‘The Village Inn’ by John Betjeman is a twelve stanza poem that is divide into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains eight; the second, eighteen; and the next ten have four each. Betjeman chose to imbue this piece with a very specific rhyme scheme. The lines conform to the pattern of AABBCCDD and so on, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit.
There are a few moments in which the rhymes are weaker, or the pattern changes. For instance, the first three lines of the second stanza. Here, they are a rhyming triplet rather than a couplet. This was done in order to emphasize the speaker’s important statement about the P.R.O., that he is only in this for the money.
The poem begins with the speaker relaying the words of a Public Relations Officer who is trying to sell the public on the new changes made to the inn. Everything he says is intensely hypocritical, as is revealed through the next eleven stanzas.
The speaker walks the reader through what the inn used to look like and what it looks like now. The changes have been immense, and not for the better. Their history has been lost and replaced by hygienic decorations and meaningless signs and designs.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes and Symbols
One of the most prominent themes of this piece is change. This, in combination with nostalgia, form the basis of ‘The Village Inn.’ The speaker of this piece relays his beliefs about the numerous changes made to an English landmark, the inn. This particular inn he remembers well and he is able to speak on all the moments that were held in its walls. There are photographs of happy times and tables and chairs that have been privy to many conversations.
These different items the speaker remembers inside the inn symbolize a true heritage. This is something meaningful to the speaker, and as the P.R.O states, to the community at large. He looks back on these times with a clear sense of nostalgia. They are not coming again, due to the passage of time and the changes that the P.R.O., or more accurately, the company he works for, have made.
Analysis of The Village Inn
“The village inn, the dear old inn,
So ancient, clean and free from sin,
Ah, more than church or school or hall,
The village inn’s the heart of all.”
In the first lines of ‘The Village Inn’ the main speaker relays the words of the “P.R.O” or Public Relations Officer. This person’s role in the narrative and their general moral character is at the heart of the story. Partially, the way this person views the world and what they hold as important, especially considering their progression, is revealed in the first stanza. The PRO makes an impassioned speech, promoting all the pros of “the village inn.” It is revealed later that the inn is called “Bear.”
The man is trying to sell the listener on this place, playing into one’s human need for consistency and appreciation of nostalgia and representations of the past. He speaks of the inn as being a “dear” place that is rooted in the history of the area. Never has “sin” touched the building, or so he says. He tries to place the inn in the centre of the listener’s cultural history. It was always he says, the “True centre of our rural life.”
In the next lines, he gives examples of the kinds of charming rustic people that visit the inn. These attempts at convincing the listener/s over onto his side are clearly contrived. He paints an idealized image of life by speaking about “Hodge” and his discussions of “Marx and nuclear fission.” The fact that he refers to “Hodge” and those like him as “rustic” shows the stereotypical and elitist air to the man’s monologue.
In the last lines, he directly refers to the inn as the “heart of all.” The speaker is not asking the listener to consider it the heart of the town, he is telling them that it always has been. It is more important “than church or school or hall.”
So spake the brewer’s P. R. O.,
A man who really ought to know,
‘Twas full of prose that sang the praise
Of coaching inns in Georgian days,
In the first lines of the second stanza of ‘The Village Inn’ the speaker uses the acronym, “P.R.O.” As stated above this stands for Public Relations Officer. He was the person whose words made up the first six line stanza. The main speaker of this piece, whose judgments on “Bear” and the P.R.O. will make up the rest of the poem, clearly looks down on this man. He has a very bad opinion of him. This is shown when he says that the P.R.O. is,
A man who really ought to know,
For he is paid for saying so.
The speaker does not believe that the P.R.O. really thinks that the inn is the centre of the town. In fact, he thinks he doesn’t care about the town at all. This is just his current job and he is fulfilling his duties to his employer by acting this way.
When the P.R.O.’s speech is done he gives the speaker, who was in the audience listening to his spiel a “lovely coloured booklet free.” He takes a mocking tone when referring to this “free” item. Especially because it contains all the same sentiments the P.R.O. claimed to possess. The book relates the inn back to those in the Georgian days, as if connecting it to a wider history automatically makes valuable.
Showing how public-houses are
More modern than the motor-car,
More English than the weald or wold
For thinking village inns a bore,
And village bores more sure to roam
To village inns than stay at home.
In the next lines, the speaker describes what else was in the book he got for free. There were examples of how “public-houses” are more English than anything else one stereotypically categorizes as English. One of the examples is the “weald or wold.” These two place are heavily wooded uncultivated forest and moorland. The tradition of the inn, which is meant to support the P.R.O’s argument, is old. It increases in value because, supposedly, it is “run for love’ and not for money.
