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.
John Betjeman’s poem ‘On a portrait of a Death Man’ presents a portrait of a much loved father, in the AQA’s ‘character and voice’, whilst also communicating the harsh, perhaps unpalatable details surrounding the after effects of death and burial.
This is a poem that celebrates both the uniqueness and singularity of the beloved parent, only to contrast the tender personal remembrances with repeated references to the biologically graphic effects of death when we are buried.
This use of Bathos or anti climax through these uneasy juxtapositions makes the poem both poignant and even grotesque.( look at the concluding line of each stanza) For the poem seems to be telling us that we cannot celebrate the vibrancy of life without acknowledging the darkness of death. The poem seems bleak in this pragmatism and even darkly comic too.
The poem does not look away from the realities of death and decay. This focus is made powerful through the use of sensory impressions. Significantly the poet makes the reader aware of their own sensory response to being ALIVE through the variation of sensory impressions explored in the text.
We are acutely aware of the pain of loss because we remember what being alive to one another and one’s life entails.
Perhaps this focus upon the inevitability of ‘decay’ is also some kind of metaphor for remembrance too. We can only live on, according to this poet, whilst we are remembered. Without memory we must utterly decay.
Interestingly there is no reference to the afterlife in this poem. The poet seems to have no faith in a heaven or even in a hell. Death ends us and we rot away.
This lack of faith makes the act of remembrance and celebration through this elegiac poem all the more significant and yet poignant.
It is the responsibility of those who survive to remember, to ‘re-collect’ our loved ones. and to keep on re-collecting!
Analysis of First stanza.
The kind old face, the egg-shaped head, The tie, discreetly loud, The loosely fitting shooting clothes, A closely fitting shroud.
Shapes are important in the opening stanza as the poet re-collects his father. The visual impressions are carefully assembled to evoke the now irrecoverably absent father.
‘We’ are all a collection of assembled bits and pieces in a literal sense and these become transformed into memories and then even into metaphor as we grow away from each other or ultimately disappear through death.
The use of the visual sense also reminds the poet that his deaf father would have relied more intensely on his other senses in order to comprehend his world’s meanings.
Shapes therefore loom large.
This reliance makes the poem movingly empathic with regard to his father’s ways of perceiving and understanding the world.
The oxymoronic ‘discreetly loud’ is a unique and therefore personal memory that gives authenticity to the poem. The poem needs to evoke his father through highly resonant memories, resonant because they reveal a high degree of selectivity as each is standing in place of many.
Yet the humour and tenderness yields to the shocking revelation of the last line: ‘A closely fitting shroud.’ This line shocks as it strips away any illusions about burial. It also manipulates the rhyme ‘loud’ and ‘shroud’ bringing an abrupt end to the comically tender visual memory.
It is as if we are already in death’s waiting room, even ‘wearing’ the accoutrements of death as we live out our daily lives. Yet life’s lie so the poem seems to suggest, is that we pretend that we will not rot away and vanish.
Only the poem with its indestructible words has the capacity to preserve Betjeman’s father. Writing can give us eternal life so the poem may be telling us…
(To be continued)
How to analyse a text quickly!
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