Even if the teashop is in the renowned city of Bath, the title of this delightfully whimsical little poem isn’t instantly and ear-catchingly promising. Whiling away the time with idle chitchat and the latest gossip is what we’d most likely expect.
The first two lines, however, are decidedly not what we’d most expect. The curtain goes up on the high romance of a blissful love scene involving a man and woman. It’s love of such depth and intensity, that it mustn’t be sullied by mere words which couldn’t possibly capture its transcendental ecstasy. It can only be expressed in the warm and firm but yielding touch of hands, and in the interlocking of eyes that are transparent to the disclosure of the innermost feelings and desires of fast beating hearts. We’re privileged to be the witnesses of something extra special !
BUT, the next two lines suddenly pull the rug out from under our spellbound feet. This woman is no Helen of Troy, whose outstanding beauty led to the launching of a thousand ships, as well as a world famous war. On the contrary, she’s “such a very ordinary little woman“, of a suitably teashop type. Similarly, this man is no Hector, Prince of Troy, the greatest of the Trojan warriors, and the noblest of disposition in his devotion to his royal and military duties. On the contrary, he’s “such a thumping crook“. What an unexpected, and total, let down ! But all is not lost …..
The last two lines tell us that no person, and no situation, is beyond redemption. Even it’s only “for a moment“, the teashop’s chimney corner, its “ingle nook“, is suddenly lit up with the radiance of heaven itself. After all, the Good Book says that God created us to be just “a little lower than the angels”, and it urges us to “love one another, because love is from God.” So here we have these two ‘almost-angels’, momentarily entirely entwined and, (to borrow some words from a hymn), ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’ – of one another.
As so often in Betjeman’s poetry, underneath some lighthearted poking of fun, there’s something deeper, and worthy of more serious thought – such as ‘the redeeming power of love’. Even for a “thumping crook”, to suddenly discover love in one’s heart, is to move from irresponsible self-centredness to thoughtful consideration for another. And even for “a very ordinary little woman”, the everyday banalities of life can be magically transformed by an experience that transcends all of these. Perhaps it’s true, then, that the greatest power in the world is Love – if only you and I were more able, to be more open, to both its giving and receiving.