Poet’s Intentions, Date, Gist and Tone
In Westminster Abbey by Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984) is a bitingly satirical poem, set in the Second World War (1939-45) as we can see from:
Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans.
It is about the attitudes of those who believe themselves to be upstanding members of the Church of England, yet have far from Christian instincts. The “lady” promises God she will:
Send white feathers to the cowards and petitions Him to show favouritism to “the whites” fully expecting the approval of the Almighty. The intention of the poet is to ridicule attitudes that he finds disgraceful, in an exuberant and entertaining way, so that we are not taught a worthy sermon but rather enjoy a rather boisterous joke at the expense of the narrator. Geoffrey Chaucer uses the same method. Betjeman would hope that readers, recognising the irony, would then be alert to any such attitudes in themselves and others and see these attitudes more clearly as hypocritical.
The persona Betjeman adopts is a comfortably off, complacent, middle-aged woman who attends services in Westminster Abbey “Whensoever” she has “the time”. It is most likely that the “lady” is a universal type rather than a real person. The first stanza introduces the character as a fussy woman who puts herself first:
Let me take this other glove off
The bouncy, trochaic rhythm (stressed unstressed) immediately gives us an indication of her style of speech as rather peremptory. She uses the Imperative voice even in prayer and reassures God that if he ends up bombing innocent German women: We will pardon Thy Mistake. Audience reaction to this ignorantly blasphemous remark would be uproarious, and possibly guilty, laughter, because blasphemy is a guilty pleasure. Orthodox religion maintains that God makes no mistakes. Before Betjeman sets the scene, the lady gets herself into the mood for a religious service by adopting an appropriately elevated tone, and lexical field (vocabulary) with a Latin phrase to describe the singing:
As the vox humana swells,
And the beauteous fields of Eden Bask beneath the Abbey bells.
Here, where England's statesmen lie, However, the word “Bask” emphasised by the consonance (Abbey, beauteous, beneath and bells) and our suspicions from the first line, add to our sense of the lady’s complacency. She has come to give God her petitions in the tone of a woman who runs a household and demands instant efficiency from her staff. She is not in the habit of saying please; she enjoins God to: “Listen to a lady's cry”
Form and Literary Context
We hear the monologue of her prayers in seven fairly regular stanzas of six lines each (sexains or sextets – both correct) in trochaic tetrameter. The traditional form is typical of Betjeman’s style and appropriate to this subject as the lady is, on the surface, a conventional figure. However, the rhythm is martial (war-like, marching, bossy) and occasionally jarring, which has a counterpart in her reflections, particularly the last line of each stanza which exposes her true motives and feelings to be consistently self-centred, and provides a regular punch-line. Meaning, Sub-text and Alternative Interpretations
Although it is natural in war for soldiers to pray that they will survive and the corollary of that is, almost inevitably, that their enemies will die, the brutality of the lady’s prayer to a merciful Christian God is shocking and ludicrous. She shows her Christian charity rather illogically but realising the difficulties, unwittingly adds to the irony:
Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans. Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy We will pardon Thy Mistake.
Betjeman uses conventional liturgical language in “Gracious Lord, oh”… “Spare”… “for Thy Sake” but instead of the lady asking for pardon, it is God that she graciously offers to pardon! The alliterative s emphasises her supposed charity. Her ludicrously…