Saturday, 19 April 2008

Death of a muse

I don't usually write about poetry, but I can't resist the opportunity to comment on a news item I heard this week. While there are arguments about the literary merits of John Betjeman's poetry, and about the new statue of him at St. Pancras station, I have always found his work readable and amusing, even if not profound or deeply meaningful. There is a certain kind of Englishness, at once both deferential and self-denigrating, that was exemplified by his poetry. He managed to show his love for England even while he was satirising it, and a particularly good example of this is shown in one of my favourite Betjeman poems, A Subaltern's Love Song, published in 1941.
The era this poem evokes was familiar to me in my childhood, not at first-hand (I'm not that old) but at second-hand. My mother and her sisters were, like this poem's heroine, young women in the Second World War, although their origins were closer to the urban working class than to the golf clubs and tennis courts of Surrey. But they loved this poem, the world it portrayed, and the way Betjeman could praise and mock in a single phrase.
I was therefore quite sad to learn that the woman who was Betjeman's muse for this poem and who really was called Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, passed away earlier this month at the age of 92. She has received an extensive and informative obituary in the Times, and has been the subject of comment in The Guardian and elsewhere. My mother and her sisters would have felt she deserved nothing less.