Happy 110th Birthday John Betjeman. Remembering “Archibald”.
Betjeman. Not just a popular poet, but the man who had to be a nation’s Alan Bennett for decades before Alan Bennett was old enough. And yes he wrote about Anglican prayers, and insensitive architectural developments and playing tennis with Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. But he also wrote one of the most terrifying poems of the twentieth century.
The bear who 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 on 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;
My father would have thought me soft,
Or so, at least, my mother said.
She only then our secret knew,
And thus my guilty passion grew.
The bear who sits above my bed
More agèd now is he 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 agèd bear away,
Then, oh my God, the dreadful void!
Its draughty darkness could but be
I find this poem as powerfully fatalistic as “Aubade” by Betjeman’s friend – the unchurchgoing author of “Church Going” – Philip Larkin.
We all of us need someone or some thing to cling to. This Teddy Bear is a continuing yet aging reminder of this clinginess, this desperate yearning for comfort and for unconditional love. Yet the bear is accusatory, not because the bear has life and opinions, but because the expectation of unconditional love in a teddy bear (and not just in a teddy bear) is not to be gratified. The bear cannot mean what the boy and the man and the man-boy wants the bear to mean.
These simple tetrameter stanzas close with couplets of devastating finality. The final line, which consists of just two words looks as though it is unfinished. It isn’t.
If a teddy bear really is a source of comfort it is also a witness. If it really is an intimate, then its intimate knowledge is terrifying. Even as an inert fraying collection of cloth and fur, the range of experiences it has organised is the stuff of nightmares.
A grown man should not have to depend on a teddy bear for comfort. But the long, life-defining habits of dependency are such that no life without this bear is now conceivable. This is one of the best poems about addiction ever written – a poem about identity and damnation.