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Glad to be alive, with help from a poet

Seaside Golf

How straight it flew, how long it flew,
It clear'd the rutty track
And soaring, disappeared from view
Beyond the bunker's back -
A glorious, sailing, bounding drive
That made me glad I was alive.

And down the fairway, far along
It glowed a lonely white;
I played an iron sure and strong
And clipp'd it out of sight,
And spite of grassy banks between
i knew I'd find it on the green.

And so I did. It lay content
Two paces from the pin;
A steady putt and then it went
Oh, most securely in.
The very turf rejoiced to see
That quite unprecedented three.

Ah! seaweed smells from sandy caves
And thyme and mist in whiffs,
In-coming tide, Atlantic waves
Slapping the sunny cliffs,
Lark song and sea sounds in the air
And splendour, splendour everywhere.

In his introduction to John Betjeman's Collected Poems, the Earl of Birkenhead describes Betjeman's sense of place, illustrated in Seaside Golf, his loyalty to friends, his commercial popularity and his fear of death. Betjeman's poem Saint Cadoc illustrates something else, leaving me to contemplate the number of times I thought I understood a person, only to underestimate him. (Again, apologies, this program won't recognize indented lines.)

Saint Cadoc

A flame of rushlight in the cell
On holy walls and holy well
And to the west the thundering bay
With soaking seaweed, sand and spray,
Oh good St. Cadoc pray for me
Here in your cell beside the sea.

Somewhere the tree, the yellowing oak,
Is waiting for the woodman's stroke,
Waits for the chisel saw and plane
To prime it for the earth again
And in the earth, for me inside,
The generous oak tree will have died.

St. Cadoc blest the woods of ash
Bent landwards by the Western lash,
He loved the veined threshold stones
Where sun might sometime bleach his bones
He had no cowering fear of death
For breath of God was Cadoc's breath.

Some cavern generates the germs
To send my body to the worms,
To-day some red hands make the shell
To blow my soul away to Hell
To-day a pair walks newly married
Along the path where I'll be carried.

St. Cadoc, when the wind was high,
Saw angels in the Cornish sky
As ocean rollers curled and poured
Their loud Hosannas to the Lord,
His little cell was not too small
For that great Lord who made them all.

Here where St Cadoc sheltered God
The archaeologist has trod,
Yet death is now the gentle shore
With Land upon the cliffs before
And in his cell beside the sea
The Celtic saint has prayed for me.

Betjeman has been called the poet of suburbs, but if that is so, the suburb must be another place where the soul dwells -

A Child Ill

Oh, little body, do not die.
The soul looks out through wide blue eyes
So questioningly into mine,
That my tormented soul replies:

'Oh, little body, do not die.
You hold the soul that talks to me
Although our conversation be
As wordless as the windy sky.'

So looked my father at the last
Right in my soul, before he died,
Though words we spoke went heedless past
As London traffic-roar outside.

And now the same blue eyes I see
Look through me from a little son,
So questioningly, so searchingly
That youthfulness and age are one.

My father looked at me and died
Before my soul made full reply.
Lord, leave this other Light alight -
Oh, little body, do not die.


Comments (1)

Betjeman's poem 'St Cadoc' does indeed reveal his fear of death. Written at the outset of WW2, he fears he may be the victim of shell or germ warfare. He survived of course, but ironically he was buried (in 1984) in North Cornwall, very near where St Cadoc is reputed to have set up his cell.

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