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Best Famous John Betjeman Poems

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by John Betjeman | |

How To Get On In Society

 Phone for the fish knives, Norman
As cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.
Are the requisites all in the toilet? The frills round the cutlets can wait Till the girl has replenished the cruets And switched on the logs in the grate.
It's ever so close in the lounge dear, But the vestibule's comfy for tea And Howard is riding on horseback So do come and take some with me Now here is a fork for your pastries And do use the couch for your feet; I know that I wanted to ask you- Is trifle sufficient for sweet? Milk and then just as it comes dear? I'm afraid the preserve's full of stones; Beg pardon, I'm soiling the doileys With afternoon tea-cakes and scones.

by John Betjeman | |

Dilton Marsh Halt

 Was it worth keeping the Halt open,
We thought as we looked at the sky
Red through the spread of the cedar-tree,
With the evening train gone by?

Yes, we said, for in summer the anglers use it,
Two and sometimes three
Will bring their catches of rods and poles and perches
To Westbury, home for tea.
There isn't a porter.
The platform is made of sleepers.
The guard of the last train puts out the light And high over lorries and cattle the Halt unwinking Waits through the Wiltshire night.
O housewife safe in the comprehensive churning Of the Warminster launderette! O husband down at the depot with car in car-park! The Halt is waiting yet.
And when all the horrible roads are finally done for, And there's no more petrol left in the world to burn, Here to the Halt from Salisbury and from Bristol Steam trains will return.

by John Betjeman | |

An Edwardian Sunday Broomhill Sheffield

 High dormers are rising
So sharp and surprising,
And ponticum edges
The driveways of gravel;
Stone houses from ledges
Look down on ravines.
The vision can travel From gable to gable, Italianate mansion And turretted stable, A sylvan expansion So varied and jolly Where laurel and holly Commingle their greens.
Serene on a Sunday The sun glitters hotly O'er mills that on Monday With engines will hum.
By tramway excursion To Dore and to Totley In search of diversion The millworkers come; But in our arboreta The sounds are discreeter Of shoes upon stone - The worshippers wending To welcoming chapel, Companioned or lone; And over a pew there See loveliness lean, As Eve shows her apple Through rich bombazine; What love is born new there In blushing eighteen! Your prospects will please her, The iron-king's daughter, Up here on Broomhill; Strange Hallamshire, County Of dearth and of bounty, Of brown tumbling water And furnace and mill.
Your own Ebenezer Looks down from his height On back street and alley And chemical valley Laid out in the light; On ugly and pretty Where industry thrives In this hill-shadowed city Of razors and knives.

More great poems below...

by John Betjeman | |

Winter Landscape

 The three men coming down the winter hill
In brown, with tall poles and a pack of hounds
At heel, through the arrangement of the trees,
Past the five figures at the burning straw,
Returning cold and silent to their town,
Returning to the drifted snow, the rink
Lively with children, to the older men,
The long companions they can never reach,
The blue light, men with ladders, by the church
The sledge and shadow in the twilit street,
Are not aware that in the sandy time
To come, the evil waste of history
Outstretched, they will be seen upon the brow
Of that same hill: when all their company
Will have been irrecoverably lost,
These men, this particular three in brown
Witnessed by birds will keep the scene and say
By their configuration with the trees,
The small bridge, the red houses and the fire,
What place, what time, what morning occasion
Sent them into the wood, a pack of hounds
At heel and the tall poles upon their shoulders,
Thence to return as now we see them and
Ankle-deep in snow down the winter hill
Descend, while three birds watch and the fourth flies.

