Monday, 22 December 2008

The love that lay too deep for kissing

We love poetry. Does that make us seem as if we have been snarled on some nasty twig near the bank while the great river of modernity rushes by? We don't care.

And is there not a place for poetry in the EFL classroom, regardless of the fact that there is none in the exam? Surely we are not so enslaved by the exam.

We say it's worth having a go. One or two students might be delighted to see how pleasant poetry can be if you read it aloud. The sound can be so much of a pleasure that it doesn't matter if the meaning of a few phrases here and there is unclear. In any case, to say that a poem is enigmatic is more of a compliment than a criticism.

One poet who has written verses that are particularly enjoyable to read aloud is John Betjeman, writing from a very English middle class perspective with a great deal of nostalgia. The poem "Indoor Games at Newbury" is a lovely evocation of the love of a boy whose chin is still as smooth as his cheek.

After students have managed to read the poem aloud with style (and sufficient phonetic fidelity), one particular line could be picked out for discussion. A "love that lay too deep for kissing." Is there such a love? Students are bound to have opinions worth discussing.

We reproduce the poem here hoping that we do not thereby do damage to Betjeman's estate. (It has been gratefully borrowed from the collection at

Indoor Games near Newbury
poem by John Betjeman

In among the silver birches,
Winding ways of tarmac wander
And the signs to Bussock Bottom,
Tussock Wood and Windy Break.
Gabled lodges, tile-hung churches
Catch the lights of our Lagonda
As we drive to Wendy's party,
Lemon curd and Christmas cake

Rich the makes of motor whirring
Past the pine plantation purring
Come up Hupmobile Delage.
Short the way our chauffeurs travel
Crunching over private gravel,
Each from out his warm garage.
O but Wendy, when the carpet
Yielded to my indoor pumps.
There you stood, your gold hair streaming,
Handsome in the hall light gleaming
There you looked and there you led me
Off into the game of Clumps.

Then the new Victrola playing;
And your funny uncle saying
"Choose your partners for a foxtrot.
Dance until it's tea o'clock
Come on young 'uns, foot it feetly.
"Was it chance that paired us neatly?
I who loved you so completely.
You who pressed me closely to you,
Hard against your party frock.

"Meet me when you've finished eating."
So we met and no one found us.
O that dark and furry cupboard,
While the rest played hide-and-seek.
Holding hands our two hearts beating.
In the bedroom silence round us
Holding hands and hardly hearing
Sudden footstep, thud and shriek

Love that lay too deep for kissing.
"Where is Wendy? Wendy's missing."
Love so pure it had to end.
Love so strong that I was frightened
When you gripped my fingers tight.
And hugging, whispered "I'm your friend."

Goodbye Wendy. Send the fairies,
Pinewood elf and larch tree gnome.
Spingle-spangled stars are peeping
At the lush Lagonda creeping
Down the winding ways of tarmac
To the leaded lights of home.

There among the silver birches,
All the bells of all the churches
Sounded in the bath-waste running
Out into the frosty air.
Wendy speeded my undressing.
Wendy is the sheet's caressing
Wendy bending gives a blessing.
Holds me as I drift to dreamland
Safe inside my slumber wear.

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