Friday, 2 August 2019

Porter and Betjeman in Cornwall

The poetry of church crawling is dominated by Philip Larkin's mighty Church Going, a poem that stands in a league of its own. A little further down the slopes of Parnassus, the other great practitioner of the genre is Betjeman, and some fine specimens by other hands are collected in the recent anthology Building Jerusalem, which I wrote about a while back...
Peter Porter, too, wrote church poems, notably An Angel in Blythburgh Church.
This one (which I spotted in his Collected Poems) finds him in Betjeman country, down in Cornwall – though there is little of Betjeman's tone about it:

Visiting Cornish Churches

Folded in lush combe
Or sentinelling the land,
The wide-naved churches stand,
Like platitudes of doom.

Lanteglos with Polruan,
Lansallos by Lantivet –
Paths of stormy privet
Where leaves soundlessly are strewn –

Hoarders of forgotten saints,
Sites for moral doggerel,
Lit by the improbable
Gold of restorers' paints,

Sanctuaries of afternoon
When the sun lies in the wheat
And flower-arrangers meet
To make comfortable God's room.

Past Celtic cross and over
Graves at a hundred angles,
Through grass and nettle tangles,
The tourist breaks from cover.

The air he breathes is clean
And roseate with death,
Pevsner-listed souls beneath
Share with pew and screen

Small absolutes of fame:
Nothing remarkable here
But men's and women's fear
Of losing even a name,

And when he comes to quiz it
No monument will keep
Him long. He hopes they sleep
The better for his visit.

Betjeman loved Cornwall so much that he ensured he was buried there, in the churchyard of the remote, dune-girt church of St Enodoc, Trebetherick, now surrounded by a golf course. His funeral cortege had to walk the length of the tenth fairway in driving rain, followed by the struggling London literary press corps, seriously underdressed for the wild weather.
Eighteen years earlier, Betjeman wrote this uncharacteristically dark poem recalling a death-scented moment at St Enodoc –

By the Ninth Green, St Enodoc

Dark of primaeval pine encircles me
With distant thunder of an angry sea
While wrack and resin scent alternately
     The air I breathe.

On slate compounded before man was made
The ocean ramparts roll their light and shade
Up to Bray Hill and, leaping to invade,
     Fall back and seethe.

A million years of unrelenting tide
Have soothed the strata of the steep cliffside:
How long ago did rock with rock collide
    To shape these hills?

One day the mayfly's life, three week's the cleg's,
The woodworm's four-year cycle bursts its eggs,
The flattened centipede lets loose its legs
    And stings and kills.

Hot life pulsating in this foreshore dry,
Damp life upshooting from the reed-beds high,
Under those barrows, dark against the sky,
   The Iron Age dead –

Why is it that a sunlit second sticks?
What force collects all this and seeks to fix
This fourth March morning nineteen sixty-six
   Deep in my head?

[A cleg, by the way, is a horse fly.]