Woman Made Famous By John Betjeman Love Poem Dies

By: AP
By: AP

LONDON - She was an innocent beauty working in the catering department of a wartime ministry. He was making government films by day and writing poems at night.

Their eyes met; something clicked.

A poem soon followed — and "A Subaltern's Love Song" became the most popular work of John Betjeman, one of his generation's most loved poets.

Joan Hunter Dunn, the muse who inspired the classic poem of love and longing, died in a London nursing home last week at age 92. She changed her name after she married and was known as Joan Jackson.

But she will be forever associated with the poem that captured her in the first bloom of youth.

In the poem, the narrator describes, with subtle suggestions of sexual desire, an idyllic day in the countryside with Joan Hunter Dunn that ends with the pair becoming engaged after a spirited game of tennis and a drive through the British countryside.

The poem depicts a vanished world in which young men observe proper etiquette, struggle with their evening wear, attend dances at the village hall, and mark the end of the day with a lime juice and gin at precisely 6 p.m. This was romance before reality TV.

Describing how she defeats him at tennis, the narrator writes:

"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."

Despite the passion hinted at in the poem, Dunn and Betjeman were friends, not lovers. He attended her wedding and helped console her after her husband died of a heart attack, occasionally coming for Sunday lunch with her and her three sons. But she always told friends there was nothing more to their relationship.

Dunn was a wholesome beauty with sparkling eyes, even features, a wide smile and a dimple in one cheek. It was a chance meeting — and her striking looks — that earned her a place in Britain's literary history.

Betjeman spotted her when he was working on films at the Ministry of Information in the early days of World War II and she was working in the catering staff. They became friends, and she sparked his imagination with images that developed into "A Subaltern's Love Song," published in 1941.

Before it was published, Betjeman took her to lunch and asked permission to use her real name in a poem.

For the poet, she epitomized an English type of outdoorsy, suburban perfection. The girl in the poem was tanned by the sun — in an age before sunblocks and cancer fears — skilled at sports, able to dance well, and perfect marriage material.

John Heald, chairman of the Betjeman Society, said Jackson played an important role in the poet's creative life.

"She induced in him a feeling of happiness and well being that permeates through a lot of his work," he said. "She really was important to him, they did remain close — they met frequently and they did dine together from time to time."

He said "A Subaltern's Love Song" was Betjeman's most popular poem.

"She was certainly his muse as far as that poem was concerned — he rather liked attractive women," Heald said.

At about the time Dunn met Betjeman, she also met the man she would eventually marry, H. Wycliffe Jackson. The poet attended their 1945 wedding, and they fell out of touch when the newlyweds moved abroad, eventually settling in Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe.

Jackson moved back to England in 1963 after her husband died, and Betjeman helped her place her sons in English schools and visited with the family from time to time.

She attended Betjeman's memorial service at Westminster Abbey in 1984. By that time, the poet had achieved enduring fame and served as poet laureate.

Jackson eventually settled in the bucolic Hampshire village of Headley, where relatively few people knew she had been the striking young woman in the famous poem.

"We all kept it pretty quiet," said John Owen Smith, chairman of the local historical society.

He kept the information to himself for several years but finally decided her identity was an important part of the town's history and posted it on his Web site.

"I wouldn't say that everyone knew about her and the poem, but quite a few people did," he said.

John Jackson, a villager who was not related, said she played an active role in the parish church and took part in village activities.

"She was a lovely lady," he said. "She was very much involved. We met her at the village fete. But most people didn't know about the poem. She never mentioned it to me."

The Rev. Martin Semple, vicar of All Saints Parish Church in Headley, said Jackson died April 11 and that her remains will be cremated. He said the family would announce funeral plans in the coming days.

She is survived by her three sons.

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