Portrait of a deaf man

Charles 3 Comments



Posted by Vale

I was listening to a programme about the recordings John Betjeman made with Jim Parker, setting his verse to some glorious music.

Until they played this, though, I’d forgotten how dark Betjeman could be.

On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man

The kind old face, the egg-shaped head,
The tie, discretely loud,
The loosely fitting shooting clothes,
A closely fitting shroud.

He liked old city dining rooms,
Potatoes in their skin,
But now his mouth is wide to let
The London clay come in.

He took me on long silent walks
In country lanes when young.
He knew the names of ev’ry bird
But not the song it sung.

And when he could not hear me speak
He smiled and looked so wise
That now I do not like to think
Of maggots in his eyes.

He liked the rain-washed Cornish air
And smell of ploughed-up soil,
He liked a landscape big and bare
And painted it in oil.

But least of all he liked that place
Which hangs on Highgate Hill
Of soaked Carrara-covered earth
For Londoners to fill.

He would have liked to say goodbye,
Shake hands with many friends,
In Highgate now his finger-bones
Stick through his finger-ends.

You, God, who treat him thus and thus,
Say “Save his soul and pray.”
You ask me to believe You and
I only see decay.

This, I realise is number three in my very occasional series of tributes to fathers – the ‘Old Deaf Man – is certainly Betjemn senior. See numbers 1 (Horace Silver) and 2 (Astor Piazolla) here and here.

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Michael Jarvis
Michael Jarvis
9 years ago

“How dark Betjeman could be”… To many people Betjeman’s work is seen as a confection of Slough, fish knives, and Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. The darker side can come as an arresting shock. He seemed to struggle to reconcile his High Anglican beliefs with an acute fear of death. The collection of poems published in 1954 under the title ‘A Few Late Chrysthanthemums’ includes a marvellous poem ‘The Cottage Hospital’. It’s three verses long and unless you know it you will probably be catching your breath when Betjeman pitches you into his imagery in the final verse. At the end… Read more »

9 years ago

What a terrific poem, Michael. I hadn’t come across it before: such a vivid portrait of the horror some of us feel at the thought of dying. It also conjures an image that has haunted me since I was a boy. It was early evening and the original version of the Fly was on the television. Just as in the later Jeff Goldblum version, fly and man are transposed, but the closing scene of the first film was uniquely terrible. You follow the camera as it closes in on a spider’s web. A fly is trapped and you see with… Read more »

9 years ago

‘Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.’
Edgar Allan Poe