Tag: Sir John Betjeman

The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom

Sunday, 11 August, 2019

The poem, The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922, by Sir John Betjeman, is set in west County Waterford, with each stanza closing with the line “Dungarvan in the rain.” Dungarvan is a coastal town and harbour in Waterford and it’s also the administrative centre of the county.

The work recounts the story of Betjeman’s unrequited love for a woman called Greta Hellstrom, but the woman in the poem is, in fact, Emily Sears, a great beauty who later married Ion Villiers-Stuart. Betjeman knew them both. He used to visit them on Helvick Head and stay at The Yellow House fishing lodge, which was then owned by the Villiers-Stuarts. The poet tries to hide the identity of the woman by describing her as Swedish when, in fact, she was American, and by setting the poem in 1922. He was at school aged 16 in that year, and he only got to know the Villiers-Stuart couple in the early 1940s. The final lines of the poem show the poet’s acceptance of Emily’s decision to remain friends and never to be lovers: “You were right to keep us parted:/ Bound and parted we remain,/Aching, if unbroken hearted-/ Oh! Dungarvan in the rain.”

The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922

Slanting eyes of blue, unweeping,
Stands my Swedish beauty where
Gusts of Irish rain are sweeping
Round the statue in the square;
Corner boys against the walling
Watch us furtively in vain,
And the Angelus is calling
Through Dungarvan in the rain.

Gales along the Comeragh Mountains,
Beating sleet on creaking signs,
Iron gutters turned to fountains,
And the windscreen laced with lines,
And the evening getting later,
And the ache-increased again,
As the distance grows the greater
From Dungarvan in the rain.

There is no one now to wonder
What eccentric sits in state
While the beech trees rock and thunder
Round his gate-lodge and his gate.
Gone – the ornamental plaster,
Gone – the overgrown demesne
And the car goes fast, and faster,
From Dungarvan in the rain.

Had I kissed and drawn you to me,
Had you yielded warm for cold,
What a power had pounded through me
As I stroked your streaming gold!
You were right to keep us parted:
Bound and parted we remain,
Aching, if unbroken hearted –
Oh! Dungarvan in the rain!

Sir John Betjeman


Shamrock of stone

Friday, 17 March, 2017 0 Comments

When the British poet and war-time diplomat Sir John Betjeman visited the west of Ireland in the 1940s, he stayed with Lord Hemphill and his beautiful American wife Emily. She had met her titled husband while riding in the Borghese Gardens in Rome in 1926 and they married a year later in New York. The couple then moved to Tulira Castle, the Victorian bastion built in Galway by Edward Martyn and immortalized in George Moore’s Hail and Farewell. By the time Betjeman arrived, however, Emily was involved in a passionate affair with Ion Villiers-Stuart, as she revealed to him when they cycled through the primeval-looking landscape of The Burren. That day’s events led to one of Betjeman’s finest poems, Ireland with Emily. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!

Ireland with Emily

Bells are booming down the bohreens,
White the mist along the grass,
Now the Julias, Maeves and Maureens
Move between the fields to Mass.
Twisted trees of small green apple
Guard the decent whitewashed chapel,
Gilded gates and doorway grained,
Pointed windows richly stained
With many-coloured Munich glass.

See the black-shawled congregations
On the broidered vestment gaze
Murmer past the painted stations
As Thy Sacred Heart displays
Lush Kildare of scented meadows,
Roscommon, thin in ash-tree shadows,
And Westmeath the lake-reflected,
Spreading Leix the hill-protected,
Kneeling all in silver haze?

In yews and woodbine, walls and guelder,
Nettle-deep the faithful rest,
Winding leagues of flowering elder,
Sycamore with ivy dressed,
Ruins in demesnes deserted,
Bog-surrounded bramble-skirted —
Townlands rich or townlands mean as
These, oh, counties of them screen us
In the Kingdom of the West.

Stony seaboard, far and foreign,
Stony hills poured over space,
Stony outcrop of the Burren,
Stones in every fertile place,
Little fields with boulders dotted,
Grey-stone shoulders saffron-spotted,
Stone-walled cabins thatched with reeds,
Where a Stone Age people breeds
The last of Europe’s stone age race.

