1 August 2019 Susannah

John Betjeman & A Subaltern’s Love Song

John Betjeman and Joan Hunter Dunn, A Subaltern’s Love Song by John Betjeman

My Dad took me to Wimbledon in July – my first time there – so I thought I’d celebrate with a poem about tennis. A slightly longer poem than I usually choose, but I’ve always loved John Betjeman’s poem immortalising Miss Joan Hunter Dunn:

A Subaltern’s Love Song by John Betjeman

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.

Betjeman was working for the Ministry of Information in 1940 when he saw red-haired Joan serving at the canteen there. He’d been married for some years, but he was struck by her beauty and had fun fantasising about marrying her. He pictured them playing tennis together and then getting engaged afterwards. The poem was published in 1941, and Betjeman invited Joan for lunch and presented her with the printed poem, begging her forgiveness for taking such a liberty with her name. She was flattered and felt his poem brought light relief in the darkness of war. She married in 1945 but the poet was unable to attend the wedding. She attended Betjeman’s memorial service at Westminster Abbey in 1984. Joan lived to be 92, dying in 2008.

The poem became one of the most popular poems of the 20th C. Betjeman creates a beautiful vignette of middle-class English life just before WWII changed everything. The exuberant young officer seems full of the joys of spring, yet he is based in Aldershot, a major army base in the war, so the young man will soon be sent off to fight. But at this stage, all is comfortable and terribly English – lime juice and gin, mushroomy and pine-woody smells, Surrey twilight, the Golf Club, Rovers and Austins, and afternoon tennis. Rhythm and rhyme are carefully used to create bounce and joy. We too are bewitched by Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, the epitome of the English home counties girl with her outdoorsy good looks, athletic splendour and her wholesomeness. Betjeman begins and ends the poem with her name, to stress his infatuation with this girl, but at the start she is Miss J. Hunter Dunn. By the end, she has become Joan Hunter Dunn – he has grown more familiar now that they are engaged.

Note: The word ‘euonymus’ may need explanation – it is a shrub or small tree noted for its autumn colours and bright fruit.

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Featured image credit- John Betjeman and Joan Hunter Dunn, A Subaltern’s Love Song by John Betjeman, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Betjeman.jpg, and http://www.hunterdunn.com/Joan%20Hunter%20Dunn.html

Comments (2)

  1. Marie McMillan

    Apologies for my mis-spelling of poet’s name. Am currently in the aptly-named Fairlight, where the light is soooo intense I can’t see my laptop screen.

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