Death in Leamington
She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa.
Beside her the lonely crochet
Lay patiently and unstirred,
But the fingers that would have work’d it
Were dead as the spoken word.
And Nurse came in with the tea-things
Breast high ‘mid the stands and chairs-
But Nurse was alone with her own little soul,
And the things were alone with theirs.
She bolted the big round window,
She let the blinds unroll,
She set a match to the mantle,
She covered the fire with coal.
And ‘Tea!’ she said in a tiny voice
“Wake up! It’s nearly five.”
Oh! Chintzy, chintzy cheeriness,
Half dead and half alive!
Do you know that the stucco is peeling?
Do you know that the heart will stop?
From those yellow Italianate arches
Do you hear the plaster drop?
Nurse looked at the silent bedstead,
At the grey, decaying face,
As the calm of a Leamington ev’ning
Drifted into the place.
She moved the table of bottles
Away from the bed to the wall;
And tiptoeing gently over the stairs
Turned down the gas in the hall.
John Betjeman 1906-1984 (from Mount Zion 1932)
This was one of the first poems published by JB.
S1 … The first line defines the death and place of death without adjective and as a matter-of-fact statement, leaving the reader to furnish an image from his or her own thoughts. Time-wise she died at the time the evening star – Venus – the planet of love and beauty – was visible from her window, an appropriate marriage with death. The window had expensive plate glass and looked out over Leamington Spa – a royal town noted for those seeking heath cures.
S2 … Death is transferred to the unfinished crochet work … the fingers are dead in line with the voice. How the crochet will come alive again and finished is another matter. It points to how the lady was using her last days – the scene is easy to picture.
S3 … The Nurse enters with her tea-things pre-occupied with her the jobs at hand and her internal thoughts and oblivious to the death. What a brilliant way to put it – ‘alone with her own little soul’ – and again the tea-things are personified in a similar way. A clear separateness is established between the death and the Nurse.
S4 … the Nurse goes about her routine evening work … she is fully focused on this … before having time to address the sick lady
S5 … then with some cheeriness the Nurse announces the arrival of tea … asking for her patient to wakeup … you can imagine her speaking with the back to the bed … the Nurse is very much alive and of course her ladyship very much dead … the room is distinctly divided … ‘half dead and half alive’ nicely gives a comparison between the two.
S6 … then still not aware of the situation and not looking at the bed the Nurse comments on the state of the plasterwork … death is personified in the falling plaster … and the Nurse says ‘do you know that the heart will stop’ referring to the arches … (if the lady could speak she would say ‘Yes indeed’!)
S7 … then attention is turned to the bed and bedside … and Nurse becomes well aware of what has happened … and there is a still calm about the death scene and equally the still of a Leamington evening drifts into place as the day dies in unison
S8 … the Nurse is very careful now to show great respect by moving bottles to safety at the bedside and then quietly leaving without disturbing the peace of death to quietly tip toe down the stairs and to turn down the hall gas – (symbolic sympathy by this action)
It is so easy to picture the scene … beautifully crafted with the dying day and the dying plaster… with just enough detail in the account of the transaction focusing on specific actions … showing the respect between Nurse and patient together with a sort of matter of fact acceptance of death which Nurse knew was coming soon.
It is easy to see why this was chosen as the first up poem in my ‘Best of Betjeman’ book.
John Betjeman was Poet Laureate of the UK from 1972 to 1984 and here is a link to John Betjeman on Wikipedia … https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Betjeman
And here is a reading of this poem on YouTube (by Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams) … https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dI8SYa8Szo