Monday, 11 May 2015

John Betjeman at St Enodoc

‘The sky widens to Cornwall’. Because the tide is out, the ferry sets us down on the beach, well short of the slipway at Rock. I enquire from the ferryman the way to St Enodoc, and he points us towards Brea Hill, where we must climb over the dunes, take the path onto the golf links and then follow the fairway. This we do, facing into the fine rain that blows off the Atlantic and up the Camel estuary towards Padstow. The dunes are steep and take some negotiating, but at the top we see something I have never witnessed at close quarters before: first one, then two larks ascending. They take off vertically from the heather; I hear them before I see them, but I am near enough to see their beaks open and their throats vibrating as they sing. Rising a few feet at a time, they steady themselves in mid-air, then continue their ascension, singing all the time. The exaltation is mine as much as it’s theirs:

Lark song and sea sounds in the air,
And splendour, splendour everywhere.

These aren’t my words, though, they’re John Betjeman’s. Earlier that day I had been walking along the clifftops on the other side of the estuary, aiming for (but not reaching) Trevose Head, last visited during a Cornish family holiday fifty years ago. I recently led a study day on Betjeman: preparing for it, I read with attention some poems he had written about this same coastline in the same year I had visited them. 1966 must have been a bad year for Betjeman. ‘Tregardock’ begins with sea-fog and ‘The moan of warning from Trevose’:

Only the shore and cliffs are clear.
   Gigantic slithering shelves of slate
In waiting awfulness appear
   Like journalism full of hate.

At the end of the poem, he contemplates his own lack of courage (as he sees it) in the face of such contempt for everything he stood for:

And I on my volcano edge
   Exposed to ridicule and hate
Still do not dare to leap the ledge
   And smash to pieces on the slate.

It’s interesting that Betjeman, who sometimes over-punctuated his poems, uses none at all here – suggesting the accelerating pressure under which he all but throws himself over the cliff edge. He called his 1966 collection, High and Low, which title I had lazily assumed simply referred with characteristic nostalgia to High and Low Church Anglicanism. I see now it had another, darker purpose: while Tregardock records his lowest point, ‘Winter Seascape’, which finds him again standing on the cliff edge, this time celebrates a very different mood:

Here where the cliffs alone prevail
   I stand exultant, neutral, free,
And from the cushion of the gale
   Behold a huge consoling sea.

It was in 1966 that I, too, endured ridicule from my A level English classmates for daring to suggest that Betjeman deserved to be taken as seriously as W.H. Auden and the rest of the Thirties poets (I had just bought and read Robin Skelton’s Penguin anthology, Poetry of the Thirties). I do not think I was wrong. At that time, I based my argument on his celebrated hate poem, ‘Slough’. But discussing ‘Winter Seascape’ with the students at my study day, it became clear that this poem is in part a homage both to Auden’s ‘Look, stranger’ (‘Stand stable here / And silent be’) and to ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’ – from which Betjeman consciously recycles Louis MacNeice’s daring internal rhyme ‘under … thunder’. Going further back, I think ‘Winter Seascape’ even redresses Matthew Arnold’s ominous 'salt estranging sea’ (from 'To Marguerite - continued’), which becomes for Betjeman ‘a huge consoling sea’.

We make our way across the 10th fairway of St Enodoc Golf Course towards the little broach spire that juts crookedly up above a tall hedge of tamarisk. By now the rain has eased, unlike the day of Betjeman’s funeral in 1984 when coffin, pall bearers, mourners and reporters had to battle against what one journalist would later aptly call ‘Poldark weather’. A snatch of film shows the party entering the churchyard and passing, just inside the lychgate, the open grave ready to receive the late and by then much-loved Poet Laureate. As we approach, however, our eye is taken first by an arch of flowers – roses, gerberas and gypsophila – framing the entrance to the church porch: there’s to be a wedding next day. But this is my first visit, and I turn back to inspect Betjeman’s gray slate gravestone. By contrast with the wedding decorations inside and outside the church, the limp and fading flowers in a plastic pot are a sad sight.