by John Betjeman | |

Winter Seascape

 The sea runs back against itself
With scarcely time for breaking wave
To cannonade a slatey shelf
And thunder under in a cave.
Before the next can fully burst The headwind, blowing harder still, Smooths it to what it was at first - A slowly rolling water-hill.
Against the breeze the breakers haste, Against the tide their ridges run And all the sea's a dappled waste Criss-crossing underneath the sun.
Far down the beach the ripples drag Blown backward, rearing from the shore, And wailing gull and shrieking shag Alone can pierce the ocean roar.
Unheard, a mongrel hound gives tongue, Unheard are shouts of little boys; What chance has any inland lung Against this multi-water noise? Here where the cliffs alone prevail I stand exultant, neutral, free, And from the cushion of the gale Behold a huge consoling sea.

by John Betjeman | |

A Bay In Anglesey

 The sleepy sound of a tea-time tide
Slaps at the rocks the sun has dried,

Too lazy, almost, to sink and lift
Round low peninsulas pink with thrift.
The water, enlarging shells and sand, Grows greener emerald out from land And brown over shadowy shelves below The waving forests of seaweed show.
Here at my feet in the short cliff grass Are shells, dried bladderwrack, broken glass, Pale blue squills and yellow rock roses.
The next low ridge that we climb discloses One more field for the sheep to graze While, scarcely seen on this hottest of days, Far to the eastward, over there, Snowdon rises in pearl-grey air.
Multiple lark-song, whispering bents, The thymy, turfy and salty scents And filling in, brimming in, sparkling and free The sweet susurration of incoming sea.

by John Betjeman | |


 We used to picnic where the thrift
Grew deep and tufted to the edge;
We saw the yellow foam flakes drift
In trembling sponges on the ledge
Below us, till the wind would lift
Them up the cliff and o’er the hedge.
Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea, Sun on our bathing dresses heavy with the wet, Squelch of the bladder-wrack waiting for the sea, Fleas around the tamarisk, an early cigarette.
From where the coastguard houses stood One used to see below the hill, The lichened branches of a wood In summer silver cool and still; And there the Shade of Evil could Stretch out at us from Shilla Mill.
Thick with sloe and blackberry, uneven in the light, Lonely round the hedge, the heavy meadow was remote, The oldest part of Cornwall was the wood as black as night, And the pheasant and the rabbit lay torn open at the throat.
But when a storm was at its height, And feathery slate was black in rain, And tamarisks were hung with light And golden sand was brown again, Spring tide and blizzard would unite And sea come flooding up the lane.
Waves full of treasure then were roaring up the beach, Ropes round our mackintoshes, waders warm and dry, We waited for the wreckage to come swirling into reach, Ralph, Vasey, Alistair, Biddy, John and I.
Then roller into roller curled And thundered down the rocky bay, And we were in a water world Of rain and blizzard, sea and spray, And one against the other hurled We struggled round to Greenaway.
Bless?d be St Enodoc, bless?d be the wave, Bless?d be the springy turf, we pray, pray to thee, Ask for our children all happy days you gave To Ralph, Vasey, Alistair, Biddy, John and me.

by John Betjeman | |

The Cottage Hospital

 At the end of a long-walled garden in a red provincial town,
A brick path led to a mulberry- scanty grass at its feet.
I lay under blackening branches where the mulberry leaves hung down Sheltering ruby fruit globes from a Sunday-tea-time heat.
Apple and plum espaliers basked upon bricks of brown; The air was swimming with insects, and children played in the street.
Out of this bright intentness into the mulberry shade Musca domestica (housefly) swung from the August light Slap into slithery rigging by the waiting spider made Which spun the lithe elastic till the fly was shrouded tight.
Down came the hairy talons and horrible poison blade And none of the garden noticed that fizzing, hopeless fight.
Say in what Cottage Hospital whose pale green walls resound With the tap upon polished parquet of inflexible nurses' feet Shall I myself by lying when they range the screens around? And say shall I groan in dying, as I twist the sweaty sheet? Or gasp for breath uncrying, as I feel my senses drown'd While the air is swimming with insects and children play in the street?

