The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again,
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hooker's Green.
The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that villagers can say
"The Church looks nice" on Christmas Day.
Provincial public houses blaze
And Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says "Merry Christmas to you all"
And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.
And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad,
And Christmas morning bells say "Come!"
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.
And is it true? and is it true?
The most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant.
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.
John Betjeman (1906-1984)
John Betjeman was the Poet Laureate of England from 1972 through 1984. One would hope that his "official" poems were less melancholy and/or cynical than this one and "Advent 1955".
As I was re-reading this poem this morning, I got wondering about Crimson Lake and Hooker's Green, both of which are mentioned in the first stanza. I assumed they were locations in London, but actually they're both colors. Crimson Lake is a deep red, and was the signature color of the locomotives of the London Midland and Scottish Railway. Hooker's Green is "a blend of gamboge and Prussian blue," which is to say a blend of intense golden yellow and dark blue. I don't know if it has any particular cultural significance.