»  John Betjeman's "Norfolk"

 

Norfolk

by John Betjeman, 1906-1984

 

•  Background

John (from 1969 onwards, Sir John) Betjeman was a very fine British poet, but unfortunately a very local one. If you were not born in Britain between about 1880 and 1970, and entirely raised there, most of his stuff is (I would guess) nearly incomprehensible without footnotes. This is a great shame, because he had a confident grasp on human universals — in this poem, the universal (though, in healthy people, only occasional) dislike of adult life, with its responsibilities and failures, and longing for the protected innocence of childhood.

Betjeman was particularly inspired by places, although, with one or two exceptions, only British places. His Collected Poems (my edition is dated 1987, published by John Murray of London) includes an "Index of Places and Counties" covering five pages. Derbyshire is mentioned twice.

"Norfolk" was published in 1954, when the poet was 47 or 48. The title is just the name of a county in eastern England. Norfolk is, as a character in one of Noel Coward's plays points out, very flat. One part even flatter than the rest goes by the name "the Norfolk broads." This refers not to the female inhabitants of the region, but to the numerous canals, rivers, marshes and small lakes that are found there, all interconnected. For at least a hundred years, renting a houseboat for a few days on "the Broads" has been a popular way for the English middle classes to take a vacation.

Betjeman is reminiscing, in his middle age, about having taken such a vacation when he was a child. The Bure is one of the rivers that make up the Broads. (The pronunciation here is mine. The Norfolk locals say "boo-uh.") Betjeman was, as well as being a poet, an expert on old English country churches, and those Victorian architects, like James Fowler (1828-1892), who restored them.

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•  Text of the poem

How did the Devil come? When first attack?
    These Norfolk lanes recall lost innocence,
The years fall off and find me walking back
    Dragging a stick along the wooden fence
Down this same path, where, forty years ago,
My father strolled behind me, calm and slow.

I used to fill my hands with sorrel seeds
    And shower him with them from the tops of stiles,
I used to butt my head into his tweeds
    To make him hurry down those languorous miles
Of ash and alder-shaded lanes, till here
Our moorings and the masthead would appear.

There after supper lit by lantern light
    Warm in the cabin I could lie secure
And hear against the polished sides at night
    The lap lap lapping of the weedy Bure,
A whispering and watery Norfolk sound
Telling of all the moonlit reeds around.

How did the Devil come? When first attack?
    The church is just the same, though now I know
Fowler of Louth restored it. Time, bring back
    The rapturous ignorance of long ago,
The peace, before the dreadful daylight starts,
Of unkept promises and broken hearts.