Betjeman’s Reverse Blazon: Assembling and Disassembling the Loved Body

Andrew David King
October 19, 2013
Comments 1

John Betjeman’s “The Licorice Fields at Pontefract” is a curious thing. The first two lines go as follows:

In the licorice fields at Pontefract
My love and I did meet*

Before anything else, I’ve a confession to cough up: yes, these lines sound—undeniably, regrettably, stereotypically—cringe-worthy to the modern ear. But put that out of mind for now and notice, here, the echo of Yeats’s “Down by the Salley Gardens”:

Down by the salley gardens
my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens
with little snow-white feet.*

Their loves and they did meet—one pair down by the salley gardens, another on the outskirts of the hard-worked and hardworking West Yorkshire industrial town of Pontefract, in licorice fields never so far away from the factories that they manage to escape their shadows. Betjeman’s repetition of this colloquial additional syllable is already, purposively, showing signs of strain; he’s gently mocking Yeats, true, but also the frustration of classical exhibitions of courtship to stay relevant as the centuries churn forward, the subjugation of serious love to the pursuit of capital, or both. The object of Betjeman’s love is, fittingly, far from the “snow-white” hands and feet of the lover depicted by Yeats (a trope that traces back to Spenser and earlier): she’s the owner of the “strongest legs in Pontefract,” an accolade whose sexual undertones are difficult not to pick up on.

While Yeats’s poem features a speaker whose surface is that of the prototypically stoic, adamantine male, the figure whose tragedy stems from his refusal to “take love easy,” as his airy lover implores him, Betjeman’s speaker is woozy and weak from the outset. He swoons at the stature and force of the woman who stands before him. Like the speaker of “Down by the Salley Gardens,” who disembodies his lover into hands and feet (hands and feet that pushed him, unsuccessfully, toward what he now regrets doing), Betjeman’s speaker dissects his darling, itemizes her, pulls her across the blades of categories in an attempt to show us her remarkable wholeness. Both speakers produce such a catalog; both “blazon” the female body before them.

But then, in Betjeman’s case, something else happens: the male speaker is overwhelmed, and reconstituted, by the very presence he has divided up. A sort of reverse blazon, as it were, subjects his body to the gazing, taxonomical logic of the poem, to the vehicles of his thought and speech—a reversal that doesn’t imprison him but forms him.

*

A caveat: there’s no definite reason to think the speaker is male besides an appeal to the genders of Betjeman and Yeats, which should be irrelevant. I’m “reading maleness,” I realize, into the speakers of these poems: there’s nothing here that indicates that the speakers, strictly speaking, are male, though the recipients of their adoration are explicitly designated as (at least biologically) female. At the same time, I don’t think such a reading-into, such a gendering of the speaker, is completely unreasonable, precisely for the reason that “Down by the Salley Gardens” is made more intelligible, I think, by an interpretation that understands the speaker’s resistance to love as a male phenomenon (or is it “affliction”?). And Betjeman’s poem, by extension, is sharpened when understood as a revision of this resistance.

*

“Blazon,” from the French blason, or shield, is a term used in heraldry for a formal description of an emblem or a coat of arms or the like. Blazons proceed by their own grammar and rules, and have, correspondingly, a unique set of words customized for their purposes. “Or” for gold and “argent” for silver, for instance. The list of colors, or “tinctures,” reads like a strangely musical inventory itself: gules, azure, sable, purpure, tenné, sanguine, vert. Accidentally or not, this inventory—a specific and formal account of a coat of arms, a thing of pride—carries over in both name and method to its poetic counterpart.

One could attempt to give a history of the poetic blazon, or blason, but it would be long and digressive, and maybe misguided: isn’t one of the uses of poetry to which we’re most sympathetic the aim of describing and documenting (maybe this is too cold a term; try “savoring,” “replicating,” “appreciating”) the likeness of a lover or loved one? That said, there are prominent examples in the Western poetic canon: Petrarch, for one, whose Canzoniere never quite gives us his Laura in full form. The Harley Lyrics, circa 1340, exhibit the technique. Clement Marot, in the sixteenth century, helped to stylize the “blason” as a recognizable genre; a number of poets followed his lead. And then there’s Shakespeare, whose tongue-in-cheek Sonnet 130 turns the blazon’s parade of discrete units of beauty on its head—and this in a way that makes us never confident about whether we know if he’s being truthful, sarcastically (and therefore evidently) misleading, or straddling the line between both:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

And so on.

*

Barthes, in S/Z, on the blazon, one piece in the enormous structure (I use that word purposely) of his analysis of Balzac’s “Sarrasine”:

The spitefulness of language: once reassembled, in order to utter itself, the total body must revert to the dust of words, to the listing of details, to a monotonous inventory of parts, to crumbling: language undoes the body, returns it to the fetish. This return is coded under the term blazon. The blazon consists of predicating a single subject, beauty, upon a certain number of anatomical attributes: she was beautiful for her arms, neck, eyebrows, nose, eyelashes, etc.: the adjective becomes subject and the substantive becomes predicate. Similarly with the striptease… (114, trans. Miller).

