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John Betjeman’s poem ‘Suicide on Junction Road Station after Abstention from Evening Communion in North London’ was first published in the collection Continual Dew (1937). It’s short enough to quote in its entirety:

With the roar of the gas my heart gives a shout—
    To Jehovah Tsidkenu the praise!
Bracket and bracket go blazon it out
    In this Evangelical haze!

Jehovah Jireh! the arches ring,
    The Mintons glisten, and grand
Are the surpliced boys as they sweetly sing
    On the threshold of glory land.

Jehovah Nisi! from Tufnell Park,
    Five minutes to Junction Road,
Through grey brick Gothic and London dark,
    And my sins, a fearful load.

Six on the upside! six on the down side!
    One gaslight in the Booking Hall
And a thousand sins on this lonely station—
    What shall I do with them all?

What is this poem about? What is the significance of the three Hebrew phrases starting “Jehovah”? What are “Mintons”? Why does the speaker abstain from communion and commit suicide? Why Junction Road? Is the poem sincere or satirical? If satirical, what is its target?

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I can't explain the terms any better than Peter Shor has already done, nor expand on the direct meaning of the poem, but I'd like to add some thematic commentary, in the hope that this might be considered enough for an answer.

John Betjeman's poetry includes a lot about religion, especially churches, and also a lot about travel, especially by train. Sometimes, as in this poem and others such as "Monody on the Death of Aldersgate Street Station", the two are juxtaposed together. In the poem you're asking about, there's a clear contrast between the religious ectasy of the church and the gloomy grimness of the station. The narrator feels too weighed down by sins to partake in the former, instead confining himself to the latter, which is depressing enough that he turns to suicide.

(No comment on what those sins might be. Peter Shor's suggestion of homosexuality is one possibility; another proposed interpretation is adultery, as Betjeman himself was apparently a serial adulterer. Certainly he remained formally married to Penelope Chetwode throughout his decades-long relationship with Elizabeth Cavendish.)


Betjeman also apparently had a particular fondness for gas lighting, which is mentioned many times in his writings, especially in connection with railway stations and churches.

  • In "Monody on the Death of Aldersgate Street Station" he refers to "us of the steam and the gas-light, the lost generation", which ties in more generally with his love of old-fashioned things.
  • In "Pershore Station, or A Liverish Journey First Class" he contrasts "Gas light on the platform, in my carriage electric light, / Gas light on frosty evergreens, electric on Empire wood" and finishes the poem with a clear indication of which he prefers: "The carriage is new and smart. / I am cushioned and soft and heated with a deadweight in my heart."
  • In "The Cockney Amorist" he speaks of "The vast suburban churches / Together we have found: / The ones which smelt of gaslight / The ones in incense drown’d", again contrasted positively with the "soft electric lamplight" mentioned later.
  • In real life he had an interest in minor nonconformist branches of Christianity, and:

    In The Spectator he wrote of his interest in the Muggletonians, a seventeenth-century sect that lingered on into the nineteenth. Visiting their old meeting house in London, recently converted into a carpet business, he came away with a prized acquisition: a gas bracket which had illuminated the "strange deliberations" of this moribund affiliation ("City and Suburban" [1957] 684).

  • Interestingly, in 1937 (the year of publication of this poem) Betjeman, working as a churchwarden, arranged the conversion of oil lamps to electricity in his church. Not in North London, though, but in a country church.

In the poem you're asking about, gas lighting is mentioned in connection with both the church and the station. Indeed, this introduces potential ambiguity in lines 1, 3, and 5. Although the first two verses seem primarily set in the church, the "roar of the gas" upon "bracket and bracket" could easily be in the station too, and "the arches ring" sounds a lot like railway arches. (Perhaps not so coincidentally, Archway Bridge is a well-known suicide spot just up the road from Junction Road station.)


How about those Jehovahs?

