John Betjeman on Greece (but really on England)

I suppose I am the last person on earth to discover this brilliant poem. It reminds me of my own visit to Greece in 2003, but of course (like all Betjeman poems) it is really about England.

Greek Orthodox 

by John Betjeman

To the Reverend T. P. Symonds

What did I see when first I went to Greece?
Shades of the Sixth across the Peloponnese.
Though clear the clean-cut Doric temple shone
Still droned the voice of Mr Gidney on;
“That hoti? Can we take its meaning here
Wholly as interrogative?” Edward Lear,
Show me the Greece of wrinkled olive boughs
Above red earth; thin goats, instead of cows,
Each with its bell; the shallow terraced soil;
The stone-built wayside shrine; the yellow oil;
The tiled and cross-shaped church, who knows how old
Its ashlar walls of honey-coloured gold?
Three centuries or ten? Of course, there’ll be
The long meander off to find the key.

The domed interior swallows up the day.
Here, where to light a candle is to pray,
The candle flame shows up the almond eyes
Of local saints who view with no surprise
Their martyrdoms depicted upon walls
On which the filtered daylight faintly falls.
The flame shows up the cracked paint– sea-green blue
And red and gold, with grained wood showing through–
Of much-kissed ikons, dating from, perhaps,
The fourteenth century. There across the apse,
Ikon- and oleograph-adorned, is seen
The semblance of an English chancel screen.

“With oleographs?” you say. “Oh, what a pity!
Surely the diocese has some committee
Advising it on taste?” It is not so.
Thus vigorously does the old tree grow,
By persecution pruned, watered with blood,
Its living roots deep in pre-Christian mud,
It needs no bureaucratical protection.
It is its own perpetual resurrection.
Or take the galleon metaphor– it rides
Serenely over controversial tides
Triumphant to the Port of Heaven, its home,
With one sail missing– that’s the Pope’s in Rome.

Vicar, I hope it will not be a shock
To find this village has no ‘eight o’clock’.
Those bells you heard at eight were being rung
For matins of a sort but matins sung.
Soon will another set of bells begin
And all the villagers come crowding in.
The painted boats rock empty by the quay
Feet crunch on gravel, faintly beats the sea.
From the domed church, as from the sky, look down
The Pantocrator’s searching eyes of brown,
With one serene all-comprehending stare
On farmer, fisherman and millionaire.

About these ads

4 thoughts on “John Betjeman on Greece (but really on England)

  1. The lines:

    “With oleographs?” you say. “Oh, what a pity!
    Surely the diocese has some committee
    Advising it on taste?” It is not so.
    Thus vigorously does the old tree grow,
    By persecution pruned, watered with blood,
    Its living roots deep in pre-Christian mud,
    It needs no bureaucratical protection.
    It is its own perpetual resurrection.

    strike me as getting to the heart of what is best and most admirable in the Orthodox spirit. The Orthodox I admire most embody something of this scuffing off of bureaucratic tendencies.

    I also can’t believe I missed this poem. I made a point 5 or 6 years ago to read through Betjeman and missed this. Thank you very much.

    Like

  2. Those are wonderful lines. At the beginning of my visit to Greece (as an undergraduate under the spell of Plato) I was struck by the contrast between the pagan ruins and the Orthodox churches. The sanitized remains of paganism seemed to be all Apollonian light and rationality; they had none of the chthonic darkness, craven fear, and irrational violence that surely also belonged to paganism. The Churches on the other hand were dark and smokey and full of muttering old crones etc… At first I had much of the aesthetic reaction that I suppose certain rationalist English protestants would have (not Betjeman); even though at some level I knew better. Later I spent some time in an orthodox monastery in Ukraine and it helped me “realize” more fully what I known notionally all along: that grace does not come to us primarily through a Plotinian ascent through ever purer spheres of rationality, by by the Incarnate God coming to us in the blood and dirt and shadows and transforming them and all that kind of stuff…

    Like

  3. Sancrucensis writes : “grace does not come to us primarily through a Plotinian ascent through ever purer spheres of rationality, by by the Incarnate God coming to us in the blood and dirt and shadows and transforming them and all that kind of stuff…”

    While my home my be blood and dirt and shadows, the Mass I attend is not, and so I’ve been wondering how to put this into context.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s