Later:

As a genre, the blazon expresses the belief that a complete inventory can reproduce a total body, as if the extremity of enumeration could devise a new category, that of totality… (ibid.)

The same notion repeated: the blazon is a “listing of details,” a “monotonous inventory of parts”—but one with different consequences: it gives not wholeness, not totality, but prevents wholeness, prevents totality. I’m not entirely sure what Barthes means when he says that this undoing, this crumbling into the “dust of words,” returns the body to the fetish. Perhaps he means that the blazon “objectifies,” in a sense not unrelated to the way we use that way today in discourses about sexuality, the body, deprives the agent that it represents of his or her agency. Barthes’s doubt about the success of the blazon as an undertaking aimed at the reproduction of bodies is evinced by his “as if”; but this evincing raises further questions that Barthes does not, at least at this point in S/Z, address. If totality is impossible because it is “linguistic, written,” does it follow that all projects of representation are impossible? Can we never really reference without unceasingly continuing to reference, frightened that any pause in the computation will cause the chain between signifiers and signified to break?

Or is there something peculiar about the body—not just the human body, necessarily, but the body of any “being”—that manages to slip out of the shackles of whatever linguistic container we try to place it into?

*

A reference to The Faerie Queene is in order. In the first canto of Book I of Spenser’s masterwork, the Redcrosse Knight wanders into the den of Errour, who he slaughters, apparently because of her repulsiveness, her monstrosity (this, in itself, should be the subject of another investigation). But while the knight and this she-monster—a term I’ll stick with, since Spenser describes her as “Halfe like a serpent horribly displaide, / But th’ other halfe did womans shape retaine…”—fight each other in the womb-like shadows of the cave, more than one interplay of bodies evolves: the two clash, but so does each with his or her own representation. Struck on her head and shoulder by the knight, the she-monster, we’re told, was “dazd,” and yet,

…kindling rage, her selfe she gathered round,
And all attonce her beastly body raizd
With doubled forces high above the ground… (I.i.18.155-157)

She “gathers” her body, which then unifies and raises “attonce”; its prior divisions seem to be of no concern. Not even “of no concern” in a neutral sense—they seem bizarrely incomprehensible, even, as her body rises “[w]ith doubled forces” and duplicates the power of a whole that had been previously separated into parts by the blow of the knight. Soon after, it’s the knight’s turn to be blazoned, and we’re told that Errour’s enormous, serpentlike tail

All suddenly about his body wound,
That hand or foot to stirre he strove in vaine.
God helpe the man so wrapt in Errours endless traine. (Ibid., 160-162).*

Setting aside the hilarity (taken as a perhaps-unintended pun, however sardonic or chauvinistic, on male-female relations) and intelligence of the last line—itself another instance of duality, this time via a disconnected interjection on the behalf of the narrator that mirrors Errour’s status as character with the conventional definition of the word—something happens here that correlates with the situation Betjeman’s speaker finds himself in. His body is “wound,” and so, one might think, composed, held together, bound in the way a book is bound, with all the constraint that entails; but this reading is undone by the isolated, particulate description of the “hand or foot” that follows. The Redcrosse Knight’s agency isn’t eliminated, but split into halves, quarters, a number of pieces. He is, in other words, a whole greater than the sum of his parts, a chance arrangement of objects that gives the illusion of coherence between them.

*

I want to think about this line from “Sarrasine,” when the narrator, speaking to Beatrix, the Marquise de Rochefide, describes the appearance of La Zambinella (a young castrato—beautiful, but with a mutilated body, a “lessened” body, nonetheless) to the story’s eponymous character for the first time:

This was more than a woman, this was a masterpiece! (227).

That’s it, really—I just want to think about it.

*

The second of Betjeman’s three stanzas in “The Licorice Fields at Pontefract” gives a picture of the industrial landscape that buttresses, and maybe even gives rise to, the speaker’s rendezvous with his lover: the “lowly streets,” the “tanneries and silent mills”—for it’s a Sunday evening, a lull in the pulse of the machinery—and “the little shuttered corner shops.” But the last stanza is worth quoting in full for its blazoning of the speaker’s body:

She cast her blazing eyes on me
And plucked a licorice leaf;
I was her captive slave and she
My red-haired robber chief.
Oh love! for love I could not speak,
It left me winded, wilting, weak
And held in brown arms strong and bare
And wound with flaming ropes of hair.*

Three things. First, the lover herself doesn’t escape being blazoned; she is, in the end, still “brown arms strong and bare,” even if this line playfully reverses the heteronormative account of who should hold who (and whose arms should be strong, or bare, and so on). But this is hardly noticeable for the way she disassembles the speaker: the force of her vision, her “blazing” eyes, comes down on him just as she plucks a licorice leaf, taking apart not just him but the environment that encompasses them as well. His voice is gone; he is her “captive slave,” a politically-charged but somehow still sensuous title. Second, though the speaker could not, ostensibly, speak then, he speaks now, even giving an apostrophic simulation of the energy of that moment (“Oh love!”). But when he says “for love I could not speak,” does he mean because of love or in the place of love? I take it the first interpretation is the intended one, but the second still lingers, and with it lingers the persistent question of whether or not this sort of love can be mimed, represented, or transmitted at all.

