Comparing Humour in Telephone Conversation and Westminster Abbey

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Differing ways the poets use humour to criticise people

Both poems are satirical commentaries addressing the themes of racial and social prejudice but the poems have differing approaches.

Betjeman’s poem starts with the title In Westminster Abbey, a very grandiose place associated with Coronations and Royal Weddings, pomp and ceremony, which in itself invokes a smile and feelings of great expectations. It is very different from the banal, sombre title Soyinka uses.

The form of the poems differs. WA takes the form of a revealing monologue; an opportunity for intimate, uninhibited conversation that is so ludicrous it is funny. This is different to the humour in TC, which is a dialogue written in typographical form where different fonts represent the different participants. The landlady has her words capitalized suggesting a crass and unpleasant character, which contrasts with the reasoned voice of the poet, which is represented in conventional lower case. The contrast between landlady and the would-be tenant (between capitals and lower case) is used through out the poem to amplify the ridiculousness of racism and Soyinka’s humour is subtler than Betjeman’s.

Both poets use characterisation to generate criticism and humour but the characterisation is very different. WA starts with the imperative voice of the churchgoer, ‘Let me take this other glove off, which is humorous because it sounds like she is talking to an inpatient child rather than God. She then talks in an elevated tone ‘ vox humana’ and ‘beauteous fields of Eden’ to imply good education. The poet’s use of alliteration creates the effect of peace, tranquillity and serenity ‘Bask beneath the Abbey bells.’ The slow beautiful setting then contrasts, with great hilarity, to the shrill, high pitched, shrew like voice implied by ‘a lady’s cry’. We form the farcical image of the woman struggling to get her glove off and failing to impress the all- seeing God despite her lofty language; the humour is enhanced as she commands God to ‘Listen ’ with out so much as please.

By contrast in the TC ‘The landlady swore she lived off premises’, swear suggests she is desperate for business and the fact that she is not even going to live with the would- be tenant makes her prejudice more risible. The poet is very humble; it is ironic that he feels the need to ‘self-confess’, and warns the landlady of his ethnicity. He has obviously been rejected in the past, ‘I hate a wasted journey’. The sympathy developed by the poet exaggerates the antipathy towards the landlady and the resulting contrast adds ironic humour. The landlady is characterised as crass and unpleasant. This is indicated by the accent she speaks in which ‘clang(s)..Hard on the mouthpiece’ the metaphor indicating her uncultured accent, suggestive of ignorance and prejudice. We begin to laugh at the landlady.

The image formed of the churchgoer, on the other hand, is that of a pretentious upper-middle class woman, who lives in ‘One-eighty-nine Cadogan Square’, who thinks our Nation stands for ‘proper drains’ and has luncheon dates despite a World War going on around her; the poet is gently mocking her. The woman, a church going ‘Christian’, appears to pray for the well-being of the Empire- then Betjeman delivers the racist punch-line ‘And, even more, protect the whites’; which is both embarrassing but amusing.

The poets use differing language to criticise and create humour. When the churchgoer wants a favour she uses almost obsequious language ‘Gracious Lord’ and the poet mocks her, as her requests are not truly Christian, ‘bomb the Germans’. However, her blasphemous remark,’ We will pardon Thy Mistake’ is very funny. This is different to the language used by Soyinka, which is more ironic and condescending.

Before the landlady starts speaking Soyinka uses sibilance ‘Silence. Silenced transmission’ to emphasise the pause in conversation and to develop a sense of expectation, Silence....
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