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A Subaltern's Love Song -- John Betjeman

Guest poem submitted by Pavithra Krishnan:
(Poem #764) 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
I like this one as much for the title as for anything that follows. A poem
that admits to being a Love Song right off the bat, needs to balance the
sentimentality of the confession with, well... something. Where Eliot used
J. Alfred Prufrock, Betjeman uses A Subaltern... and follows up with the
introduction of the entirely bewitching Miss J. Hunter Dunn. And if the
title fails to inspire interest, well then I dare any reader to rein in at
the end of the first verse. Betjeman at his merriest is impossibly
irresistible. His rhythms have been called near-Tennysonian, a deliciously
accurate observation: like the earlier Laureate, Betjeman too, slips with
breathtaking ease into beautiful babblings. And like the girl that is its
fascination, the poem too is light and lovely, swift and sure of foot (that
could well be feet :)). Miss Dunn in all her athletic splendour, outdoorsy
goodlooks and snub-nosed wholesomeness, is representative of the species of
girlhood that Betjeman's verse was particularly susceptible to (in his own
words)-- 'The tennis-playing biking girl/ The wholly-to-my-liking girl"...
Here's a poet who has a way with hyphens and the words that go with them, a
poet who can charm the cynic out of anyone [1] with his style of
story-telling. I love the loving attention he pays to inconsequential (but
then again maybe not so) details -- the pictures of Egypt, the double-end
evening tie, the scent of her wrap, her father's euonymus that shines as
they walk... [2] I like too that he makes a precious habit of investing
inanimates with human qualities thereby giving us such wonders as a
questioning sun, an importunate band, an intimate roof...

Great poetry doesn't always make for happy reading. Sometimes it does. And
sometimes, like with Betjeman's poem, it can be, quite simply, a joy.


[1] Though on the other hand,

 "A Subaltern's Love-Song"

 Feel her foreplay - more than kisses!
 Now I'll have to call her Mrs.

        -- Bill Greenwell

...Well, almost anyone then ;-)

[2] euonymus: a shrub or small tree noted for its autumn colours and bright
fruit - and not an obscure reference to a balding head as I fondly believed

82 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

mamaliga said...

> Great poetry doesn't always make for happy reading. Sometimes it does. And
> sometimes, like with Betjeman's poem, it can be, quite simply, a joy.
> Pavi.

Oh yes, this was such a gush of delight. Tongue so firmly in cheek, hardly
any teeth, but for "the ominus, ominus' and even that how like omnibus,
oh and a big smile.

Thank you Pavi.

Axbey Stephen said...

Fantastic to see this one again and realise again that it's actually very

I wondered how many non-English readers puzzled over "roads 'not adopted' "?

This intriguing-sounding phrase actually has quite a banal meaning: When the
local government recognise a road as a public road and therefore assume
responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep etc the road is said to be

Unadopted roads might be (for instance) in an exclusive housing estate, or a
road that leads to the golf-club alone.

Bob Clyde said...

Re: Euonymus – the OED gives the following:

1785 J. M. Mason Notes on Shaks. 349 The euonymus, of which the best
skewers are made, is called Prick-wood.

Perhaps JB had a more risqué sense of humour than might otherwise be
inferred from the context.

Bob Clyde

5 Dartmouth Hill

London SE10 8AJ

TEL: +44 (0)7767 786 940

Donald Bullock said...

I too am a student of John Betjeman. Who is, or was, Miss Joan Hunter
Dunn? Can anyone tell me ?

Incidentally, I commend his poem Executive to anyone who hasn't read
it. How well he captures the 'developer' pest and 'allows' him to indict
himself with his 'own' clique-ridden utterances !



Amelia Knott said...

In case Mr Bullock is still interested, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn is the
grandmother of one of my closest friends. Her romance with John Betjeman did
not last very long and her parents were apparently mortified when the poem
was published and thought it was most inappropriate.

Kind regards,


trem said...

Hi Donald,

Just came across your posting re: Joan Hunter Dunn in the John Betjeman
Poem, A Subaltern's Love Song.
I'm currently researching my family tree and believe Joan Hunter Dunn (b.
1915) may have been a relation of mine.

I dont know much else about her, only that my mother had been told by others
in the family that she was referenced by JB in a poem.



The Furneaux Press said...

From another Donald

To know who was Miss J Hunter Dunn, see the obituary of Joan Jackson in
the Daily Telegraph of today's date, 17 April

James F Warren said...

You might be interested to know that Miss Joan Hunter Dunn in Betjeman's
poem died on April 11, 2008 and her obituary is in today's London Times.

James Warren


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david.j.picking said...

Joan Jackson nee Miss Joan Hunter Dunn

Obituary Reference Daily Telegraph 17/04/08 Aged 92

Emily said...

I'm fairly certain this poem refers to John Donne's "A Valediction:
Forbidding Mourning," which one can find in the archives. There's a
line, "Dull sublunary lovers' love" from which Betjeman presumably draws
the title. Moreover, the word play on "Joan Dunn" certainly recommends
itself (Donne is pronounced like Dunn). I saw people expressing
curiosity over her name, so thought I would throw out that hypothesis,
although I don't venture to interpret the poem in that light.

I have a question: Does the poem remind anyone of Proust's _Recherce_,
and particularly Albertine? Perhaps this is just Proust invading my
perceptions (wouldn't be the first time), but the descriptions of the
girl as a tennis-playing, bike-riding, boyish young girl, the comparison
of her to a bird, the comments on the light playing off of her hair, the
importance of the car, the name "Camberley" reminiscent of "Combray,"
the negative twist of "ominous, ominous dancing ahead" leading right
into the engagement in spite of the otherwise positive regard for the
relationship... Certainly many aspects don't line up in such convenient
accordance, but I thought others might find the comparison interesting.

- Emily

Damian Crowther said...

Did u want to know about miss joan hunter dunne?

Sue Hempel said...

There is an obituary for Miss Joan Hunter Dunn (Joan Jackson) in the
Sydney Morning Herald of April 25-27 2008

Anonymous said...

Another snippet for you...
Joan's father was a GP at the Milestone Surgery in Farnborough, Hampshire, as mentioned on the surgery's website: -

Bijoux Jade said...

Very beautiful poem that I did not know. Jade

Anonymous said...

Just read the Wikipedia article on Joan Jackson, née Joan Hunter Dunn, and was saddened to note that Betjemann's letters to her we're stolen in 1996.

Anonymous said...

Damn auto-completion! "were" not "we're"

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Anonymous said...

I'm afraid that a little word is missing in Betjeman's poem:

Oh! full Surrey twilight! importunate band!

Re 'euonymus': It is commonly known as 'spindle-tree'.
The fruits are very poisonous, i.e. highly toxic ...

Regars from Hamburg


Anonymous said...

In the above comment, I naturally meant:

Regards from Hamburg

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PS: Does anyone still read these comments here ?!

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