John Betjeman's "Westgate-On-Sea"

Updated on December 28, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Betjeman

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Westgate-On-Sea"

John Betjeman's "Westgate-On-Sea" consists of seven rimed stanzas, each with a rime scheme of ABCB. Betjeman has confessed his identification as a "poet and hack" in Who's Who.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

This poem, "Westgate-On-Sea," proves the "hack" identification as it provides an example of one of his most vacuous efforts to concoct a poetic piece employing the encumbered measures of fractious modernism. That Betjeman's interest in architecture often informs his poetry offers him no refuge in the piece that remains a stale piece of hackery

Westgate-On-Sea

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!"

Reading of "Westgate-On-Sea"

Commentary

First Stanza: Doubt Coupled With Hope

Hark, I hear the bells of Westgate,
I will tell you what they sigh,
Where those minarets and steeples
Prick the open Thanet sky.

The speaker addresses the reader/listener, stating that he is going to tell his audience what the "bells of Westgate" are saying—only he employs the odd, pathetic-fallacious term "sigh." That the speaker is oddly claiming that the bells "sigh" suggests a melancholy in the speaker, since the bells themselves cannot express the emotion of a sigh. Or perhaps his need for a rime with "sky" is to blame.

The speaker identifies the district of Thanet and remarks that "those minarets and steeples" are pricking the sky. Again, the bizarre notion that "steeples" "prick" the sky likely is rendering the speaker an atheist who would curse all religious imagery.

(Actually, the poet was a doubting Christian. Like Thomas Hardy, he doubted the Christian story, while hoping it was true.)

Second Stanza: Addressing the Bells

Happy bells of eighteen-ninety,
Bursting from your freestone tower!
Recalling laurel, shrubs and privet,
Red geraniums in flower.

The speaker continues the odd personification by calling them "[h]appy bells" in the second stanza: "Happy bells of eighteen-ninety." The "happy bells" remind him of flowers in bloom. Again, the speaker creates an odd juxtaposition that ones suspect he is straining to communicate or that he does not really know his own feelings.

They recall these plants because they are "[b]ursting from [their] freestone tower." He dramatizes the bells' performance, but now claiming they "burst," he contradicts his characterization of them as "sighing." A sigh never bursts; a sigh is the result slow exhalation.

The speaker has changed his mind about telling what the bells report and is now addressing the bells themselves, as he racks up more questions in the readers' minds than answers.

Third Stanza: Scampering Feet That Hide

Feet that scamper on the asphalt
Through the Borough Council grass,
Till they hide inside the shelter
Bright with ironwork and glass,

In the third stanza, the speaker changes his topic from the bells to scampering feet that ultimately hide. To whom these feet belong is not clear, but whoever the owners are, will likely remain a mystery, and it now seems that the speaker will turn to a discussion of the building material, leaving readers to guess again his motives and drives.

Fourth Stanza: A School Outing

Striving chains of ordered children
Purple by the sea-breeze made,
Striving on to prunes and suet
Past the shops on the Parade.

Perhaps the scampering feet in stanza three belong to the "ordered children" that now appear in stanza four. These children are likely part of a school outing as they are in ordered chains.

And they are becoming very cold as they march along the sea; the cold, sea breeze has turned their cheeks all purple as they march. Yet they continue moving on to what seem to be a rather unappetizing snack of "prunes and suet" waiting for them.

Fifth Stanza: Vacuity and Stereotype

Some with wire around their glasses,
Some with wire across their teeth,
Writhing frames for running noses
And the drooping lip beneath.

Continuing to describe the children, the speaker notes that some of the children are wearing wire-rimmed glasses and some are sporting braces on their teeth. Those two lines are stunning with their vacuity, as they remain as empty as any ever concocted by any poetaster.

The stanza finishes off as pointlessly as it began, place a bizarre image before the readers' minds: a "droopping lip" underneath an undulating "frame for running noses."

One wonders if the speaker has actually observes these images or if he is relying stereotypes of children with runny noses.

Sixth Stanza: Wiggling Woodwork

Church of England bells of Westgate!
On this balcony I stand,
White the woodwork wriggles round me,
Clocktowers rise on either hand.

In the sixth stanza, the speaker again addresses the bells, declaiming, "Church of England bells of Westgate!" He then reports that he is standing on a balcony and the white "woodwork wriggles" around him, and he see clocktowers on either side of him.

This pointless observation offers the postmodern slant of words for words' sake, for they shed no light on the speaker's message—nay proving that he in fact has no message.

Seventh Stanza: All for Naught

For me in my timber arbour
You have one more message yet,
"Plimsolls, plimsolls in the summer,
Oh galoshes in the wet!"

The speaker addresses the bells again, asserting that they have one more message for him, and the message is "Plimsolls, plimsolls in the summer, / Oh galoshes in the wet!"

The bells are telling him to wear sneakers when the weather is nice in summer, but rubber boots when it rains. Do the comedy and drama lead out of the forest or do the bells reveal a drunken stupor rivaling the calm before the storm of delusion, despair, and doubt? The speaker here has no clue.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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