Jonathan Glancey is an architectural critic whose journalism I have always enjoyed. He is a Betjeman enthusiast, too. Here’s his description of St Enodoc:

Betjeman is buried in the happily batty village church of St Enodoc, itself interned [did he mean interred? the church was once all but buried under sand] in an eccentric dip in the very middle of the golf course. Betjeman's gravestone, immediately inside the church gate, is a joy, all curly-whirly script, playfully elegant stone-carved eye candy for aesthetes.

Leaving aside ‘happily batty’, I can’t share Glancey’s appreciation of the gravestone, which seems to me to misrepresent the Betjeman to whom this church and churchyard meant so much:

So soaked in worship you are loved too well
For that dispassionate and critic stare
That I would use beyond the parish bounds
Biking in high-banked lanes from tower to tower
On sunny, antiquarian afternoons.

True, Betjeman as a young man could play the aesthete; true, too, he had (as editor of the Architectural Review and of the Shell Guides to Britain) shown a sometimes post-modern delight in typography. But I think he would have preferred some less self-advertising stone. After all, ‘As I reach our hill,’ he had concluded in his valedictory poem ‘Old Friends’ – also from High and Low – ‘I am part of a sea unseen’.

Adrian Barlow

[References: all quotations from Betjeman’s poems above are taken from his Collected Poems (London: John Murray, 2006 edition). ‘The sea widens to Cornwall’ is the opening sentence of ‘Old Friends’ (pp.245-6), from which also comes the final quotation of this post. The lines beginning ‘Lark song and sea sounds’ are the final couplet of ‘Seaside Golf’ (p.165). Betjeman’s contemplation of suicide is in the poem ‘Tregardock’ (p.239), and the poem I suggest contains echoes of Auden, MacNeice and Arnold is ‘Winter Seascape’ (p.243). His admission that he loves St Enodoc ‘too well’ to describe it objectively comes from ‘Sunday Afternoon Service in St. Enodoc Church, Cornwall’ (p.113).

[Illustrations: (i) St Enodoc Church (8th May 2015); (ii) John Betjeman’s gravestone.

Text and photographs © the author.

I have written about Betjeman before: John Betjeman and Windlesham

Venice Inscribed (vi): Mr Ruskin and Mr Street

On May Day each year I open a small book, bound in red calf and with the signature ‘John Ruskin’ embossed in gold on its cover. It belonged to my grandmother and was given to her on May 1st, 1912, while she was studying at Whitelands College in south London. The date is important. In 1912, my grandmother, about to leave Whitelands to start her career, had been one of the attendants at the College’s annual ‘Crowning of the Queen of the May’ ceremony: my book carries the inscription “This book is given to Vera Dove. Signed Alice, Queen of the May, 1912” A book plate on the inside cover explains that this ‘quaint old ceremony’ had been revived at the College in 1881 ‘at the request of John Ruskin “to give real and elevating pleasure to the young”.’ Ruskin himself, during his lifetime, had presented a cross each year to the Queen of the May, together with ‘many purple calf-bound copies of his books, to be distributed to her subjects’. Both ceremony and book giving continued after Ruskin’s death.

The book is Ruskin’s A Joy Forever. When I inherited it, a red silk bookmark led me a page where I read this striking declaration:

It seems to me that one of the worst diseases to which the human creature is liable is its disease of thinking. If it would only just look at a thing instead of thinking what it must be like, or do a thing instead of thinking it cannot be done, we should all get on far better.  

