‘Upper Lambourne’ by John Betjeman is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, or sextets. Each of these sextets follows a particular rhyme scheme. They conform to the pattern of ABCBDB, alternating end sounds as the lines progress.
A reader should take note of the repetition of rhyme within these lines and how the second, fourth and sixth lines help unify each stanza. With just a few instances of rhyme Betjeman is able to contribute significantly to the rhythm of the text without distracting from the content.
In regards to the meter, there is no single pattern that runs through the text. Instead, the lines are all of a similar length, ranging from seven to around ten syllables per line.
Poetic Techniques in Upper Lambourne
One of the techniques that Betjeman makes use of in ‘Upper Lambourne’ is anaphora. This is another kind of repetition which appears at the beginning of lines. It can be seen when a word or phrase is used multiple times, such as with the phrase “Up the” in the first stanza and “Leathery” in the third.
There are also instances in which the poet uses caesura, or a pause within the middle of the metrical line. For instance, in line three of the third stanza there is a distinctive break with five syllables on either side. The same can be seen in the fifth line of the fourth stanza.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Upper Lambourne
The poem begins with the the speaker depicting the village through its trees. This is an image that is returned to again and again. There are ash trees and elder trees. The former is “Feathery” and the latter is “neglected.” The speaker spends a lot of time describing the movements of the “shade” or shadow. It travels down the tree, stretching out behind it, and then ends streaking on a particular grave. It is not entirely clear who this grave belongs to but it is someone who trained horses and is buried in the area.
There is something nostalgic about these lines, as if the speaker is longing for a time in the past. The poem concludes with the speaker providing the reader with a few more images of the village and connecting the sounds of the trees to the waves on the southern coast.
Analysis of Upper Lambourne
In the first stanza of ‘Upper Lambourne’ the poet’s speaker follows the path of nature through a landscape. First, the reader is taken up into an ash tree alongside a reaching piece of ivy. The same movement is mirrored when the sun climbs up the ivy and the day reaches its peak. “Twenty-thousand patterning” echoes out around the “valley” when the breeze blows. This is likely the sound of the leaves brushing up next to one another. He describes the,
Feathery ash, neglected elder,
Shift the shade and make it run –
These are very interesting descriptions, ones that a reader would not necessarily expect. They paint a clear image, or at least a sensory one, of what these trees look, sound and feel like. The last line of the first sextet describes how the shadows from the mid-day sun are moved and bounced around the trees. Due to their height, they are able to cast long shadows into the distance, making it seem like they are running.
In the next set of lines the phrase “Shift the shade” is repeated, another instance of anaphora. The shade goes “toward the nettles” and from there it is “set free.” There is a great deal of personification going on in these lines, albeit subtly. By describing the shade as “free” or the tree as “neglected” Betjeman is trying to tap into human emotion and make a reader feel greater empathy towards this scene.
From the trees the speaker moves down and it is revealed that the scene is taking place, at least in part, in a cemetery. There is a “stained Carrara headstone.” Carrara is a popular, high quality kind of marble and now it is “streaked” by the shadows that come off the nettles in the trees far above.
There is someone of note buried here, and it is not entirely clear who. With the few details, and some knowledge about Lambourne, England, one can assume that this was a horse trainer. He is buried in the town and was quite successful in training winners.
The third stanza of ‘Upper Lambourne’ starts with repetition at the beginning of the first three lines, all of which begin with “Leathery.” There is a good example of alliteration in the first and second lies with the letter “l” beginning four words very close together.
The speaker describes most of the town, especially its natural elements as being “leathery.” There are the “Leathery limbs” and the “Leathery skin” then last, the “Leathery breeches, spreading stables.” These are references to the natural landscape as well as to horse racing. There is a certain amount of nostalgia present in these lines. Perhaps some period of great success in this sport is over. Things have moved on from when the person mentioned in the second stanza trained winners.
The fourth stanza of ‘Upper Lambourne’ returns to the trees and the landscape the city is situated in. Again, it is called “leathery” and there is a reference to the “sarsen stone.” These are stones that are found throughout the UK and are the remains of a post-glacial cap of rock that once covered most of England. The word is a shortening of the actual phrase, “Saracen stone.” These can be found around the area, as well as “Edwardian plantations.”
The plantations and stones are far below the ash trees that are all around “Lambourne.” The trees “coniferously moan” as the breeze goes through them.
As to make the swelling downland,
Far surrounding, seem their own.
The last lines of ‘Upper Lambourne’ are vague but probably refer to the sounds of the ocean. The shoreline, which is south of Lambourne, is “downland,” or open chalky hills.The speaker feels that the sounds of the trees are quite similar to those of the ocean. The ocean is to the south of the city and surrounding the island.