John Betjeman's “Diary of a Church Mouse” is a satire of religion told through the eyes of a rodent who is more than meets the eye. The poem use rhyming couplets to showcase Betjeman's distinctive comic style.
“Behind this Church of England baize” indicates that the speaker is a follower of Anglicanism. Betjeman himself hailed from England. Confirmation that the author believes in the Eucharist is also found in the last lines of his poem “Christmas”. The speaker is a mouse who admits, "I nibble through old service books”. The mouse lives outside the knowledge of the staff and is naïve about what is really going on. This ignorance will be put to comic effect later in the poem.
Betjeman anthropomorphizes the rodents in the poem with lines such as “…other mice with pagan minds/come into church my food to share/who have no proper business there”. This tool is used to show the hypocrisy of Anglicans who don’t want to share their church with the casual attendees. The mouse who “must starve all year long” feels a sense of ownership and doesn’t like the large rat who questions his religious habits. Betjeman means to poke fun at the scene since all are truly welcome in a place of God.
A second, perhaps more plausible, explanation of the poem’s lines is that less devout attendees are tearing down religion. The poem does support this line of thinking since rodents are literally eating up the Book of Common Prayer. Is Betjeman warning that those who seldom show up to their pews take the sense of ceremony away from religious services?
The mouse lives “Here among long-discarded cassocks/ Damp stools, and half-split open hassocks/Here where the vicar never looks/.” He is content with his faith alone and privations don’t worry him, “the cleaner never bothers me”. Betjeman cleverly suggests that the mouse transforms straw and sawdust into bread as does God. Is the meek mouse with the monastic lifestyle a holy symbol? It is interesting, but the poem probably does not lend adequate support to this theory.
Betjeman's mouse sees life as a trial to be endured while those around him live in a less pious fashion. Even the priests themselves enjoy Whitsun, a holiday with Pagan origins, while the noble mouse abstains. During the Harvest Festival, when English farmers traditionally give bread to churches in appreciation, the speaker takes his sole worldly pleasure. At this time, other rodents with pagan minds, i.e. different or less zealous beliefs, begin to show up. An atheist rat comes to services much to the speaker's chagrin.
In the final lines, the mouse compares rodent religiosity to that of humans, “Within the human world I know/Such goings-on could not be so/For human beings only do/What their religion tells them to/." The provincial ideas of the mouse are used to call into question characteristics of human belief. The audience knows that services are not compulsory, but the mouse does not. Betjeman is either being critical of those who lax in religion or is trying to paint a picture of the mouse as ill-informed about the changing dynamic of religious worship. Like all worthwhile poetry, some ambiguity persists even in the light of analysis.