A Subaltern’s Love Song by John Betjeman

A Subaltern’s Love Song’ by John Betjeman is an eleven stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a specific rhyme scheme, conforming to the pattern of AABB CCDD, and so on, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit. There is also a very consistent rhythm; all of the lines contain ten syllables. 

Important to note before beginning this piece is the meaning behind the title. A subaltern is someone in the British army below the rank of captain, or more broadly, someone of a lower status. After taking in the wealth that Betjeman’s love interest, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn has, it is clear that the poet considered himself a “subaltern.” This is his love song, spoken directly to his love.


Poetic Techniques in A Subaltern’s Love Song

There are a number of poetic techniques Betjeman makes use of in ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song.’ These include anaphora, caesura, enjambment, and repetitive rhyme inside the lines, including a refrain. 

In regards to the refrain, it occurs three times in the text. The poet repeats her name, “Miss Joan Hunter Dunn” twice in a line. This shows his continued dedication to her and excitement over her simple presence. Another kind of repetition that Betjeman makes use of is anaphora. This occurs when a  word or phrase is repeated multiple times at the beginning of successive, or closely placed, lines. There are examples throughout the text, the most prominent being the use and reuse of “And.”

Enjambment, a common technique within Betjeman’s works, is utilized to great effect. A good example is in stanza four in which a reader has to wait until line four to see what welcomed the two inside. A similar technique seen in ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ is caesura in which a line is divided into two parts, usually on either side of a common, with equal syllables. The refrain, “Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,” is a perfect example. 

You can read the full poem here.


Summary of A Subaltern’s Love Song

A Subaltern’s Love Song’ by John Betjeman is a humorous, upbeat poem that tells of the real life love the poet had for Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. 

The poem begins with the speaker exclaiming over how much he cares for Dunn, and the joy he gets from playing tennis with her. She always wins, and while this sometimes makes him sad, it more than often makes him “glad.” She wins skillfully and “gaily.” After playing tennis on this particular day, the two go around the house and have drinks while watching the news. They are staying in a large house which is clearly owned by Dunn’s family. 

After this, they get ready to go out. They’re going to a dance at a Golf Club, and are getting into their best clothes. The speaker struggles with his tie, and then describes the surrounds of the house. There are a number of trophies in Dunn’s room, and clothes on the floor. 

He ends up waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs and they drive together to the club. The speaker is very excited by the prospect of the evening, but even more so by the fact that he is with Dunn. Rather than go inside though, it appears that the two stay in the car talking. This leads to the last line, announcing that they got engaged. 


Analysis of A Subaltern’s Love Song

Stanza One 

In the first stanza of ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ the speaker, who is Betjeman himself, repeats his love interest’s name twice. There is no doubt that he is wholly focused on her. It becomes clear in the third line that she is also the intended listener of the poem. Betjeman is going to be addressing her throughout. This is characteristic of love poetry.

Less familiar to readers of traditional “love songs” is the context in which the woman is described. She is not wreathed by nature or reclining in a luxurious home, she is outside playing tennis with the speaker. Together, they play “strenuous singles…after tea.” They are in a constant tournament, one that felt as if she is always against him. 

While this may be an apt description of how the played tennis, it also speaks to their deeper relationship. It felt to Betjeman that they were always in a contest, with him trying to win her over. 


Stanza Two 

The speaker utilizes the points system of tennis to show his passion for this woman in the first line. This is followed by various exclamations over the way that Joan Hunter Dunn wins at tennis. She has, “The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy.”

He sees her as moving effortlessly. It takes nothing on her part to win the game. Watching her win, is a pleasure in itself. It doesn’t matter to the speaker how he plays, as long as he’s allowed to play with her. 

Her technique is the “carefullest carelessness” and she is always happy when she wins. These moments are special to the speaker, he feels “weak” from her loveliness. 


Stanza Three 

Betjeman repeats “Miss Joan Hunter Dunn” twice in the first line, mimicking the first line of the first stanza. There are other moments of interior rhyme in the next lines, in which he expresses how mad and sad and glad he is at she win. Their dynamic is consistent. It makes him sad and mad, as maybe he’d like to win sometimes and have the upper hand, but the fact that she is happy makes him glad. 

Once the game is over the “warm-handled racket” goes “back in its press.” It doesn’t matter to Dunn that Betjeman seems to be incapable of winning the game. She loves him “no less.” 


Stanza Four 

It is the end of the game, and the end of the day in the fourth stanza of A Subaltern’s Love Song. The two head from the tennis court, around the “summer-house.” If more evidence was needed, the fact that they are at a summer house shows the wealth that at least one of these two posses. The first line of this stanza, which speaks to Dunn’s father’s “euonymus” makes it seem that it is definitely Dunn who owns the house. A euonymus is a shrub or tree that is popular due to its bright colours. 

