Poetry Analysis: Cornish Cliffs by John Betjeman
John Betjeman was one of Britain's most popular poets of the 20th Century. He could be harsh in his poems about areas and places in Britain, for instance about Slough in Berkshire. 'Cornish Cliffs', however, reveals Betjeman's love for the English county of Cornwall.
Betjeman's Love of Cornwall
From the very first line and first verse of the poem, Betjeman's enthusiasm for Cornwall is made clear. The imagery also has an immediate impact on the reader.
Betjeman's description of nature gets increasingly more vivid, and he seems to prefer the wildness of Cornwall to that of "gardened Surrey". He also makes a curious historical reference, when he compares a gun from the Second World War with a hillfort of pre-Saxon and Norman times, and how the gun looks even older.
In the second half of 'Cornish Cliffs', Betjeman writes about the smells of the natural world around him, and of the sounds of birds. He comments on how the song of the lark is overpowered by sea birds, and with a very descriptive phrase brings the atmosphere of the sea into the poem. He does this by describing the sea birds as "sailing by", and that the birds notes are "tuned to days when seas are high."
A Picturesque Cornwall
Betjeman paints a picturesque Cornwall, especially in the penultimate verse when he describes the cottages and sycamore. In the final verse of 'Cornish Cliffs', the poet tells us that the area he is writing about is sparsely populated. This may tell us something about Betjeman's nature, and that of poets in general. Poets do like to have room to be contemplative, and that is more difficult in a sprawling big city. Betjeman obviously feels at home in the peace and quiet of Cornwall, surrounded by unspoilt nature.
The construction of this poem is interesting. It consists of ten three line verses. All the lines in the individual verses have the same rhyme, thus the first verse is a, and the second verse is b, and so on. The meter of the poem is written to be read at a steady pace, which is a typical style of Betjeman's. It is also a poem designed to be easy to read out loud. There are slight variations in the rhythm of the poem, but this enhances it and makes it enjoyable to read just from the rhythmical aspect alone.
'Cornish Cliffs' contains beautiful imagery, though some of that imagery is slightly humorous, including describing a whale's blow-hole as like a booming gun in the first verse. More typical of a serious attempt at describing nature comes when Betjeman describes the sky and sea meeting: "Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where / A misty sea-line meets the wash of air." 'Cornish Cliffs' is a good example of John Betjeman's uniquely whimsical poetry.
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