Summoned by Bells

by John Betjeman

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Summoned by Bells, a blank verse autobiography, recollects Betjeman’s childhood, marred by the abusive treatment of a nursery maid, Maud, who instilled in him the dread of damnation, more terrifying than any fiery rhetoric from any preacher’s pulpit. It was she who preached to him about hell, rubbed his face in his own messes, and punished him for his tardiness: “’You’re late for dinner, John.’ I feel again/ That awful feeling, fear confused with thrill,/ As I would be unbuttoned, bent across/ Her starchy apron.” Surprisingly, Betjeman’s choice of meter, unrhymed iambic pentameter, heightens, rather than diminishes, the tension of the scene. The regular iambic rhythm with which the nurse delivers her matter-of-fact remark exposes her inflexibility. Maud’s influence on Betjeman’s themes of guilt and fear of death should not be overlooked.

Though the abusive relationship with Betjeman’s nurse is easily discernible, more complex is the mental torment that the author suffered as a result of his relationship with his father. The poet admits that he could never please his “dear deaf father,” especially after refusing his request to continue the family business: “Partly it is guilt:/’Following in Father’s footsteps’ was the theme/ Of all my early childhood.” With each glance, Betjeman’s father’s eyes accused his son of failure. Even to his dying day, the elder Betjeman had a gaze that seemed to assail the poet, smarting like stinging nettles. Not surprisingly, Betjeman recounts his childhood years as being lonely. His remembrances include lost loves, childhood betrayal, insensitive remarks of a teacher who called him “common,” and childhood bullies at his various schools. Trapped and beaten by two “enemies” at Highgate Junior School, then hurled into the bushes, the adolescent Betjeman emerged from the attack humiliated.

There in the holly bush they threw me down,Pulled off my shorts, and laughed and ran away;And, as I struggled up, I saw grey brick,The cemetery railings and the tombs.

The reader need not be a psychologist to understand from this episode Betjeman’s interconnected associations of fear, pain, and death; yet the poet’s stance in relaying this experience appears neutral, that of an unbiased observer.

It would be incorrect to assume that Summoned by Bells contains merely embarrassing or tragic accounts of Betjeman’s early life. For the most part, the book is a kaleidoscope of colorful topographical portraits of English landscapes and seasides, of city and country dwellings, and of the English people. Nor does Betjeman’s volume lack good nature or compassion. When, as a child, the author fabricated an excuse to avoid fighting a fellow schoolboy, pleading that he had “news from home” that his “Mater was ill,” his would-be combatant, Percival Mandeville, gingerly clasped him on the shoulder comfortingly and said, “All right, old chap. Of course I understand.” This touching account, revealing the ease and spontaneity with which young boys may reverse their adversarial positions and exhibit signs of friendship, is one of the most memorable portraits of Summoned by Bells. The book is not without humor, either. In describing his mother’s complaints about her tooth pain, Betjeman presents Mrs. Betjeman comically, as she charges that her infection is “just the same” as Mrs. Bent’s, who “nearly died” of the disease, though the other lady’s infection was “not, of course, so bad” as Betjeman’s mother’s own ailment.

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