  • Jehovah-jireh means "the Lord will provide", but it has also been translated as "the Lord has seen" or "the Lord sees". Again I think there's some ambiguity here: it might refer to the religious ceremony which God sees and approves, or it might refer to the sins in the narrator's mind, which God also sees. "Jehovah Jireh! the arches ring" could mean church arches ringing with praise of God, or railway arches ringing with the sound of an approaching train.
  • Jehovah-nissi means "the Lord my refuge". Since now the poem is turning towards the gloomier second half, the "dark" and "Gothic" suburbs, maybe this suggests the narrator is thinking to seek God and find refuge in death.

Finally, is it too much of a stretch to see religious symbolism in the description of the station? "Six on the upside! six on the down side! / One gaslight in the Booking Hall" - that makes thirteen, the number at the Last Supper. Identifying gaslights with Jesus and his disciples - a step too far? (For a while I wondered if Betjeman might be drawing a parallel between the physical structure of the station and the church, with six on each side equating to the Stations of the Cross, but apparently there are 14 of those not 12.)

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+100

I believe the poem describes the suicide of a religious gay man who kills himself because he cannot stop "sinning”.

One reason to abstain from communion, at least in the Catholic church, and probably in the Anglican as well, is because you are an unrepentant sinner (as you might be if you were gay). And grand are the surpliced boys may be a subtle hint that the speaker is gay. There is more evidence for this in that on the threshold of glory land appears to have a double meaning: while glory land is a traditional Christian phrase meaning heaven, this meaning doesn't seem to fit perfectly in that line, and boys on the threshold of glory land could also be taken as an allusion to their attaining sexual maturity.

At the time this poem was written, novelists generally did not discuss homosexuality openly; often it was alluded to so subtly that modern readers don't even notice. Poetry may have had a little more latitude, but poets also sometimes like to be subtle.

John Betjeman was apparently bisexual, and so would have been sympathetic to gay issues. It’s not at all clear to me whether he intended the speaker in the poem to be himself.

The first two verses are set in a church. There’s a choir, arches and an Evangelical haze. The phrases with the roar of the gas and bracket to bracket go blazon it out describe gas lighting. Mintons are "fine-quality porcelain wares produced in Stoke-on-Trent since 1793”; these could be sacred vessels and/or decorations in a church. (EDIT: Another answer shows these are very likely to be floor tiles.)

The last stanza is set in a nearby train station (now demolished, but when the poem was written, Junction Road Station was part of the London Overground, and a short walk from Tufnell Park). Six on the upside! six on the down side! One gaslight in the Booking Hall presumably refer to the gaslights at the station. The booking hall was where you bought train tickets.

Finally, the Jehovah phrases can also be loosely seen as associated with somebody committing suicide.

  • Jehovah Tsidkenu means God is righteous. The speaker might not believe a righteous God would tolerate his sinning.

  • Jehovah Jireh means God will provide, but it is also the name of the location where Abraham bound his son Isaac in order to sacrifice him. On that occasion, God provided a ram as a substitute sacrifice. Not this time.

  • Jehovah Nisi was the name of the altar built to celebrate the defeat of the Amelekites; in the Bible, the Amelekites are traditionally seen as an evil people who need to be exterminated. The Junction Road train platform, lit by gaslights, might metaphorically be this altar, and the speaker might be viewing himself to an evil Amelekite.

  • "The first two verses are set in a church." Maybe, but I detected at least some double meanings. Look at lines 1, 3, and 5 - "gas" lights in "brackets" could be at the railway station too, and "arches" could be railway arches. – Rand al'Thor Aug 30 at 7:35
  • @PeterShor: I like this answer, especially the way you've integrated the meaning of the Biblical phrases into the story. – Gareth Rees Aug 30 at 8:07
  • @Rand al'Thor: I agree; there seems to be a deliberate parallel between the train station (with gaslights and arches) and the church. – Peter Shor Aug 30 at 13:06
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TL;DR: Betjeman’s target seems to be the inadequacy of the Evangelical approach to absolution of sins.

Interpretation

The church service is described as “Evangelical” in line 4; the named songs of praise are by prominent Evangelical hymnodists (Robert M’Cheyne and William Cowper) rather than conventional selections from Hymns Ancient and Modern; and “threshold of glory land” is a characteristically Evangelical form of words. The “surpliced boys” in the choir and the “haze” of incense would probably not be found in a nonconformist chapel, so the poem seems to be commenting in some way on the Evangelical movement within the Church of England.

The title of the poem tells us that the speaker abstained from communion. Why was that? Well, 1 Corinthians 11:27 says, “whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” Clearly the speaker feels unworthy. But Anglicanism has a supposed remedy for unworthiness: the Order for Evening Prayer includes “a general Confession to be said of the whole Congregation” followed by the “Absolution or Remission of sins to be pronounced by the Priest”.

So there should be no reason for the speaker to abstain from communion. And yet the heart’s shout in line 1, the singing of hymns, and the corporate confession and absolution are not enough to relieve the speaker of the guilt of their sins. After the service, at the little-used Junction Road station, the emptiness of the station mirrors the speaker’s conviction that their “fearful load” of sin has cut them off forever from the communion of believers.

So what is missing? How does the Evangelical church fail the speaker? The poem does not say, but knowing Betjeman’s sympathy for Anglo-Catholicism, maybe the point is that no amount of lusty singing of praises to Jehovah can make up for Evangelicalism’s lack of personal confession and absolution.

Line notes

  1. “The roar of the gas” is the noise made by the burning of coal gas for lighting the church.

  2. “Tsidkenu” means “righteousness”. In Jeremiah 23:6 “Jehovah Tsidkenu” is the name of a hypothetical king of Israel. There is a hymn with this title by Robert Murray M’Cheyne:

    When free grace awoke me, by light from on high,
    Then legal fears shook me, I trembled to die;
    No refuge, no safety in self could I see,—
    Jehovah Tsidkenu my Saviour must be.

    Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1834). ‘Jehovah Tsidkenu’. In Andrew A. Bonar, ed. (1845). Memoir and Remains of the Rev. R. M. M’Cheyne, Minister of St Peter’s Church, Dundee. Dundee: William Middleton.

    M’Cheyne was a minister in the Church of Scotland, whose ideas became influential in Evangelicalism through Bonar’s biography of him.

  3. A bracket is a “metal pipe, usually of ornamental shape, projecting from the wall […], at once to support and supply the gas lamps” (OED).

  1. “Blazon” means “proclaim, make public” (OED), here the praise from line 2; but it also puns on the “blaze” of the gaslights.

  2. The Evangelical movement within the Church of England favoured ‘low church’ ideas and practices, in particular experiential religion and universal priesthood; and rejected ritual, the authority of the ordained priesthood, and the sacrament of personal confession and absolution. In the 1930s when Betjeman was writing, the movement had been eclipsed by ‘high church’ groups including the Anglo-Catholics, to which Betjeman was sympathetic, as suggested by his poem ‘Anglo-Catholic Congresses’ (1966).

  1. “Haze” is due to smoke from the burning of incense.

  2. “Jireh” means “see”. In Genesis 22:14Jehovah Jireh” (god will see to it) is the name given by Abraham to the place of sacrifice. There is a hymn with this title by William Cowper (in Olney Hymns, book I, p. 6). Cowper was an Evangelical poet.

  3. Mintons was a manufacturer of ceramic tiles for the floors of public buildings, especially churches.

  4. A surplice is a long white tunic worn by Anglican ministers and members of the choir.

  5. “Threshold of glory” is a characteristically Evangelical phrase meaning “the gates of heaven” and thus figuratively “close to salvation”. It often appears in the context of the possibility of damnation even as one is about to enter heaven. An early appearance is in a discussion of the sin of despair in the explanatory notes to the 1775 edition of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress:

    Of all the different states and conditions, to which a sinner may be reduced in time, there is none so exceedingly tremendous as that of despair. […] To have tasted of the good word of God—bid fair for the kingdom, and perish with the hand on the very threshold of glory, is beyond all conception dreadful.

    Anon (1775). Pilgrim’s Progress, note pp. 42–43. London: P. Oriel.

    This allusion anticipates the speaker’s despair in the last verse.

  1. “Glory land” is a phrase characteristic of gospel music, for example in ‘Will you meet me at the fountain’ by Ira D. Sankey:

    Will you meet me at the fountain
        When I reach the glory land?
    Will you meet me at the fountain
        Shall I clasp your friendly hand?

  2. “Nissi” means “banner”. In Exodus 17:15Jehovah Nissi” is the name given by Moses to the altar celebrating the massacre of the Amalekites. There are hymns with this title by William Cowper (in Olney Hymns, book I, p. 18 and Elizabeth Wordsworth (in Church Hymns With Tunes, p. 474). For thematic reasons, I think Betjeman had in mind Cowper’s hymn and not Wordsworth’s.

  1. Tufnell Park is an area of north London, now part of the boroughs of Islington and Camden, consisting largely of late 19th century terraces.

  2. Junction Road was a station on the Tottenham and Hampstead Junction Railway (now the Gospel Oak to Barking line) in Tufnell Park. It closed in 1943 and was demolished in the 1950s.

  3. Grey brick is a construction material characteristic of London:

    As London expanded again after 1810, so brickfields sprang up all over the capital and the south-east. The local clays in these areas often produced a characteristically yellow or yellow-grey brick known as a ‘London stock’.

    Steven Parissien (1992). Regency Style, p. 40. Phaidon.

    London stock bricks started out brownish or yellowish grey but turned dark grey due to the city’s atmospheric pollution.

  1. The Gothic revival was a 19th century architectural movement that attempted to emulate the design and spirit of the great medieval cathedrals. Many London churches are built in the style. An example of “grey brick Gothic” in Tufnell Park is St Mary Brookfield, designed by William Butterfield and built 1869–1875. It uses a mixture of red and grey brick:

    St Mary Brookfield, Dartmouth Park, Camden, London. Photo by Justinc. Licensed under CC-BY-SA.

    There’s no hint in the poem that Betjeman had a particular church in mind, but St Mary Brookfield happens to be about five minutes’ walk from the former location of Junction Road station. The church appears in Betjeman’s An American’s Guide to English Parish Churches (1959) where the brief description is “By W. Butterfield, 1876. A noble nave in polychrome brick leading to an anti-climax of a chancel by G. E. Street, 1881.” (“G[eorge] E[dmund] Street” seems to be a mistake as most other sources give “W. C. Street”.)

  1. “London dark” may refer to the darkening effect of soot on buildings in London, or to the smoggy darkness of the evening on which the poem is set.
  1. “Six on the upside” is the number of gaslights on the “up” platform, that is, the platform for trains toward the main terminus. At Junction Road this was on the south side of the station, for trains to Gospel Oak or St Pancras. The “down side” ran the other way, to Tottenham. But to the speaker in the poem, the gaslights on the platforms recall the gaslights down the sides of the nave in the church, and the “upside” and “down side” suggest, perhaps, the paths to heaven and hell respectively.
  1. Junction Road became a “lonely station” after the opening in 1907 of Tufnell Park tube station on the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway (now the Northern line) just a couple of minutes’ walk away. Passenger numbers at Junction Road collapsed and the station was closed in 1943.
  • I wonder if there is a subtle reference to suicide in the choice of Junction Road, as the Tufnell Park Tube station is situated at the crossroads at the bottom of Junction Road, crossroads being the traditional burial place for suicides. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burial#Burial_at_cross-roads – Spagirl Nov 14 at 16:42

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