Across the wet November night
The church is bright with candlelight
And waiting Evensong.
A single bell with plaintive strokes
Pleads louder than the stirring oaks
The leafless lanes along.
It calls the choirboys from their tea
And villagers, the two or three,
Damp down the kitchen fire,
Let out the cat, and up the lane
Go paddling through the gentle rain
Of misty Oxfordshire.
How warm the many candles shine
Of Samuel Dowbiggin's design
For this interior neat,
These high box pews of Georgian days
Which screen us from the public gaze
When we make answer meet;
How gracefully their shadow falls
On bold pilasters down the walls
And on the pulpit high.
The chandeliers would twinkle gold
As pre-Tractarian sermons roll'd
Doctrinal, sound and dry.
From that west gallery no doubt
The viol and serpent tooted out
The Tallis tune to Ken,
And firmly at the end of prayers
The clerk below the pulpit stairs
Would thunder out "Amen."
But every wand'ring thought will cease
Before the noble altarpiece
With carven swags array'd,
For there in letters all may read
The Lord's Commandments, Prayer and Creed,
And decently display'd.
On country mornings sharp and clear
The penitent in faith draw near
And kneeling here below
Partake the heavenly banquet spread
Of sacramental Wine and Bread
And Jesus' presence know.
And must that plaintive bell in vain
Plead loud along the dripping lane?
And must the building fall?
Not while we love the church and live
And of our charity will give
Our much, our more, our all.
From "High and Low" (1966) & "Collected Poems"
© The Estate of John Betjeman
Reproduced by kind permission of John Murray (Publishers).