The two move to the verandah of the house and watch the “six-o’clock news” and drink “lime-juice and gin.” They, so far, do not seem to have anything they have to do. There are no jobs or tasks to complete. They are living a luxurious life there, one that allows them a lot of free time to play tennis. All in all though, there is an overwhelming feeling of peace about the scene. The verandah welcomed them and they have somewhere to relax. There is no pressure from the outside world. 


Stanza Five 

The feeling of wealth that pervades A Subaltern’s Love Song is increased in the fifth stanza of ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song.’ The speaker is getting dressed later in the evening, amongst the “scent of the conifers.” There is a bath running and he can look out his window and see “moss-dappled path.” The various images of natural scenes in the poem reference traditional love poetry and a long history of nature’s beauty being associated with a woman’s. 

In the third line the speaker describes struggling with his tie. This sets him apart from the environment he’s in. If he were as rich as those around him, he’d have no trouble getting into his “double-end evening tie.” That doesn’t seem to matter though as that night Dunn and the speaker are going dancing at the “Golf Club.” 


Stanza Six 

A few more details about the scene are relayed by the speaker in the sixth stanza. Her bedroom has “cream-coloured walls” and there are trophies stacked around. The speaker uses the made up, compound word “be-trophied” here. It shows that she is a celebrated athlete, in more sports than just tennis. 

At this moment the sun is going down, and that changes the lighting in the room. The sun is “westering” or setting in the west, along with a “questioning.” Here again is another instances of rhyme within the lines. The light plays on the “low-leaded windows” attached to Dunn’s room. 


Stanza Seven

In stanza seven of A Subaltern’s Love Song, while Dunn is still getting ready, the “Hillman is waiting.” This a brand of car manufactured by the Hillman Motor Car Company. It sits, ready to take the couple to the gold club while Betjeman stands in the hallway beside the bottom of the stairs. He is waiting for her there amongst the pictures of Egypt. This is another trope of love poetry. Travel, more often than not references to Egypt, appear within traditional love songs. It speaks to something romantic about the unknown or the “exotic.” 

There is another traditionally romantic moment in the fourth line. Dunn comes down the stairs and the light is on her hair. 


Stanza Eight

The roads the two drive on are “not adopted,” this seems to suggest that they are wild or uncared for. She is driving them “by woodland ways.” So, even though they are part of a certain upper class society, they are still distant from the rest of the world. 

The two enter into town, Camberley, in Surrey, at 9:00 PM. The scene is a rustic smelling one. There is something “mushroomy, pine-woody” about it. It smells of “evergreen.” The natural landscape is influencing the speaker’s experience.


Stanza Nine

Betjeman makes use of the same repetitive refrain, “Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,” in the first line of the ninth stanza. The use and reuse of this refrain gives A Subaltern’s Love Song a song-like quality. It is easy to imagine it being read out loud. 

The couple has pulled into the carpark at the gold club and the speaker exclaims over the sounds of the music coming in from outside. The next lines contain five exclamation points as the speaker gets more and more excited over entering into the dance with his companion. All the elements of the dance excite him, especially the “tennis-girl’s hand.” 


Stanza Ten

There are a number of other expensive cars around the couple, “Rovers and Austins.” They stretch far into the distance. The speaker moves his gaze from outside, to inside, looking up at the “intimate,” or close, roof. He is surrounded by the car, and to his right is “the girl of [his] choice.” Everything is right in this moment, and he is basking in the sight of her and the sound of her voice. 


Stanza Eleven

The last stanza of A Subaltern’s Love Song makes use of anaphora with the repetition of “And” at the beginning of the first, second and third lines. The reasons for his happiness are piling up, but there is still a distance between them. There are “words never said”. This is part of the push and pull that was evident between the two in the first stanzas. Perhaps Betjeman always wanted to make the full extent of his emotions known, but was unable. 

Historical research on the couple has made clear that, contrary to the last line, that the two were never engaged. The poet likely crafted this alternative ending, in which the two sit in the “car park till twenty to one” and talk in order to bring about a turn of events he always desired. 

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  • Avatar Howard Ritter says:

    I have loved this poem since I first encountered it decades ago, and it is impossible for me to read it not believing that “the subaltern“ is using a game of tennis as a metaphor for something quite different! Whether this is historically plausible, I don’t know, but certainly a modern reader could be forgiven for coming to that conclusion. There is not a line, not a reference in the mention of the game of tennis, its play, and its accoutrements that is not plausibly a metaphor for a different kind of “strenuous singles“.

    Surely I’m not the only one who reads it this way. Anyone else?

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      To be fair it certainly could be read that way. And he was, sure enough, a good enough poet to sneak in that level of innuendo. However, from what I gather he was quite a conservative fella, and shenanigans of that ilk were probably not befitting of a poet laureate during that era.

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