In Westminster Abbey- Revision Notes

In Westminster Abbey – John Betjeman

 

Context

  • The poem is set during the second world war at a time when Britain, was part of an alliance of nations which were fighting against German expansionism in Europe and North Africa
  • England, and London in particular, was subject to regular bombing raids by the German air force.
  • British society of the time was rigidly divided into social classes – the speaker in the poem is a wealthy upper class woman who lives in 189 Cadogan Square, a very affluent part of West London.

 

Theme

  • The poem is a dramatic monologue – a poem in which the poet creates a character who speaks for the entire poem to an audience who does not respond. During the course of the poem, the speaker’s character and attitudes are revealed to the reader.
  • This dramatic monologue is a satirical poem. The more the woman says the more the poet reveals her flaws and exposes her to ridicule and contempt.
  • Through the poem Betjeman satirises, not just this one woman, but the English upper class.

 

Tone

  • Being a dramatic monologue the tone is dominated by the speaking voice of the well-off lady. Her tone throughout is bossy, domineering and  condescending
  • Beyond the speaking voice of the woman, the reader can sense the poet’s contempt for this kind of person

 

Language

  • In this dramatic monologue the poet creates a situation in which we overhear a wealthy English woman pray in Westminster Abbey. He uses irony throughout, as the woman unwittingly in the process gives her true character away.
  • Her ostentatious use of Latin in the first verse – “Vox humana” – when addressing God suggests a pompous, conceited character
  • The poet uses the conventional language of praise and worship – “Gracious Lord”, “ dear Lord”, the motivation for her prayer is continually shown to be a series of base motives and not in any sense spiritual or noble
  • In the second verse she implores God to –  “oh bomb the Germans” – incorporates a complacent assumption that God is violent and shares her prejudices
  • Her self-centredness appears several times in the rhymed couplets at the end of verses 2 & 4
  • In the third verse her imperial pride shines through when she prays that God “keep our Empire undismembered”
  • As the verse progresses her sense of racial superiority emerges when she asks the Lord to protect the “Gallant blacks” from Britain’s empire who have joined the army but the verse concludes with “Protect them Lord in all their fights / And even more protect the whites.”
  • Betjeman portrays her as more materialist than spiritual. Her selfish materialism is mocked by the rhymed couplet at the end of verse 5 when she prays “So, Lord, reserve for me a crown / And do not let my shares go down.”
  • Her unchristian spitefulness is evident in the pride with which she offers to send “white feathers to cowards.”
  • Her half-hearted Christianity is apparent when she promises to attend “Evening Service / Whensoever I have the time” and even more prominently in the rhymed couplet that ends the poem – “And now dear Lord, I cannot wait / Because I have a luncheon date”.

 

Structure

  • The poem is written in seven sextets. Like An Irish Airman there are eight syllables per line but in this poem the rhythm is trochaic tetrameter rather than iambic. By placing the stress on the first syllable of each “foot” the poet helps capture the speakers bossy tone.
  • The poem has a bouncy / jaunty rhythm which helps convey the insincerity of the prayer as it lacks intensity.
  • Each verse rhymes abcbdd. The rhymed couplet at the end of each is particularly effective for stressing and ridiculing her flaws

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