On A Portrait Of A Deaf Man – John Betjeman
The kind old face, the egg-shaped head,
The tie, discreetly 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.
Sometimes there are poems that simply knock you for six and this, for me, is one of those. John Betjeman poems do this for me. If unsure what I mean, read “Slough” by the same poet. There is a sense in his poems that a hint of sarcasm, or angst, comes through in every single line and as much as “Slough” asks for “friendly bombs” to fall on the town because he does not like the new town of Slough [when it was built], so too do we see here that same rhyming style and use of language that evokes, in this case, a sense of sadness, but also angst at God.
It is as if the poet himself is relating how much an elderly gentleman means to him, like his is looking at him down in the coffin now that he has gone. He sees the “kind old face, the egg-shaped head, the tie, discreetly loud” and remembers how this man used to be. It is a memory of something good. This was a unique man, the sort of man who led his life like he wanted to and unlike the majority of others. He was a man in his life who liked “loosely fitting shooting clothes,” which suggests a country gentleman of sorts, someone who preferred the country lifestyle. This is compounded when we see the word “Cornish” later in the poem. But now, in death, his clothes are not rich and luxurious, but more like a “closely fitting shroud” around him as he lays buried.
In the next verse, we see more of the man when he was alive, a man who liked “old city dining rooms” that served “potatoes in their skin,” or Jacket Potatoes as we know them. It is as if the poet is remembering the old man like he was rather than is and shows something that we as humans do. When someone we love dies, we tend to like to remember them in their glory years, when they were fit and healthy. This is what the poet is doing here, rather than thinking about how now, “his mouth is wide [open in death] to let the London clay come in.” This latter image is one that disgusts, one that makes us shudder and is one we tend to avoid at all costs.
In the next verse this idea is repeated with similar language, where we see the poet remembering the man who used to take him “on long silent walks in country lanes” when he was younger. This was a man who “knew the names of ev’ry bird” which is impressive and shows a knowledge of the natural environment, but then, the next line where it says “but not the song it sung” makes us see a man who although knowledgeable about birds, is someone who is bereft of feeling for them. He was a man who “smiled and looked so wise” and this is how he is remembered rather than thinking of him lying in the ground with “maggots in his eyes.” It is at this point that the reader sees the meaning of the title for we are told that the man at some point was unable to hear him speaking.
And in his silent and insular self at that point, the poet still remembers someone who “liked the rain-washed Cornish air and smell of ploughed-up soil,” showing someone with a love of the countryside, someone who maybe was from Cornwall, a friend of the family or maybe even, someone closer. This is someone who saw the beauty in “a landscape big and bare” enough to paint it with oil paints. So we see a man who had a love of the soil, the earth, the very ground he is to be put in after he dies. And as much as he loved the earth in all its natural magnificence, there was one place on earth he detested and this is painted so well by the poet, who says “least of all he liked that place which hangs on Highgate Hill.” Now, Highgate Hill is a cemetery where the dead are buried. The poet describes it as being something where “soaked Carrara-covered earth” fills the ground. Suddenly, we see someone who both loves and hates, someone who sees both good and bad in the natural world, but the loathing of the place is simply because everything there is dead and decaying. It is a place “for Londoners to fill,” somewhere where negativity resides in slumber.
In the following verses, the attention is taken away from the man and his likes, to the fact that even when he knew he was dying, there were some regrets in his life. We see how “he would have liked to say goodbye,” or “shake hands with many friends,” but maybe because his death was sudden and unexpected, he never got the chance. Now, in the ground, “his finger-bones stick through his finger-ends.” This is a particularly grim image being painted here by the poet who wants to see the man as he remembers him, fit and well, not decaying in the ground. It is a defence mechanism at work in the normal human being, the thing we do with those we love and admire.
Now, if these memories were good enough for the man, as he remembers his friend and the tone is friendly, there comes a sudden change, for the man remembering his friend share his thoughts to someone [or thing] in a different direction. So far it has been fond memories, a warmth towards the man, a sense of fondness, but now, towards his concept of “God,” the man aims an insult, which again, is understandable, but nevertheless a natural response. It is so easy for us when we are faced with something negative, to ask “where is God in all of this?” This is what the poet, or man remembering, does here as he directs the final verse, saying “you, God, who treat him thus and thus, say “Save his soul and pray.””
The tone is very different in this last verse. There is an antagonism as he thinks about how God, in whatever form, asks him “to believe” when the only thing he can see in his vision is “decay.” Tonally there is anger here where there was fondness before. There is a sense of annoyance directed at whoever or whatever is in charge of life. The poet is saying that life is so unfair, so wrong that it can take someone as good as this man being remembered. And in a sense, he would be right in thinking this, for life is, invariably, unfair at times. We see sickness and decay all around us each day. We see parents ageing and decay setting in, waiting for God in their homes, waiting for death to take them and we despair. This is what the poet is trying to say here, that in the end, all we can see “is decay!” That is what makes this poem a sad and melancholic one to read but also a brilliant poem to read because of the dichotomy between what is remembered and what is fact.