Essay: “In Westminster Abbey”
“In Westminster Abbey” by John Betjeman is a poem that tells the story of a woman in a famous church in London and her prayer to the Lord. Each stanza in the poem contains something that the speaker wants from the Lord. And as one reads through the poem, a more keen understanding of the woman praying is formed, and it is likely drastically different from the original perception gained in the first two stanzas. In “In Westminster Abbey,” John Betjeman uses the speaker’s prayer and flaws in Christianity to illustrate to the reader that an individual is not always how they appear.
Considering the length of the poem, there is quite a bit of information told about the speaker’s identity and personality. Firstly, the speaker is likely a female. She states that she will “Join the Women’s Army Corps,” which footnote number six on pg. 122 of The Norton Introduction To Poetry says was the old World War One name for the Auxiliary Territorial Service, a primarily female organization specializing in domestic defense. The usage of the WWI name for the organization would suggest that the speaker would be at least in her mid to upper thirties.
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The footnotes note as well that the address she tells the Lord to “put beneath Thy special care” (24) belongs to a “fashionable” part of London, which indeed implies wealth. Another bit of personality that shows up quite frequently within the poem is the speaker’s demanding tone. She doesn’t ever ask the lord for the favors listed, she simply demands them. Lines like “[l]isten to a lady’s cry” (6), “[d]on’t let anyone bomb me” (12), and of course the last two lines where she demands the Lord answer her right then because she has other plans, “And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait/Because I have a luncheon date”(41 - 42).
One of the more prominent details about the speaker that really shapes the latter half of the poem is that the speaker is not a true Christian. She provides incentives to the Lord by telling him “Now I’ll come to Evening Service/Whensoever I have the time” (27 - 28). All of this, of course, in hopes to prompt an immediate response. Claiming to “feel a little better” (37); she tells the Lord just how great it was to have had him talk with her (38). Betjeman, however, does not include any dialogue from the Lord back to the speaker.
Although we would not expect the Lord to speak out loud directly to her, there are no other examples within the poem that suggest the Lord answers her prayers or even acknowledges her dismal attempt at prayer. I inferred that this is completely intentional on the author’s part. It creates a sense of ambiguity about the speaker’s standing with God. Now, through the descriptors of the speaker within the poem, we see her as a roughly middle aged, wealthy, and demanding woman who fails to comply with an ideal Christian life because of her egocentric personality.
Set in a famous London gothic church, where monarchs have been crowned and many famous individuals were buried, the poem depicts a middle aged woman praying. This is an image that readers can relate to. Everyone can conjure up a memory from a time when they’ve seen a Christian woman praying, whether it is in person or through media. It is also the first image that the reader acquires of the speaker. The second and third stanzas don’t seem to contain anything unbecoming of a true Christian, given the situation of London in 1940 with the bombardment of their city from Germany.
It is reasonable to assume that a woman who is living in London at the time and who might know or know of people that have died would be slightly emotional during her prayer and say “oh bomb the Germans. /Spare their women for Thy Sake,/And if that is not too easy/We will pardon Thy Mistake”(7 - 10). The egocentricity and naivety of the speaker really reveals itself starting in the fourth stanza. She tells the lord to “[t]hink of what our nation stands for” (19), and yet proceeds to name off completely irrational things.
Most residents in London would probably disagree with their Nation standing for books bought from a local pharmacy, class distinction and proper drains. Although these things could be considered nice, they aren’t representative of the population. In a matter of one stanza, the image of the speaker the reader receives completely changes from the innocent wholesome churchgoer, to a self-interested pseudo-Christian who in times of trouble goes to the Lord in prayer expecting and demanding her safety, harm for the Germans, and a slew of other tasks.
A person’s initial appearance is not always representative of their true nature. This is precisely the message intended to be received by the reader. John Betjeman is clearly separated from the speaker in the story. A main determining factor is that he is a male, and the speaker of the poem is female. The author seems to be expressing his personal beliefs and Christian ideals by creating the character in the poem who embodies almost the complete opposite ideology of the author. Even still, the poem appears a dramatic monologue.
Writing in this style of lyric poetry allows John Betjeman to be completely removed from the poem and thus he gets his point across much more effectively. Had he done something like make the speaker a male, readers could falsely associate some of the elements of the poem with the author as opposed to considering them as an independent entity. The tone that is established by the time the conclusion of the poem reaches the forefront makes the reader want to analyze and judge the speaker, rather than identify with and feel sympathetic towards her. Words that help establish this tone come at the end of many of the lines.
Words like “[m]istake”(10) and “fights”(17) create a negative connotation which the reader associates with the speaker. These words also help with the transformation from the “good image” of the speaker to the “egotistical image” that comes later. In the first stanza there is “lie”(5) and “cry”(6) at the end of lines. By the fifth stanza, when the perception of the speaker has changed there are the words “sinner”(25) and “crime”(26). These words in correlation with the setting of the poem and the time period that it takes place encompass the negative, condescending tone quite adequately.
It is a time in London where people would want to be true to their faith and really take consolation in the Lord for protection, especially considering the role religion played in lives around 1940. Yet it appears that the only reason the speaker had to go to church in the first place was minute one. She could have simply been passing by the church on her way to a lunch date, and found it convenient to make her plea to the Lord. The organization of the stanzas by Betjeman into their specific order contributes to the reader’s perception of the speaker.
As stated above, the view of the speaker from the reader’s perspective delineates from an average churchgoer in a time of crisis, to something much less respected at the time: an untrue Christian. If the stanzas of the poem were arranged in another order the perception of the female speaker would likely change with it. For example starting the poem with the second stanza could show the speaker in a cynical light, or if Betjeman decided to start with one of the latter stanzas such as stanza five, then the reader is informed of the shallow nature of the speaker much earlier causing for a lesser effect on the reader at poems end.
It is because of the order in which the stanzas exist that allows the reader to really take away the message: people are not always as they first seem. This particular poem possesses a meter of trochaic tetrameter and a rhyme scheme of ABCBDD. Both of these particular elements contribute to the overall feel and tone of the poem. Unlike iambic meter, which generally provides an uplifting flowing feel, the use of trochaic meter does quite the opposite. As the poem is read the use of the troche makes the poem seem to drag along and makes the tone more dismal, which is appropriate when considering Betjeman’s view of the speaker.
The rhyme scheme of ABCBDD contributes in a similar sense. The B rhyming words and the pair of D’s at the end of their respective lines tend to be the more important words from the stanza. In stanza 2 those rhyming words are sake, mistake, be, and me. When each of these words is taken individually in relation to the poem itself, it becomes clear as to why they were chosen. “Be” and “me” could help display the speakers demanding nature, and egocentricity. “Sake” and “mistake” could be words that hint at how the author is viewing the speaker’s prayer.
They invoke feelings of apathy when read in the context of the poem. Individuals are not always as they first appear, much as the speaker of “In Westminster Abbey” appears to be an average Christian praying at the Gothic church while her Nation is in a time of peril. But in fact she is quite concerned with the opposite. It is not for the wellbeing of her associates and neighbors that she is worried, but herself instead. Egocentric ideals and naivety cloud the speaker’s judgment, and it is through this that John Betjeman is able to so clearly express his ideas.
It is safe to say that he does this quite clearly throughout the entirety of the poem, but there are still some things readers can ponder. What event did John Betjeman experience or witness that made him feel so strongly as to compose this poem? Or is it simply a tribute to those true Christians and a criticism of those not on the righteous path? Nonetheless, Betjeman effectively expresses a message that is easily portrayed to readers of “In Westminster Abbey” regardless of which side of the fence of Christianity they reside on.
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