“On a Portrait of a Deaf Man,” written in ballad stanza form (four-line stanzas of alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, rhyming abcb) and published in Old Lights for New Chancels: Verses Topographical and Amatory (1940), exemplifies Betjeman at his best. Approaching the theme of death through images of the five senses, the persona juxtaposes the dead man’s past vitality and productivity with his present idleness and deterioration, “his finger-bones/ Stick[ing] through his finger-ends.” The poet blithely blends understatement, ambiguity, and paradox, revealing death, the eternal silencer, as the ultimate sign of “deafness”:
And when he could not hear me speak He smiled and looked so wiseThat now I do not like to think Of maggots in his eyes.
The comic, yet tragic, portrait of the man may be that of Betjeman’s own father, whom he once described as “deaf” in Summoned by Bells.
Pointing out the dead man’s peculiarities, including his fondness for “potatoes in their skin,” “old City dining-rooms,” the smell of the Cornish air after a rain, and even his penchant for knowing “the name of ev’ry bird,” the poet wryly juxtaposes images of life’s activity with death’s passivity. The allusion to the man’s preference for potatoes is more complex than might initially appear. Betjeman’s father reportedly got angry if his potatoes were not cooked until tender. Ironically, now the man has become, metaphorically, a sort of “potato” in his “skin,” the mush of his decaying body only loosely encompassed by his exterior layer of skin: “But now his mouth is wide to let/ The London clay come in.” Betjeman’s fusion of the macabre with the comic seems a bit perverse, yet frightfully funny, nonetheless. The image of humanity in this vegetative state bears some kinship to Andrew Marvell’s lady in “To His Coy Mistress” (1681), whose virginity ultimately will be violated by worms in the grave.
Betjeman wants his reader to appreciate the incongruity of humanity’s seeming importance with its final insignificance. Though the tone of the poem, on the surface, appears light and humorous, it is not without seriousness. The reader comes to realize, paradoxically, that the dead man, who appeared so vivid and alive, was “deaf” even in life, having failed to “hear” the voice of the persona and the “song” of the bird.