by John Betjeman | |

Back From Australia

 Cocooned in Time, at this inhuman height,
The packaged food tastes neutrally of clay,
We never seem to catch the running day
But travel on in everlasting night
With all the chic accoutrements of flight:
Lotions and essences in neat array
And yet another plastic cup and tray.
"Thank you so much.
Oh no, I'm quite all right".
At home in Cornwall hurrying autumn skies Leave Bray Hill barren, Stepper jutting bare, And hold the moon above the sea-wet sand.
The very last of late September dies In frosty silence and the hills declare How vast the sky is, looked at from the land.

by John Betjeman | |


 Hark, I hear the bells of Westgate,
I will tell you what they sigh,
Where those minarets and steeples
Prick the open Thanet sky.
Happy bells of eighteen-ninety, Bursting from your freestone tower! Recalling laurel, shrubs and privet, Red geraniums in flower.
Feet that scamper on the asphalt Through the Borough Council grass, Till they hide inside the shelter Bright with ironwork and glass, Striving chains of ordered children Purple by the sea-breeze made, Striving on to prunes and suet Past the shops on the Parade.
Some with wire around their glasses, Some with wire across their teeth, Writhing frames for running noses And the drooping lip beneath.
Church of England bells of Westgate! On this balcony I stand, White the woodwork wriggles round me, Clocktowers rise on either hand.
For me in my timber arbour You have one more message yet, "Plimsolls, plimsolls in the summer, Oh galoshes in the wet!"

by John Betjeman | |

Verses Turned...

 Across the wet November night
The church is bright with candlelight
And waiting Evensong.
A single bell with plaintive strokes Pleads louder than the stirring oaks The leafless lanes along.
It calls the hoirboys from their tea And villagers, the two or three, Damp down the kitchen fire, Let out the cat, and up the lane Go paddling through the gentle rain Of misty Oxfordshire.
How warm the many candles shine Of Samuel Dowbiggin's design For this interior neat, These high box pews of Georgian days Which screen us from the public gaze When we make answer meet; How gracefully their shadow falls On bold pilasters down the walls And on the pulpit high.
The chandeliers would twinkle gold As pre-Tractarian sermons roll'd Doctrinal, sound and dry.
From that west gallery no doubt The viol and serpent tooted out The Tallis tune to Ken, And firmly at the end of prayers The clerk below the pulpit stairs Would thunder out "Amen.
" But every wand'ring thought will cease Before the noble alterpiece With carven swags array'd, For there in letters all may read The Lord's Commandments, Prayer and Creed, And decently display'd.
On country morningd sharp and clear The penitent in faith draw near And kneeling here below Partake the heavenly banquet spread Of sacremental Wine and Bread And Jesus' presence know.
And must that plaintive bell in vain Plead loud along the dripping lane? And must the building fall? Not while we love the church and live And of our charity will give Our much, our more, our all.

by John Betjeman | |

Felixstowe or The Last of Her Order

 With one consuming roar along the shingle
The long wave claws and rakes the pebbles down
To where its backwash and the next wave mingle,
A mounting arch of water weedy-brown
Against the tide the off-shore breezes blow.
Oh wind and water, this is Felixstowe.
In winter when the sea winds chill and shriller Than those of summer, all their cold unload Full on the gimcrack attic of the villa Where I am lodging off the Orwell Road, I put my final shilling in the meter And only make my loneliness completer.
In eighteen ninety-four when we were founded, Counting our Reverend Mother we were six, How full of hope we were and prayer-surrounded "The Little Sisters of the Hanging Pyx".
We built our orphanage.
We built our school.
Now only I am left to keep the rule.
Here in the gardens of the Spa Pavillion Warm in the whisper of the summer sea, The cushioned scabious, a deep vermillion, With white pins stuck in it, looks up at me A sun-lit kingdom touched by butterflies And so my memory of the winter dies.
Across the grass the poplar shades grow longer And louder clang the waves along the coast.
The band packs up.
The evening breeze is stronger And all the world goes home to tea and toast.
I hurry past a cakeshop's tempting scones Bound for the red brick twilight of St.
"Thou knowest my down sitting and mine uprising" Here where the white light burns with steady glow Safe from the vain world's silly sympathising, Safe with the love I was born to know, Safe from the surging of the lonely sea My heart finds rest, my heart finds rest in Thee.

by John Betjeman | |

The Hon. Sec.

