Sunday, 17 April 2011

A Fearsome Bear

Stephen Pentz has a beautiful blog called First Known When Lost, a trove of poetic gems and exquisite illustrations. It has a particularly lovely masthead - a view through stone archways to distant landscape and cerulean skies - which is worth the visit on its own, even if you haven't time to read all the delightful posts just now.

Anyway, Stephen kindly dropped over here to reveal that Archibald Ormsby-Gore actually existed. He, and his friend Jumbo, were Betjeman's lifelong possessions - or companions, depending on the level of sentimentality you are prepared to admit to (one Internet page claims Betjeman died with Archie and Jumbo in his arms, but I think that is the sort of fact that can never be verified and is perhaps left undivulged, if true.)

Anyway, thanks to Stephen, here is Betjeman's poem about his bear, which he dedicated to Philip Larkin (entirely speculatively, I wonder if Larkin might sometimes have looked as if he were thinking 'They'll burn you on the Judgement Day', as Betjeman says Archie did):


The bear that sits above my bed
A doleful bear he is to see;
From out his drooping pear-shaped head
His woollen eyes look into me.
He has no mouth, but seems to say:
'They'll burn you on the Judgement Day.'

Those woollen eyes, the things they've seen
Those flannel ears, the things they've heard -
 Among horse-chestnut fans of green,
The fluting of an April bird,
And quarrelling downstairs until
Doors slammed at Thirty One West Hill.

The dreaded evening keyhole scratch
 Announcing some return below
The nursery landing's lifted latch,
The punishment to undergo
Still I could smooth those half-moon ears
And wet that forehead with my tears.

Whatever rush to catch a train,
Whatever joy there was to share
Of sounding sea-board, rainbowed rain,
Or seaweed-scented Cornish air,
Sharing the laughs, you still were there,
You ugly, unrepentant bear.

 When nine, I hid you in a loft
And dared not let you share my bed;
More agèd now he is to see,
His woollen eyes have thinner thread,
But still he seems to say to me,
 In double-doom notes, like a knell:
'You're half a century nearer Hell.'

Self-pity shrouds me in a mist,
And drowns me in my self-esteem.
The freckled faces I have kissed
Float by me in a guilty dream.
The only constant, sitting there,
Patient and hairless, is a bear.

And if an analyst one day
 Of school of Adler, Jung or Freud
Should take this aged bear away,
Then, oh my God, the dreadful void!
its draughty darkness could but be
Eternity, Eternity


  1. It hurts to read that poem.

  2. Thank you very much for the kind words, zmkc. I'm afraid that all I can muster is "you are too kind" and "I'm not worthy."

    As for the poem: Betjeman can be surprising. For those interested, please have a look at "Remorse" or "On Leaving Wantage 1972."

    Thank you again.

  3. Forget the 'I'm not worthy', Stephen. As for Betjeman, it is hard not to be fond of him, even those his tone is sometimes borderline cloying. There was a book he wrote about architecture (and/or town planning?) that I remember liking, as well as his poetry. He was very sound on buildings (perhaps Archibald's influence - or maybe that was Jumbo's secret passion).

  4. Hey, Polly, shall I read you the last chapter of all Pooh Bear stories now - and then we can watch Toy Story 3. You bring the handkerchieves