Poetry Sunday: In Westminster Abbey

Today’s poem was one I first read in Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. This is slightly odd since its author was not an atheist himself. However, this poem is a biting little satire of prayer, one whose point is all the more valid for having been made by a believer, and as such, it makes for a good entry in this series.

John Betjeman was an English poet who lived during the twentieth century. He studied at Oxford, where he ultimately left without obtaining a degree. While there, he studied under C.S. Lewis. According to Betjeman’s blank-verse autobiography Summoned by Bells, Lewis did not like him, and the feeling was mutual.

After Oxford, Betjeman began to publish poetry. His work was nostalgic, sentimental and evocative, yet with a playful and humorous streak. Combined with his work as a television broadcaster, it made him hugely popular with the public. In 1972, he was named the UK’s Poet Laureate, which title he held until his death in 1984.

Betjeman was an Anglican, but many of his poems contain elements of uncertainty and doubt. In his poem “The Conversion of St. Paul”, he writes: “But most of us turn slow to see / The figure hanging on a tree / And stumble on and blindly grope / Upheld by intermittent hope”. All these tendencies are also on display in today’s poem, a sharp, witty satire of the self-centered nature of most personal prayer, written from the viewpoint of a high-class English lady during World War II.

In Westminster Abbey

Let me take this other glove off
  As the vox humana swells,
And the beauteous fields of Eden
  Bask beneath the Abbey bells.
Here, where England’s statesmen lie,
Listen to a lady’s cry.

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans.
  Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
  We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be,
Don’t let anyone bomb me.

Keep our Empire undismembered
  Guide our Forces by Thy Hand,
Gallant blacks from far Jamaica,
  Honduras and Togoland;
Protect them Lord in all their fights,
And, even more, protect the whites.

Think of what our Nation stands for,
  Books from Boots and country lanes,
Free speech, free passes, class distinction,
  Democracy and proper drains.
Lord, put beneath Thy special care
One-eighty-nine Cadogan Square.

Although, dear Lord, I am a sinner,
  I have done no major crime;
Now I’ll come to Evening Service
  Whensoever I have the time.
So, Lord, reserve for me a crown.
And do not let my shares go down.

I will labour for Thy Kingdom,
  Help our lads to win the war,
Send white flowers to the cowards
  Join the Women’s Army Corps,
Then wash the Steps around Thy Throne
In the Eternal Safety Zone.

Now I feel a little better,
  What a treat to hear Thy word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen,
  Have so often been interr’d.
And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date.

Other posts in this series:

Weekend Bonus Music: Hard Believer
Weekend Coffee: March 28
I Get Religious Mail: If Wishes Were Airplanes
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    What a great poem! It may be that such a stinging satire could only have been written by a believer.

  • Brad

    I don’t really like much poetry, but i totally dig this :D haven’t gotten to it yet in the portable atheist.

  • Jim Baerg

    BTW I think I’ve seen Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” mentioned on this blog, but a search didn’t find it on this blog. However, its message is similar to the message of today’s poem.

    A more general google search finds several copies on the web.

  • http://packbat.livejournal.com/ Robin Z

    This is a particularly nice version of The War Prayer, in my opinion.

    Actually, I was reminded of another poem by a non-atheist …

    Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
    As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
    That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
    Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
    I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
    Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
    Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
    But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
    Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
    But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
    Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
    Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
    Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
    Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.