Sunday 28 August 2022

Betjeman's Edwardian Sunday

 Busyness (mostly domestic) and the mental torpor of summer have prevented me doing much blogging lately, but I note that today is John Betjeman's birthday (born 1906), and that is always fun to mark. Not only Betj's birthday but also a Sunday – just the day to remember him. I'm passing my Sunday in a cathedral town – no prizes for guessing which – but in the poem below Betjeman imagines an Edwardian Sunday in a prosperous suburb of Sheffield. Many parts of that 'hill-shadowed city', with its distinctive topography, still have the look and feel evoked by Betjeman here (Broomhill itself is now, I believe, full of student accommodation).  Re-entering the Edwardian world came easily to Betjeman, whose sensibility was formed in an Edwardian middle-class world, whatever evolutions it was to go through later, and whose memories of the period remained very much alive, as his autobiographical writings show. 
In An Edwardian Sunday, the jogalong rhythm and insistent rhyming are thoroughly Edwardian, and the first couplet is weak, but things improve as it goes along, and it builds into an evocative, cleverly detailed picture of a past time and place and mood, complete with the touch of Eros that so often pops up in Betjeman's most innocent-seeming verse ('As Eve shows her apple through rich bombazine')... 'Ponticum' is a rhododendron species popular with the Victorians, and the 'Ebenezer' in the last section is Ebenezer Elliott, the 'Corn Law Rhymer', a Sheffield hero.

                                           An Edwardian Sunday, Broomhill, Sheffield

High dormers are rising
So sharp and surprising,
And ponticum edges
The driveways of gravel;
Stone houses from ledges
Look down on ravines.
The vision can travel
From gable to gable,
Italianate mansion
And turreted stable,
A sylvan expansion
So varied and jolly
Where laurel and holly
Commingle their greens.
Serene on a Sunday
The sun glitters hotly
O’er mills that on Monday
With engines will hum.
By tramway excursion
To Dore and to Totley
In search of diversion
The millworkers come;
But in our arboreta
The sounds are discreeter
Of shoes upon stone -
The worshippers wending
To welcoming chapel,
Companioned or lone;
And over a pew there
See loveliness lean,
As Eve shows her apple
Through rich bombazine;
What love is born new there
In blushing eighteen!
Your prospects will please her,
The iron-king’s daughter,
Up here on Broomhill;
Strange Hallamshire, County
Of dearth and of bounty,
Of brown tumbling water
And furnace and mill.
Your own Ebenezer
Looks down from his height
On back street and alley
And chemical valley
Laid out in the light;
On ugly and pretty
Where industry thrives
In this hill-shadowed city
Of razors and knives.


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