stanza. The caesura after the repeated ‘come,’ presents Betjeman’s voice in almost a tone of begging. There is nothing he desires more than the eradication of the city. This is further compounded through the use of ‘bombs and blow’, with the harsh plosive ‘b’ in these words being practically spat when read. The sound of the poem reflects his distain, with Betjeman’s anger bubbling under his verse.
The continual repetition of ‘tinned’ within this stanza relates to the cannery factories within Slough. One of the primary outputs of the factories which have sprung up all over the city are tins. The 6 time repetition of ‘tinned’ reflects this surge of production, with Betjeman hating what the city has become.
Moreover, the final line within stanza two, ‘Tinned minds, tinned breath’ begins to present the people within the city. They have become so engrained into this industrial city that they too have become ‘tinned’. ‘Tinned mind’ suggests a close off and isolated mindset, with the people being presented without individuality, simply products of the industrial city. This is furthered by ‘tinned breath’, the very breathing they do is produced, artificial and corrupted by the industrial Slough.
This stanza begins with a similar sentiment to that of the first two, with Betjeman calling for the levelling of the city. The double use of ‘mess’ is interesting as the word is used in two different forms: verb and noun. The verb ‘mess up’ is a reflection of the bombing, calling for the destruction of the town. By describing the city itself as a ‘mess’, he draws these two uses together. Betjeman presents the town as already such a state that if it were destroyed it wouldn’t look any different. He suggests it is such a disgustingly ruined town that the ‘mess’ of destroying the town would be the same ‘mess’ that is already currently there. Betjeman has an almost comicly low opinion of Slough.
Stanza four explores the ugliness of the people that live in the city. The ‘man’ has a ‘double chin’ and ‘repulsive skin’, focusing on physical aspects to demean. He also focuses on the hollow personalities of the people who live in Slough, always ‘cheat[ing’. Even the people that live within this city have become repulsive, reflecting their city through their ugliness.
This stanza focuses more on Betjeman’s anger. Each line adds another thing that Betjeman wants done to the town. He focuses on the semantics of destruction, ‘smash’ being repeated twice to elaborate on his own hate. Even on a micro level, he wants the city to be destroyed, ‘desk’ by ‘desk’, ‘smashing’ and destroying everything.
Stanza Six and Seven
These stanzas focus again on the people of Slough. Whereas earlier in the poem he characterised them as ugly, here he forgives them. He states that is it ‘not their fault’ that they were born here and thrust into these conditions. He takes pity on them for their unfortunate situation, saying that they can be ‘spare[d]’ when the city is bombed.
The loss of nature is again explored within stanza 7. The people of the city cannot discern ‘birdsong from the radio’, suggesting that because of the lack of green space, the people of the city have forgotten what ‘birdsong’ truly sounds like. The metropolitan focus on ‘radio’ is typical to an industrial city, with the monotony of the grey Slough being emphasised here.
The use of the semantics of religion compound to damn the city. The end of stanza 6, with the short ‘hell’ being elevated is a mechanism of presenting Slough. Betjeman hates the city, comparing it to some sort of burning ‘hell’. The hyperbolic comparison furthers the presentation of Betjeman’s hate.
Betjeman explores the lack of aspiration that the people of Slough have. The metaphor of ‘look up and see the stars’ can be interpreted as aiming for something higher in life. He implements a suggestion of beauty in these far-off stars, yet the people ‘daren’t’ look up and see them. They are grounded within the industrial town, living their lives in monotony. The crass ‘belch’ summarises this presentation, focusing on the disgusting and pitiful aspects of the people who live in Slough.
The people within stanza 9 are presented as ‘synthetic’ and false. Their persuits are completely superficial, focusing on ‘hair’ and ‘nails’ with ‘care’. The disapproval of Betjeman is palpable, with him looking angrily at the people wasting their lives on trivial matters. The falseness of the ‘painting’ is a reflection of the people themselves, the complete artificiality of those that live in the town being elevated.
The opening line of stanza 1 is echoed in the opening line of stanza 10. Betjeman’s concrete certainty that Slough should be ‘bomb[ed]’ being elevated through the repetition.
He seeks to return to the pastoral green that once embodied the city. Instead of the sprawling industry and grey housing, he wants to reestablish the city as a green space. This is suggested by ‘get it ready for the plough’, with ‘the plough’ implying reducing the city down to farmland fields.
The wistful ‘the cabbages are coming now’ is a comment of hope from Betjeman, he wishes the bombing had happened and the land could now be used as farmland. These final two lines work as a sort of fantasy, what could happen if the city were to be bombed.
The short final line of the ‘exhal[ing]’ earth is a sigh of relief in the poem. In Betjeman’s fantasy of destruction, the earth would thank the bombs, being pure and reduced back into the green space that Betjeman desires. The personification of the earth as giving a sigh of relief compounds this image. If Slough were to be bombed, Betjeman states that we would be doing ‘The earth’ a favour.