Lastly, one might say that what’s happening here isn’t a blazoning in the sense that I’ve been describing. On the face of it, the objection seems right: just where is the speaker’s body itemized? But the blazoning here is of a different sort: the blazing eyes, the flaming ropes of hair, all of these place the speaker on the verge of being pulled apart, both psychologically and physically. The brown arms, after all, hold him, somehow contain him; the hair winds around him precisely when his voice disappears—the apparatus through which he expresses his selfness—keeping him from disintegration. Unlike the more traditional male-to-female blazons, this female-to-male one never admits of a visible separation of the parts of the male body, though the alliterative “winded, wilting, weak” might testify to a tripartite carving-up of mental states. Something either more charitable is going on, in that the body remains apparently “one,” or something more insidious: whereas an identifiable inventory makes clear its indexical project, this mode conceals division in its very enactment.

*

Another line from “Sarrasine”:

La Zambinella displayed to him [Sarrasine], united, living, and delicate, those exquisite female forms he so ardently desired, of which a sculptor is at once the severest and the most passionate judge.

The sculptor as a paternalistic, godlike entity: this is not exactly what’s important in this brief passage outlining La Zambinella’s appearance to the artist Sarrasine. “Fragmented Woman,” Barthes says, is divided, anatomized; “she is merely a kind of dictionary of fetish objects.” The artist, however, performs the work of Dr. Frankenstein, putting this “sundered, dissected body” back together—“the body of love descended from the heaven of art…” (112). Caught between the impression of astounding unity and beauty that he wishes to preserve and the limitations of any method he wishes to employ in preserving it, Sarrasine’s frustration is perpetual. But it is not his alone. It carries over to language and its speakers, to texts and their readers, setting rifts between them. On the one hand, the wholeness we wish to keep; on the other, the splinters and remnants of our attempts to literalize the unliteralizable. Our heresies of paraphrase, per Brooks, extend to the body, to the world and its inhabitants, as well.

*

A curious thing: Betjeman kept two stuffed animal companions throughout his life. One, Archibald Ormsby-Gore—“Archie” for short—was a teddy bear; the other, Jumbo, was a toy elephant. Andrew Motion, in his introduction to Betjeman’s Collected Poems, describes the teddy bear as “notorious” while acknowledging its place in Betjeman’s work and public persona. Quotes from Betjeman’s Wikipedia article, as yet unsourced, maintain that Betjeman took Archie with him to Oxford, where he inspired Aloysius, the bear of Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; the article also claims that Betjeman had both Archie and Jumbo in his arms when he passed away in 1984. “[M]y safe old bear,” he wrote of Archie in his poem “Before MCMXIV.”

This is sweetening, saddening, puzzling. What does it mean—does it mean anything—to carry a select few objects with one through one’s life, to retain, despite the sea changes and storms, some static? Maybe it is akin, if only in an indirect way, to the feat the body, no matter how blazoned, dissected, or torn apart by lovers and voyeurs alike, manages to perform: the conservation of its remarkable, almost contradictory integrity. The blazon is just one phenomenon in poetry that brings the philosophical problem of identity into the picture, but it is an important one; it asks us to ask ourselves just what it is we love about the people we love, and then gives us nothing when we fail to produce an answer. Teased forward by it, we tease ourselves forward with it. In “The Licorice Fields at Pontefract,” Betjeman’s speaker falls from wholeness into parts; to hold onto the items that anchor one, then, makes sense.

Think of Sarrasine, sitting aside La Zambinella at a group dinner, enamored with her (his) form. He notices that she (he) shivers when a bottle of champagne is uncorked; this “weakness,” the sculptor and suitor thinks, is charming. “‘My strength your shield!’” he says to himself, so far as we can trust our narrator. “Is this not written at the heart of all declarations of love?” The blazon shares an etymological relationship with the concept “shield” (as in armor, as in battle), but here the implications may be different: the blazon, far from acting as a “protector” in the service of the lover’s obsession, prevents the loved body from ever being completely known, keeps it safely in its sublimity, refuses to let its essence be extracted. It denies explication.

 

 

 

*The indentation of asterisked stanzas can’t be accurately represented by this blog’s format.

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