Lesson on 'A subaltern's love song' by John Betjeman

Nicola Onyett

Introduction

In one of the most popular poems of the twentieth century, John Betjeman evokes a timeless vignette of middle class life in the Home Counties at the heart of which lies the eponymous subaltern's unrequited passion for real-life jolly-hockey-sticks siren Joan Hunter Dunn. While the text has been read as social satire, it is hard not to warm to Betjeman's young army officer, full of the joys of spring; ominously, however, the wartime setting may destroy his charmed Surrey idyll forever.

Objectives

To explore how a poet uses language to evoke a specific cultural, social and historical milieu To compare and contrast a poem with popular songs of the same era To explore the implications of writing poems inspired by real people

Resources needed

Poetry Archive recording of John Betjeman reading 'A Sublatern's Love Song' Copies of 'A Subaltern's Love Song' for each student A selection of visual images linked with the poems and sourced appropriately from the internet Two lists of the different types of lexical item mentioned in the poem (with linked images if you wish) for the starter activity Lyrics (and sound clips if possible) of popular wartime love songs, both romantic and comic, such as 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square', 'Lili Marlene' and 'Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree', for the development phase (see Further Reading section) Copies of The Independent's obituary of the real Joan Hunter Dunn for the plenary (see Further Reading section)


Teaching sequence of activities

Starter

Display visual images which evoke the early years of World War II while students listen to Betjeman read 'A Subaltern's Love Song'. Project the key nouns and noun phrases in the poem divided into two lists. The first comprises those lexical items which seem traditionally and timelessly poetic and romantic: moss-dappled path, pictures of Egypt, roads 'not adopted', woodlanded ways, late summer haze, mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells, Surrey twilight; the second those which are more culturally, historically, socially (and perhaps comically) mundane and specific: Aldershot, Golf Club, Hillman, Camberley, Surrey, Rovers and Austins, euonymus, summer-house, verandah, lime-juice and gin, double-end evening tie, low-leaded window, oak stair, car park. You should gloss the unfamiliar words here and/or provide appropriate accompanying images.


Development

Share first impressions from the starter and reflect upon the cultural, social and historical milieu evoked by Betjeman's specific frame of reference and the ways in which the setting creates both comedy and pathos. John Betjeman once described Joan Hunter Dunn as 'a girl to lean against for life and die adoring'. For her part, Joan declared later, 'It was such a marvellous break from the monotony of the war. It really was remarkable the way he imagined it all. Actually, all that about the subaltern, and the engagement is sheer fantasy, but my life was very like the poem.' (Fergusson, Obituary; see Further Reading) Discuss the comments of poet and subject (above) before, as a whole class, beginning to focus on how 'A Subaltern's Love Song' presents love. Students should read (and preferably also hear) extracts from some of the popular songs of the wartime era. The age-old idea of the troubadour singing of his fair lady's perfections can be introduced to stress the classical form Betjeman is reworking in this 'love song' and contrasted with some of the famous songs of 1939-45, which were often sung by women. Divide the class into pairs or small groups and allocate one of these popular songs to each. Students should then compare this example of popular culture with 'A Subaltern's Love Song', focusing upon key aspects of both texts such as: How rhythm and rhyme are used to create a sense of youthful exuberance How lexical items can evoke a specific cultural milieu How we respond to representations of gender in terms of both the singers and their subjects Students then present their findings to the whole class.


Plenary

According to James Fergusson's obituary of Joan Hunter Dunn, who died in 2008, if the poem had been published today, 'Miss J. Hunter Dunn would have started a website. She would have trademarked her name and opened negotiations with Max Clifford.' In pairs, ask your students to discuss briefly the moral and artistic implications of using the life of an ordinary person (as opposed to a public figure) as material for fiction before feeding back to the whole class.


Extension Activities

Compare this poem with Betjeman's wistful love poem 'In a Bath Tea Shop' or his cruelly funny satire 'How To Get On In Society', which mocks the social pretensions of the English middle classes. Students could also compare 'A Subaltern's Love Song' with other famous love songs inspired by real people; 1960s model Pattie Boyd, for instance, inspired not only George Harrison's 'Something' (recorded by The Beatles) but also Eric Clapton's 'Layla' and 'Wonderful Tonight'.


Further Reading

The Independent's obituary 'Joan Hunter Dunn: Muse to John Betjeman', written by James Fergusson. English lyrics and video 'Marlene Dietrich singing Lili Marlene' Lyrics and video 'The Andrews Sisters singing Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree' Lyrics 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square' Lyrics and video 'Vera Lynn sings A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square'


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