Book Chats on Bookmen.
"John Betjeman and Dorset"
This page last updated February 10th 2020..
One of the consequences of the rather addictive nature of this new digital universe is the tendency to find it's 2.00 am and one hadn't noticed, or even been conscious, of the four hours that just slipped away. The idea that one is wired to every other connected computer on the planet, rather takes ones breath away, one simply drowns in information, and all for a few pounds a month!
One is reminded of that poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.....(for some curious reason called “First Fig”...!).
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
In the 1980's, well before the Internet revolution, it occurred to me to keep one of those books where one noted things of interest. Not a scrapbook exactly, more of a Victorian style Occasional Book (the modern digital equivalent would be the indispensable Bookmark. It's also interesting that my bookshop colleague Julia has been running one, off her own initiative, for over a year.....).
Many times I had read something…..got the “Ah..that's interesting“ reaction, then to find, a week later that I couldn't retrieve it!
It took a certain discipline to keep this up in longhand, but well worth it, as I now have a treasure trove of almost forty years collecting.
Well...poems mostly, but epigrams, quotes….arcana in general.
My hope is to share a few jottings, and maybe get a reaction..?
Let's kick off with John Betjeman, seen above left (Edna St. Vincent Millay is on the right). His poetry nearly always rhymes…..
One consequence is that he has, on occasion, been dismissed as a Rhymester, rather than a serious poet, but this is way off the mark. Take the following, and being local to us in Lyme, a poem of considerable interest...
Rime Intrinsica, Fontmell Magna, Sturminster Newton and Melbury Bubb,
Whist upon whist upon whist upon whist drive, in Institute, Legion and Social Club.
Horny hands that hold the aces which this morning held the plough.
While Tranter Reuben, T. S. Eliot, H. G. Wells and Edith Sitwell lie in Mellstock Churchyard now.
Lord's Day bells from Bingham's Melcombe, Iwerne Minster, Shroton, Plush,
Down the grass between the beeches, mellow in the evening hush.
Gloved the hands that hold the hymn-book, which this morning milked the cow
While Tranter Reuben, Mary Borden, Brian Howard and Harold Acton lie in Mellstock Churchyard now.
Light's abode, celestial Salem! Lamps of evening, smelling strong,
Gleaming on the pitch-pine, waiting, almost empty even-song
From the aisles each window smiles on grave and grass and yew-tree bough
While Tranter Reuben, Gordon Selfridge, Edna Best and Thomas Hardy lie in Mellstock Churchyard now.
First read on Radio in December 1932 I believe, this is, superficially, a play on Dorset place names. But wait, there's much more to it than that. Betjeman is much cleverer than we had imagined. Mellstock is the fictional “Mellstock” in Hardy’s novels. Mellstock Churchyard is actually St Michael's Church, Stinsford. The really beautiful thing is that that is where Hardy’s actual heart was interred in a casket. So, all the characters in the poem loved Hardy..their Dorset poet, and their hearts lie with his!
[Note added Wednesday 16th December 2015: In "Letters to the Editor" for "The Times Newspaper" of 16.12.15, Bill Wintrip of Poundbury, Dorset, writes: "Thomas Hardy himself was cremated and his ashes lodged in Westminster Abbey. His heart however was buried at Stinsford Church in Dorset---along, it is said, with his doctor's cat, which had nibbled on Hardy's heart during its removal!"].
Incidentally, Betjeman himself notes somewhere that his poem is an affectionate parody of Hardy’s 1898 “Friends Beyond”…which begins…..
WILLIAM DEWY, Tranter Reuben, Farmer Ledlow late at plough,
Robert’s kin, and John’s, and Ned’s,
And the Squire, and Lady Susan, lie in Mellstock churchyard now!
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