 The flag that hung half-mast today
Seemed animate with being
As if it knew for who it flew
And will no more be seeing.
He loved each corner of the links- The stream at the eleventh, The grey-green bents, the pale sea-pinks, The prospect from the seventh; To the ninth tee the uphill climb, A grass and sandy stairway, And at the top the scent of thyme And long extent of fairway.
He knew how on a summer day The sea's deep blue grew deeper, How evening shadows over Bray Made that round hill look steeper.
He knew the ocean mists that rose And seemed for ever staying, When moaned the foghorn from Trevose And nobody was playing; The flip of cards on winter eves, The whisky and the scoring, As trees outside were stripped of leaves And heavy seas were roaring.
He died when early April light Showed red his garden sally And under pale green spears glowed white His lillies of the valley; The garden where he used to stand And where the robin waited To fly and perch upon his hand And feed till it was sated.
The Times would never have the space For Ned's discreet achievements; The public prints are not the place For intimate bereavements.
A gentle guest, a willing host, Affection deeply planted - It's strange that those we miss the most Are those we take for granted.

by John Betjeman | |

Meditation on the A30

 A man on his own in a car
Is revenging himself on his wife;
He open the throttle and bubbles with dottle
and puffs at his pitiful life

She's losing her looks very fast,
she loses her temper all day;
that lorry won't let me get past,
this Mini is blocking my way.
"Why can't you step on it and shift her! I can't go on crawling like this! At breakfast she said that she wished I was dead- Thank heavens we don't have to kiss.
"I'ld like a nice blonde on my knee And one who won't argue or nag.
Who dares to come hooting at me? I only give way to a Jag.
"You're barmy or plastered, I'll pass you, you bastard- I will overtake you.
I will!" As he clenches his pipe, his moment is ripe And the corner's accepting its kill.

by John Betjeman | |

Sun and Fun

 I walked into the night-club in the morning; 
There was kummel on the handle of the door.
The ashtrays were unemptied.
The cleaning unattempted, And a squashed tomato sandwich on the floor.
I pulled aside the thick magenta curtains -So Regency, so Regency, my dear – And a host of little spiders Ran a race across the ciders To a box of baby ‘pollies by the beer.
Oh sun upon the summer-going by-pass Where ev’rything is speeding to the sea, And wonder beyond wonder That here where lorries thunder The sun should ever percolate to me.
When Boris used to call in his Sedanca, When Teddy took me down to his estate When my nose excited passion, When my clothes were in the fashion, When my beaux were never cross if I was late, There was sun enough for lazing upon beaches, There was fun enough for far into the night.
But I’m dying now and done for, What on earth was all the fun for? For I’m old and ill and terrified and tight.

by John Betjeman | |

A Shropshire Lad

 The gas was on in the Institute,
The flare was up in the gym,
A man was running a mineral line,
A lass was singing a hymn,
When Captain Webb the Dawley man,
Captain Webb from Dawley,
Came swimming along the old canal
That carried the bricks to Lawley.
Swimming along - Swimming along - Swimming along from Severn, And paying a call at Dawley Bank while swimming along to Heaven.
The sun shone low on the railway line And over the bricks and stacks And in at the upstairs windows Of the Dawley houses' backs When we saw the ghost of Captain Webb, Webb in a water sheeting, Come dripping along in a bathing dress To the Saturday evening meeting.
Dripping along - Dripping along - To the Congregational Hall; Dripping and still he rose over the sill and faded away in a wall.
There wasn't a man in Oakengates That hadn't got hold of the tale, And over the valley in Ironbridge, And round by Coalbrookdale, How CAptain Webb the Dawley man, Captain Webb from Dawley, Rose rigid and dead from the old canal That carries the bricks to Lawley.
Rigid and dead - Rigid and dead - To the Saturday congregation, Paying a call at Dawley Bank on the way to his destination.

