‘Sun and Fun’ and ‘Devonshire Street W.1’ by John Betjeman Essay
‘Sun and Fun’ and ‘Devonshire Street W.1’ by John Betjeman
These two poems, although sharing an ultimately common theme, differ greatly in their content and style. Although the typical indications of Betjeman’s work (simple rhyming and structured stanzas) are evident in both, it is obvious to the reader that his intentions for each poem and how they are interpreted do not correlate.
The essence of both poems is death and what it means to the subject. With ‘Sun and Fun’ we are presented with one poetic voice in the first person narrative – a night-club proprietress. The poem is full of regret and disdain, with our subject looking back at her life and the realization that a materialistic, superficial existence has not benefited her in the slightest. In fact, here she is, alone in a dirty, squalid nightclub without help, support or anything to look forward to. These feelings of hopelessness and morbidity are echoed in ‘Devonshire Street W.1’ yet the character described in this poem, and the range of emotions he experiences, are much more intense for he has just been informed by his doctor that his death is imminent, to be taken by a terminal disease. Unlike ‘Sun and Fun’, the setting here is cold, traditional and sterile, perhaps a reflection of a numb and dazed mind.
With ‘Sun and Fun’, the narrator reflects on her past with young suitors, fashionable clothes, holidays and passion. We are given the impression that, although important at the time, these memories are useless to her and that everything around her was temporary; fleeting moments of fun that could not last forever. With nothing to support or stimulate her, no companion or solidity within her life, what else is there to live for? Betjeman gives the reader the impression here that this woman lives through her regret on a daily basis, clutching memories that are no longer corporeal.
In complete contrast to this, ‘Devonshire Street W.1’ highlights the solidity surrounding the subject, inanimate objects that shall remain when he has gone, the hustle and bustle of everyday London life, the “brick-built” structures, his wife and the relationship that he is leaving behind. There is nothing fleeting or temporary in this man’s life at present – no superficial or trivial considerations – simply cold, numb depression and all that he must leave behind.
In addition to this, with ‘Sun and Fun’, the character’s life is continuing. For example she still works, still notices insignificant details such as “…a host of little spiders” and has the emotional range to reminisce about past events and evaluate their worth. The subject in ‘Devonshire Street W.1’, however is totally affected and numb, unable to comprehend the scale of what he has been told and handle the feelings that accompany the shock.
Betjeman highlights the sunlight in both of these poems, but yet again it’s relevance differs in both. First of all, in ‘Sun and Fun’ the night club proprietress opens up the curtains, providing light to her dark and dingy little nightclub, perhaps in an attempt to remind her of the days when there was “sun enough for lazing upon beaches”. She refers to the sun ‘percolating’ her. Does this mean that the sun gradually infiltrated and spread around her body, bringing happiness and warmth, in reference to burning passions that can never be rekindled? It seems that although this lady appeared to view life in only it’s shallowest capacity, it was the only life she knew and mattered to her all the same.
Contrastingly, in ‘Devonshire Street W.1’ uses the sun as a symbol of life that is ongoing, mocking the frailty and insignificance of the man in comparison with it’s own prominence and permanence. Everyone notices the sun, it is relied upon and gazed upon, yet this man who is suffering, dying and in silent distress bears little importance to the masses ignorant of his plight. Quite simply, they notice the sun and it’s radiating warmth in place of a man and his inverted grief.
Another factor which underlines the difference in these poems is the fact that at their respective ends, there is reflection on the past in one and projection of the future in another. ‘Sun and Fun’ closes with our narrator questioning the worth of her wild, fun days and the use of the material objects in life, now that she is old and alone. Yet in ‘Devonshire Street W.1’ the dying man takes a grim look to the future and, three stanzas in, questions the justice in him dying a “long and painful” death.
It is obvious that these poems are unrelated and the characters differ greatly, but in assessing their relevance when considering death, they both offer valid perspectives on how a human reacts when his demise becomes reality, or at least tangible. Betjeman has adopted a subtle approach for both poems, without corpses or descriptions of death’s decay. But what is just as striking and prominent here is the sense of imminent demise and sadness, carried out with delicate restraint in order to illustrate the thoughts of these characters.