The following lines show the speaker’s immediate reaction to the P.R.O’s argument. He took it in and felt what he was supposed to feel. That he was,
rotten to the very core
For thinking village inns a bore,
His tale continues on as he discussions his immediate decision to go to the bar in question and see how he feels about it now.
And then I thought I must be wrong,
In neon lights is written “Bear”.
In order to figure out how exactly he feels about inns, the speaker goes to “that old village alehouse.” There are neon lights on the front, a very big step away from the historical image the P.R.O. was trying to imbue the site with. Here, is where the reader is informed that the name of the inn in question is “Bear.”
Ah, where’s the inn that once I knew
For fear the place would fall?
The speaker does not find what the P.R.O. said he would. There are none of the attributes the speaker remembers from years ago. He remembers the place as having,
brick and chalky wall
Up which the knobbly pear-tree grew
This would fit into the image that the officer was trying to claim they sustained. Those elements aren’t there though. This is made clear by the format of the stanza as a rhetorical question.
Oh, that old pot-house isn’t there,
In Early Georgian style.
In his mind, this speaker imagines what the P.R.O. would say now to excuse the changes that have come over the place. The man might state that it “wasn’t worth our while” to maintain the same inn (contrary to the opening statement). Instead, they have “have rebuilt “The Bear” / In Early Georgian style.” This is a very straightforward kind of architecture usually seen in larger, brick homes. The homes are often angular in a very mundane way and sports columns and chimneys.
But winter jasmine used to cling
The crudely painted sign.
The speaker tries to remember what the building actually looked like before the hypocritical P.R.O. and the company he works for allowed it to be remodeled. There was jasmine that clung onto the sides. It was bombarded by rain, as was the “crudely painted sigh” that swung over the door. These are the elements he sees as being critical to an English inn.
And where’s the roof of golden thatch?
Each sunset with their own?
The seventh stanza of ‘The Village Inn’ contains three more questions. These are also directed at the listener, but should really be put to the P.R.O. The speaker likely knows that there is no point in doing that as he will only be rebuffed. He wants to know what happened to the,
roof of golden thatch?
The chimney-stack of stone?
Also, he wonders where the “crown-glass panes” that used to be on the windows have gone. These, he remembers used to “match” the sunset with “their own.” That speaks to the kind of imagery on the panes. There are enough details in these lines for a reader to get a fairly comprehensive picture of what the place used to look like.
Oh now the walls are red and smart,
And visible for miles.
Just as before, the next stanza goes back to describing on the negative parts of the inn. The walls now, rather than made of brick and covered in chalk are “red and smart.” It has been cleaned up and green or “emerald tiles” have been set for the roof. The neon sign, in particular, is strange to the speaker. It is “visible for miles,” therefore advertising all the changes that have been made.
The bar inside was papered green,
The woodfire used to smoke.
The ninth stanza makes great use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a line. The word “The” starts all four of these lines, listing out the details of the inside of the bar. They come one after another, emphasizing elements of the inn that used to make it appealing.
These included the paper on the walls, the light filtering through the smoke, and the woodfire. Clearly, these are things that the new developers did not maintain.
And photographs from far and wide
And Kitchener of Khartoum.
The tenth stanza continues by describing what the inside of the inn used to look like. There were “photographs from far and wide.” These likely spoke to the true history of the building and the town. There were images of “football” and the “church.” They symbolized a specific, meaningful lineage. The same can be said about the other interior decorations. These things probably seemed meaningless to the developers who cared and care only about making a profit.
Our air-conditioned bars are lined
Hygienic and ethereal.
Now though, things have changed. The bar is “air-conditioned” and there is “washable material” on everything. These two features alone seem antithetical to the previous atmosphere of the inn.
The “taste” of the establishment now seems “refined” as someone from far out of town selected “steel” stools and made everything “Hygienic and ethereal.”
Hurrah, hurrah, for hearts of oak!
In sanit’ry conditions.
The last stanza mimics a chant or song. The first part of which might actually have been heard in the bar. This could’ve been sung by drinking men and women, celebrating their lives together. In this version of the verse, though, the speaker adds on,
For here’s a place to sit and soak
In sanit’ry conditions.
This speaks to the strangeness of the entire situation. It is clear that he does not see anything appealing about the new set up of the inn and does not believe that anyone will enjoy being there anymore. Who would really want to escape to a place so hygienic and free from culture?