Betjeman and Toplady

This is an addendum to the post about altered hymns.  And an addendum to the post about WWII reading.

Last night I picked up Trains and Buttered Toast: Selected Radio Talks by the poet John Betjeman (pronounced Betchman).  Random flipping brought me to a talk about Augustus Toplady (how would you say his name?), the author of the hymn Rock of Ages. Betjeman’s words:

“One further fact about the hymn, before going on to its author: in my hymn books the last verse has been revised to start:

When I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyelids close in death…

Toplady’s words are far more vivid and less mellifluously Victorian: they are more characteristic of Quarles and the seventeenth-century poets Toplady loved:

When I draw this fleeting breath
When my eyestrings break in death…

I always sing that line myself, despite the rest of the congregation.”

The heat and intensity with which Toplady and John Wesley publicly quarrel is a bit of a shock.  Controversy in the church is nothing new.  One last quote from the article, an Augustus Toplady quote:

“The deathbed of a Christian is the antechamber of heaven, the very suburbs of the New Jerusalem.”

~     ~     ~

I am fascinated, intrigued and just plain interested in John Betjeman, a man about whom C.S. Lewis (his tutor at Oxford) wrote “I wish I could get rid of the idle prig.”  Yet a book critic called him “one of the pleasantest minor writers in the world.”

Several of Betjeman’s books now populate my wish list, but there is one I plan to buy soon: Sweet Songs of Zion: Selected Radio Talks.  From the product description:

…these talks concerning hymns and hymn writers were Betjeman’s swan song as a broadcaster. ‘Hymns are the poems of the people’, Betjeman observed in his first talk, and went on to show how variously this insight has been borne out over generations. Rich in anecdote and packed with information, these timeless talks will appeal to fans of Betjeman and newcomers alike, and will inspire everyone who has a fondness for hymns, and delights in Betjeman’s unique voice.  


8 thoughts on “Betjeman and Toplady

  1. Ya know, I am thankful for your kind comments about introducing you to otherwise unknown tidbits (authors/painters, what not),  at my site.  But the same is true of you.I know nothing of John Betjeman, but will learn a little about him today thanks to your research.One of the books I received for Christimas is about the stories behind hymns…. I share your annoyance at the change in wording as well as the trait of singing it the *right* way. Keep up the good work!

  2. Okay, so I guess I must tell you about my dad…he has a copy of the Brethren hymnal and he sings one of them ( a capella) every morning. Let me just say that the only redeeming factor of my dad’s voice is that he does sing on key! Do you have one of these hymnals?

  3. @hiddenart – Thank you!@LimboLady – Well we both know that your dad and I would be best friends if we lived close to each other, don’t we?  What’s not to love?  He loves words, books, hymns…and you!Yes, I have a brethren hymnal in my (vast! heh heh..well, growing) hymnal collection.  My grandfather was one of the compilers of Choice Hymns of the Faith.  My SIL’s grandfather was one of the compilers of the little black hymnal (I can’t remember the name). Then there is the “Hymns for the Little Flock” which doesn’t have music.  I don’t have that one.  I think the “strict” or “tight” brethren use it.Here is an obscure thing about me: Curt and I took a hymnal on our honeymoon!Don’t you just love “Hymns are the poems of the people.”?

  4. Oh, my gosh, you just made me flash back to Breaking of Bread, where we had the 2 hymnals, the red one and the black one–and I could never understand (well, I don’t think I really gave it a second thought at the time) why we had to have 2 of them. Do you know why?

  5. I’m another singer of hymns the right way in spite of the congregation.  And I think there ought to be a law against reciting Psalms in church in anything other than the Authorized Version.  Merry Christmas and congratulations on the new baby!Oh, and thanks for the pronunciation help — every time I see that name I wonder… and pronounce every letter, only sometimes the j is /j/ and sometimes it’s /y/.  Please don’t tell me that Toplady is anything other than Top Lady.  No, if it is, I really need to know and the English people do have a charming way of pronouncing perfectly obvious words in fanciful ways.

  6. Hello Carol,  In my constant search for new authors of excellence I had seen Betjeman’s name tossed around.  Once at a book sale I grabbed up a copy of one of his books and took it home to devour.  What a shock to find that it was all about architecture – one of his passions that I had not known about beforehand.  The funny thing was that he managed to include a few items of theological controversy even in that little book!On another note:  The altered Christmas hymn that bugs me the most is the one where we sing “offspring of the favored one” instead of the correct wording: “offspring of the Virgin’s womb”.  The whole deity of Christ is put into question when we throw out the virgin birth!

  7. @hopeinbrazil – Yes, Betjeman is a bit eccentric.  What I’ve read so far has charmed me.  You are the second person to mention the horrific change in Hark the Herald Angels Sing. That’s worth throwing a fit over!@BadgerMum –  I  truly don’t know how to say Toplady.  I googled and poked around looking for some help.  Most sources said Betjeman is “Betchman” and that is the simplest way to communicate it.  But I loved one post which said, “It’s pronounced exactly like it is spelled: Bet / je / man.”   That helps me spell it!  I don’t know about you, but when I meet someone I often ask how their name is spelled.  Because it makes a difference to me if it is Laurie, or Lori, Lisa or Liese, Cathy or Kathie.  The English do!  Another tidbit I found was a native Englander confused over an American’s destination which happened to be his hometown:  She said lo-bo-ro but Loughborough is pronounced Luff-burrow. 

  8. If I don’t know how to spell a word, I can’t remember it.  We had a neighbor once who had to tell me about four times what his name was — once I needed to telephone him and I couldn’t find it in the phone book:  “What was it?  Cannisol?  That’s not in there… Maybe it’s Greek.  Try a K…”  Finally I asked him to write it down for me.Knoesl.  Kuh-NAY-sul.  Huh.  It’s German.  Now I’ll never forget it, and you see, I haven’t — we only lived near him for a year and we moved away six years ago.Merry sixth day of Christmas and congratulations on the newest grandbaby!  What a year.

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