The disease of thinking - this seems at first an odd complaint from one of the great thinkers of the Victorian age, ‘the sage of Brantwood’. But Ruskin was a man who hated muddle, and muddled thinking aroused his wrath. When I recall Matthew Arnold’s definition of the aim of criticism – ‘to see the object as in itself it really is’ – I think of Ruskin. In his own paintings and drawings, whether of mountains, rocks or architecture, Ruskin was always concerned to see and record as accurately as possible: he was, after all, both scientist and artist: the principles of observation by which he classified geological specimens were no different from the way he classified the different types of arches in Venice. Painstakingly, first by clambering up ladders to inspect, record and draw arches at eye level, then by identifying their particular similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses, Ruskin was able to establish what no one had attempted before: the evolution and characteristics of six distinctive orders (types) of the Venetian arch, which unlocked the sequence of Venetian architectural development.

It was hard work, and Ruskin was scathing about the ‘mischievous tendency of the hurry of the present day’. He had spent, he complained, ‘two long winters’ in the drawing of details on the spot, and yet

I see constantly that architects who pass three or four days in a gondola going up and down the Grand Canal, think that their first impressions are just as likely to be true as my patiently wrought conclusions.

The particular object of his contempt here is George Edmund Street.  Street, architect of the Law Courts in the Strand, and one of the most prominent architects of the mid-nineteenth century, strikes me as an unlikely enemy: he would become an early and vocal member of William Morris’s Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) of which Ruskin was the presiding spirit; he would also proclaim himself a committed opponent of ‘those destructive works of church restoration which I suspect I deplore more than my critics, and of which an instance carried out under my direction will be looked for in vain’.

Neither Street nor Ruskin suffered from self-doubt. Though there was something of a rapprochement later on, (both men meeting in Venice in 1878, lamenting together the damaging effects of growing prosperity on La Serenissima), twenty years earlier Ruskin had been unsparing:

Mr Street glances hastily at the façade of the Ducal Palace – so hastily in fact that he does not even see what the pattern is, and misses the alternation of red and black in the centre of its squares – and yet he instantly ventures on an opinion on the chronology of its capitals, which is one of the most complicated and difficult subjects in the whole range of Gothic archaeology. It may, nevertheless, be ascertained with very fair probability of correctness by any person who will give a month’s hard work to it, but it can be ascertained no otherwise.

I can’t help thinking Ruskin was less than fair to Street here, and to those other architects going up and down the Grand Canal in their gondolas. He himself advocated using a gondola to get close to the architectural details on the façades of the waterfront palaces. Here he is, in The Stones of Venice, praising ‘the precision of chiselling and delicacy of proportion in the ornament and general lines’ of the palaces between Casa Foscari and the Rialto. He urges the traveller ‘to stay his gondola beside each of them long enough to examine their every line’; but Ruskin immediately continues with this warning :

… observe most carefully the peculiar feebleness and want of soul in the conception of their ornament, which mark them as belonging to a period of decline, as well as the absurd mode of introduction of their pieces of coloured marble.

I admire Ruskin greatly, but there are times – this is one – when he surely protests too much.  I wish he’d get back in his gondola and think more carefully about what he is seeing.  He occasionally admitted he was prone to contradict himself, as I think he does here. Is it really possible simultaneously to admire ‘the precision of chiselling and delicacy of proportion in the ornament ‘ of Venetian Renaissance palaces yet to condemn ‘the peculiar feebleness and want of soul in the conception of their ornament’?  I doubt it.

Adrian Barlow

 [References: the Ruskin quotations from my grandmother’s book are in A Joy for Ever, 1880 edn., London: Geo. Allen and Unwin, p.188. Ruskin’s outburst about the ‘peculiar feebleness’ of the decoration (on the Palazzo Contarini delle Figuri) comes from The Stones of Venice, vol. III, §1. Quotations from, and references to, G.E. Street in Venice are taken from George Edmund Street, a Memoir, by Arthur Edmund Street (1886).

[Illustrations: (i) Palazzo Ducale – the courtyard, with the domes of San Marco behind; (ii) the decorative pattern on the façade of the Palazzo Ducale, which Ruskin claimed George Edmund Street had not studied with sufficient care.

Text and photographs © the author.

You can access my previous posts about Venice here: