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,5
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,10
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—15
What shall I do with them all?
Betjeman’s target seems to be the inadequacy of the Evangelical approach to absolution of sins.
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.
“The roar of the gas” is the noise made by the burning of coal gas for lighting the church.
“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.1
M’Cheyne was a minister in the Church of Scotland, whose ideas became influential in Evangelicalism through Bonar’s biography of him.
A bracket is a “metal pipe, usually of ornamental shape, projecting from the wall […], at once to support and supply the gas lamps” (OED).
“Blazon” means “proclaim, make public” (OED), here the praise from line 2; but it also puns on the “blaze” of the gaslights.
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).
“Haze” is due to smoke from the burning of incense.
“Jireh” means “see”. In Genesis 22:14 “Jehovah 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.
Mintons was a manufacturer of ceramic tiles for the floors of public buildings, especially churches.
A surplice is a long white tunic worn by Anglican ministers and members of the choir.
“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.2
This allusion anticipates the speaker’s despair in the last verse.
“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?
“Nissi” means “banner”. In Exodus 17:15 “Jehovah 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.
Tufnell Park is an area of north London, now part of the boroughs of Islington and Camden, consisting largely of late 19th century terraces.
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.
Grey brick is a construction material characteristic of London:
London stock bricks started out brownish or yellowish grey but turned dark grey due to the city’s atmospheric pollution.
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’.3
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.
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”.)
“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.
“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.
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.
↩ 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.
↩ Anon (1775). Pilgrim’s Progress, note pp. 42–43. London: P. Oriel.
↩ Steven Parissien (1992). Regency Style, p. 40. Phaidon.