A Subaltern’s Love Song – John Betjeman – Analysis

A Subaltern’s Love Song

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament — you against me!

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won,
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

Her father’s euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o’clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath.
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun,
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing’s the light on your hair.

By roads “not adopted”, by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car park the dance has begun,
Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

John Betjeman

Subaltern – junior officer in the British Army of rank below captain.
Euonymus – a tree or bush grown for its decorative evergreen foliage and clusters of orange or red fruits.

Ten syllable lines of flowing (dancing) iambic rhythm with ‘aabb’ rhyme as the story of a love affair unfolds – all be it an imaginary conceit.

This is a delightful poem reflecting English middle-class culture at the time it was written in 1941. I’m sure they had a glass of lemonade and maybe a cucumber sandwich as they sat in the garden recovering from their tennis exertion. And owning a car shows a certain status and so too membership of a Golf Club.

The context behind this poem is very personal to the life of JB. The muse of this poem is Joan Hunter Dunn the daughter of a Farnborough doctor. JB met Joan in London in 1940. She was working in the canteen at the University of London where JB was working. At the time JB was a married man of seven years but he was so taken by Joan’s beauty and manner that he composed the above 44 line poem fantasizing himself as the subaltern. At a subsequent interview in 1965 Joan commented that her life was very much like that depicted in the poem and that the poem and meeting JB gave some light relief from the stress of the war.

Aldershot is the home of the British Army and Farnborough is adjacent and many will know about the Farnborough Air Show. I am familiar with Farnborough, Aldershot and Camberley. I can easily identify with the woodland scenery of the country lanes in the drive to the Golf Club. There is such a contrast in sentiment between these towns and the angry word blast that came in JB’s  1937 poem ‘Slough’ when he reacted so strongly to the changing English urban architecture. That tragic first line –
‘Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!’

It is quite obvious that a poet must be careful when including actual place names and actual people. This poem has both and hopefully today we would be more sensitive. For JB published the poem in a magazine without informing Joan Hunter Dunn. He then invited her to dinner and apologised. And in 1937 when he wrote ‘Slough’ JB was 31 without the recognition of Poet Laureate which brought more attention to the poem. On the centenary of Betjeman’s birth in 2006 his daughter Candida Lycett-Green apologised to Slough on his behalf saying her father regretted writing the poem.

Here is a link to details on Joan Hunter Dunn. She died in 2008 at the age of 92 … https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Hunter_Dunn

John Betjeman on Wikipedia – he was Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death

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