by John Betjeman | |

In A Bath Teashop

 "Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another—
Let us hold hands and look.
" She such a very ordinary little woman; He such a thumping crook; But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels In the teashop's ingle-nook.

by John Betjeman | |


 The first-class brains of a senior civil servant
Shiver and shatter and fall
As the steering column of his comfortable Humber
Batters in the bony wall.
All those delicate re-adjustments "On the one hand, if we proceed With the ad hoc policy hitherto adapted To individual need.
On the other hand, too rigid an arrangement Might, of itself, perforce.
I would like to submit for the Minister's concurrence The following alternative course, Subject to revision and reconsideration In the light of our experience gains.
" And this had to happen at the corner where the by-pass Comes into Egham out of Staines.
That very near miss for an All Souls' Fellowship The recent compensation of a 'K' - The first-class brains of a senior civil servant Are sweetbread on the road today.

by John Betjeman | |


 When melancholy Autumn comes to Wembley
And electric trains are lighted after tea
The poplars near the stadium are trembly
With their tap and tap and whispering to me,
Like the sound of little breakers
Spreading out along the surf-line
When the estuary's filling
With the sea.
Then Harrow-on-the-Hill's a rocky island And Harrow churchyard full of sailor's graves And the constant click and kissing of the trolley buses hissing Is the level of the Wealdstone turned to waves And the rumble of the railway Is the thunder of the rollers As they gather for the plunging Into caves There's a storm cloud to the westward over Kenton, There's a line of harbour lights at Perivale, Is it rounding rough Pentire in a flood of sunset fire The little fleet of trawlers under sail? Can those boats be only roof tops As they stream along the skyline In a race for port and Padstow With the gale?

by John Betjeman | |

Inexpensive Progress

 Encase your legs in nylons,
Bestride your hills with pylons
O age without a soul;
Away with gentle willows
And all the elmy billows
That through your valleys roll.
Let's say goodbye to hedges And roads with grassy edges And winding country lanes; Let all things travel faster Where motor car is master Till only Speed remains.
Destroy the ancient inn-signs But strew the roads with tin signs 'Keep Left,' 'M4,' 'Keep Out!' Command, instruction, warning, Repetitive adorning The rockeried roundabout; For every raw obscenity Must have its small 'amenity,' Its patch of shaven green, And hoardings look a wonder In banks of floribunda With floodlights in between.
Leave no old village standing Which could provide a landing For aeroplanes to roar, But spare such cheap defacements As huts with shattered casements Unlived-in since the war.
Let no provincial High Street Which might be your or my street Look as it used to do, But let the chain stores place here Their miles of black glass facia And traffic thunder through.
And if there is some scenery, Some unpretentious greenery, Surviving anywhere, It does not need protecting For soon we'll be erecting A Power Station there.
When all our roads are lighted By concrete monsters sited Like gallows overhead, Bathed in the yellow vomit Each monster belches from it, We'll know that we are dead.

by John Betjeman | |

The Olympic Girl

 The sort of girl I like to see
Smiles down from her great height at me.
She stands in strong, athletic pose And wrinkles her retrouss? nose.
Is it distaste that makes her frown, So furious and freckled, down On an unhealthy worm like me? Or am I what she likes to see? I do not know, though much I care, xxxxxxxx.
would I were (Forgive me, shade of Rupert Brooke) An object fit to claim her look.
Oh! would I were her racket press'd With hard excitement to her breast And swished into the sunlit air Arm-high above her tousled hair, And banged against the bounding ball "Oh! Plung!" my tauten'd strings would call, "Oh! Plung! my darling, break my strings For you I will do brilliant things.
" And when the match is over, I Would flop beside you, hear you sigh; And then with what supreme caress, You'd tuck me up into my press.
Fair tigress of the tennis courts, So short in sleeve and strong in shorts, Little, alas, to you I mean, For I am bald and old and green.

