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.
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.
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.