Has it held, the warm June weather?
Draining shallow sea-pools dry,
When we bicycled together
Down the bohreens fuchsia-high.
Till there rose, abrupt and lonely,
A ruined abbey, chancel only,
Lichen-crusted, time-befriended,
Soared the arches, splayed and splendid,
Romanesque against the sky.

There in pinnacled protection,
One extinguished family waits
A Church of Ireland resurrection
By the broken, rusty gates.
Sheepswool, straw and droppings cover,
Graves of spinster, rake and lover,
Whose fantastic mausoleum,
Sings its own seablown Te Deum,
In and out the slipping slates.

John Betjeman (1906 – 1984)

The Building, Ballylanders, Limerick, Ireland


The Easter bells enlarge the sky

Sunday, 27 March, 2016 0 Comments

The poetry of Sir John Betjeman is marked by nostalgia and humour. Loneliness, however, is unusually bleak, but it expresses a quintessential British stoicism, which is fitting for an Easter that is being celebrated in the shadow of loss and sorrow.

Loneliness

The last year’s leaves are on the beech:
The twigs are black; the cold is dry;
To deeps byond the deepest reach
The Easter bells enlarge the sky.
O ordered metal clatter-clang!
Is yours the song the angels sang?
You fill my heart with joy and grief –
Belief! Belief! And unbelief…
And, though you tell me I shall die,
You say not how or when or why.

Indifferent the finches sing,
Unheeding roll the lorries past:
What misery will this year bring
Now spring is in the air at last?
For, sure as blackthorn bursts to snow,
Cancer in some of us will grow,
The tasteful crematorium door
Shuts out for some the furnace roar;
But church-bells open on the blast
Our loneliness, so long and vast.

Sir John Betjeman (1906 – 1984)

Easter


Grey-stone shoulders saffron-spotted

Monday, 20 July, 2015 0 Comments

We’d like to thank Noel and Patricia and Shane Connolly for an excellent experience of the Burren. For them, here’s an excerpt from Ireland With Emily by Sir John Betjeman:

Stony seaboard, far and foreign,
Stony hills poured over space,
Stony outcrop of the Burren,
Stones in every fertile place,
Little fields with boulders dotted,
Grey-stone shoulders saffron-spotted,
Stone-walled cabins thatched with reeds,
Where a Stone Age people breeds
The last of Europe’s stone age race.

The Burren


Chelsea, before it became part of Londongrad

Friday, 14 March, 2014 0 Comments

In light of Sunday’s illegal referendum in Crimea, what now for the West? That is the question. Writing in the Financial Times, John Gapper makes a suggestion: “It could impose asset freezes and visa bans on a few selected oligarchs (perhaps seizing Chelsea Football Club from Roman Abramovich, the minerals magnate).”

Long before Chelsea became the home of resource thieves and their fawning retinues, Sir John Betjeman, the British Poet Laureate, was casting a wary eye on the borough. The transformation of spelling through texting was still a way off in 1977, but punk was in the air and Betjeman was convinced that “the kiddiz know the sound”. And for all those Stamford Bridge fans who think that there is no tomorrow, he reminds them, in gleeful anticipation of the inferno of the oligarchs, that “Satan stokes his furnace underground”. Here’s Chelsea 1977 from from The Best of Betjeman.

Chelsea 1977

The street was bathed in winter sunset pink
The air was redolent of kitchen sink
Between the dog-mess heaps I picked my way
To watch the dying embers of the day
Glow over Chelsea, crimson load on load
All Brangwynesque across the long King’s Road.
Deep in myself I felt a sense of doom
Fearful of death I trudge towards the tomb.
The earth beneath my feet is hardly soil
But outstretched chicken-netting coil on coil
Covering cables, sewage-pipes and wires
While underneath burn hell’s eternal fires.
Snap, crackle! pop! the kiddiz know the sound
And Satan stokes his furnace underground.

Sir John Betjeman (1906 — 1984)