by John Betjeman | |


 Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta's and Pardon's
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt's edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium - rural Middlesex again.
Well cut Windsmoor flapping lightly, Jacqmar scarf of mauve and green Hiding hair which, Friday nightly, Delicately drowns in Dreen; Fair Elaine the bobby-soxer, Fresh-complexioned with Innoxa, Gains the garden - father's hobby - Hangs her Windsmoor in the lobby, Settles down to sandwich supper and the television screen.
Gentle Brent, I used to know you Wandering Wembley-wards at will, Now what change your waters show you In the meadowlands you fill! Recollect the elm-trees misty And the footpaths climbing twisty Under cedar-shaded palings, Low laburnum-leaned-on railings Out of Northolt on and upward to the heights of Harrow hill.
Parish of enormous hayfields Perivale stood all alone, And from Greenford scent of mayfields Most enticingly was blown Over market gardens tidy, Taverns for the bona fide, Cockney singers, cockney shooters, Murray Poshes, Lupin Pooters, Long in Kelsal Green and Highgate silent under soot and stone.

by John Betjeman | |


 I am a young executive.
No cuffs than mine are cleaner; I have a Slimline brief-case and I use the firm's Cortina.
In every roadside hostelry from here to Burgess Hill The ma?tres d'h?tel all know me well, and let me sign the bill.
You ask me what it is I do.
Well, actually, you know, I'm partly a liaison man, and partly P.
Essentially, I integrate the current export drive And basically I'm viable from ten o'clock till five.
For vital off-the-record work - that's talking transport-wise - I've a scarlet Aston-Martin - and does she go? She flies! Pedestrians and dogs and cats, we mark them down for slaughter.
I also own a speedboat which has never touched the water.
She's built of fibre-glass, of course.
I call her 'Mandy Jane' After a bird I used to know - No soda, please, just plain - And how did I acquire her? Well, to tell you about that And to put you in the picture, I must wear my other hat.
I do some mild developing.
The sort of place I need Is a quiet country market town that's rather run to seed A luncheon and a drink or two, a little savoir faire - I fix the Planning Officer, the Town Clerk and the Mayor.
And if some Preservationist attempts to interfere A 'dangerous structure' notice from the Borough Engineer Will settle any buildings that are standing in our way - The modern style, sir, with respect, has really come to stay.

by John Betjeman | |

Devonshire Street W.1

 The heavy mahogany door with its wrought-iron screen
And the sound is rich, sympathetic, discreet.
The sun still shines on this eighteenth-century scene With Edwardian faience adornment -- Devonshire Street.
No hope.
And the X-ray photographs under his arm Confirm the message.
His wife stands timidly by.
The opposite brick-built house looks lofty and calm Its chimneys steady against the mackerel sky.
No hope.
And the iron knob of this palisade So cold to the touch, is luckier now than he "Oh merciless, hurrying Londoners! Why was I made For the long and painful deathbed coming to me?" She puts her fingers in his, as, loving and silly At long-past Kensington dances she used to do "It's cheaper to take the tube to Piccadilly And then we can catch a nineteen or twenty-two".

by John Betjeman | |

Five OClock Shadow

 This is the time of day when we in the Mens's ward
Think "one more surge of the pain and I give up the fight.
" Whe he who strggles for breath can struggle less strongly: This is the time of day which is worse than night.
A haze of thunder hangs on the hospital rose-beds, A doctors' foursome out of the links is played, Safe in her sitting-room Sister is putting her feet up: This is the time of day when we feel betrayed.
Below the windows, loads of loving relations Rev in the car park, changing gear at the bend, Making for home and a nice big tea and the telly: "Well, we've done what we can.
It can't be long till the end.
" This is the time of day when the weight of bedclothes Is harder to bear than a sharp incision of steel.
The endless anonymous croak of a cheap transistor Intesifies the lonely terror I feel.