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John Betjeman's "Westgate-On-Sea"

Updated on October 6, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Betjeman



John Betjeman's "Westgate-On-Sea" consists of seven rimed stanzas, each with a rime scheme of ABCB.

Betjeman has confessed his identification as a "poet and hack" in Who's Who.

This poem, "Westgate-On-Sea," proves the "hack" identification as it provides an example of one of his most vacuous efforts to concoct a poetic piece employing the encumbered measures of fractious modernism.

John Betjeman's interest in architecture often informs his poetry as he fumbles to add substance to his observations of line and curve.

Perhaps this poet's reputation has been saved by his own penchant for self-deprecation. At least that humble act keeps him from being unlikeable even in his more flagrant anti-religious pieces.

First Stanza: "Hark, I hear the bells of Westgate"

The speaker addresses the reader/listener, stating that he is going to tell his audience what the "bells of Westgate" are saying: "Hark, I hear the bells of Westgate, / I will tell you what they sigh."

The speaker identifies the district of Thanet and remarks that "those minarets and steeples" are pricking the sky.

The speaker oddly claims that the bells "sigh"; such a characterization of bells suggests a melancholy in the speaker, since the bells themselves cannot express the emotion of a sigh. Or perhaps his need for a rime with "sky" is to blame.

Second Stanza: "Happy bells of eighteen-ninety"

The speaker continues the odd personification by calling them "[h]appy bells" in the second stanza: "Happy bells of eighteen-ninety." The "happy bells" remind him of "laurel, shrubs and privet, / Red geraniums in flower."

They recall these plants because they are "[b]ursting from [their] freestone tower." He dramatizes the bells' performance, but now claiming they "burst," he contradicts his characterization of them as "sighing."

A sigh never bursts; a sigh is the result slow exhalation.

The speaker has changed his mind about telling what the bells report and is now addressing the bells themselves.

Third Stanza: "Feet that scamper on the asphalt"

In the third stanza, the speaker changes his topic from the bells to "Feet that scamper on the asphalt." To whom these feet belong is not clear, but whoever the owners are, they "scamper" through the grass and "hide inside the shelter / Bright with ironwork and glass."

Fourth Stanza: "Striving chains of ordered children"

Perhaps the scampering feet in stanza three belong to the "ordered children" that now appear in stanza four. These children are likely part of a school outing as they are in ordered chains.

And they are becoming very cold as they march along the sea: "Purple by the sea-breeze made." Yet they continue "Striving on to prunes and suet." They have a rather unappetizing snack waiting for them.

Fifth Stanza: "Some with wire around their glasses"

Continuing to describe the children, the speaker notes, "Some with wire around their glasses, / Some with wire across their teeth"—as empty a pair of lines as were ever concocted by any poetaster, these two lines stun with their vacuity.

The stanza finishes off as pointlessly as it began: "Writhing frames for running noses / And the drooping lip beneath." The speaker has lost his perspective, flitting from topic to topic.

Sixth Stanza: "Church of England bells of Westgate!"

In the sixth stanza, the speaker again addresses the bells, declaiming, "Church of England bells of Westgate!" Then reports that he is standing on a balcony and the white "woodwork wriggles" around him, and he see clocktowers on either side of him.

Seventh Stanza: "For me in my timber arbour"

The speaker addresses the bells again, asserting that they have one more message for him, and the message is "Plimsolls, plimsolls in the summer, / Oh galoshes in the wet!"

The bells are telling him to wear sneakers when the weather is nice in summer, but rubber boots when it rains.

Reading of Betjeman's "Westgate-On-Sea"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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