JOHN BETJEMAN’S “A SUBALTERN’S LOVE SONG”: THE ATHLETIC PRUFROCK?

A great matchup in the South: the  English 20th century formalist, neo-romantic poet John Betjeman (seeded 6th) against Elizabeth Barrett, (seeded 11th) and her exciting poem about the god Pan!

We call this one the Tennis Racket v. the Flute.

A big crowd for this one!  They all want to get a glimpse of the “Shall I Count The Ways?”  poet, who escaped from her father to run away with Robert Browning.

First, some commentary, as the fans push in…

The use of rhyme in poems has many arguments pro and con, but I wonder if anyone has speculated that rhyme makes poets (good or bad, funny or serious) talk about what’s unconsciously most important to the poet.

We recently wrote on rhyme here.

But here’s our theory for today as the game gets ready to start:  Rhyme forces the poet to talk about who she is and what she most cares about in a kind of magical way.

This is counter-intuitive, of course, because ordinarily we think that poets hide behind their rhyme, distract a reader with rhyme.

But what if the act of rhyming works like hypnosis, and distracts the poet, not the reader, and mesmerizes the poet into articulating his innermost thoughts and desires, as in a kind of trance?

The act of rhyming, an extra burden on the poet, fosters a more direct line of expressing those easeful and truthful thoughts which, more easily repressed by the prose mind, tumble out in the rhyming ‘state.’

We find ourselves thinking this when we read certain powerfully rhymed efforts: the poet is under hypnosis, and saying what he had to say but would never have said without the rhyme.

This poem by John Betjeman may be one of those examples—or not.

Is the following poem a poet playing, or saying what matters most to him?

Or is it mysteriously both at the same time?

And is that the thrill we get from his rhyme?

Is this poem true, or is the poem wishing it were true?  And which is more important, and which does the rhyme aid more?

(We tremble with delight at such contemplation)

SUBALTERN’S LOVE SONG—John Betjeman

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me!

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.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won,
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

Her father’s euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o’clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path,
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts,
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun,
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing’s the light on your hair.

By roads “not adopted”, by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car park the dance has begun,
Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

Well played, Mr. Betjeman!

And now let us take a look at the Elizabeth Barrett, the invalid poet who secretly eloped to Italy:

WHAT was he doing, the great god Pan,
    Down in the reeds by the river ?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
    With the dragon-fly on the river.

He tore out a reed, the great god Pan,
    From the deep cool bed of the river :
The limpid water turbidly ran,
And the broken lilies a-dying lay,
And the dragon-fly had fled away,
    Ere he brought it out of the river.

High on the shore sate the great god Pan,
    While turbidly flowed the river ;
And hacked and hewed as a great god can,
With his hard bleak steel at the patient reed,
Till there was not a sign of a leaf indeed
    To prove it fresh from the river.

He cut it short, did the great god Pan,
    (How tall it stood in the river !)
Then drew the pith, like the heart of a man,
Steadily from the outside ring,
And notched the poor dry empty thing
    In holes, as he sate by the river.

‘This is the way,’ laughed the great god Pan,
    (Laughed while he sate by the river),
‘The only way, since gods began
To make sweet music, they could succeed.’
Then, dropping his mouth to a hole in the reed,
    He blew in power by the river.

Sweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan !
    Piercing sweet by the river !
Blinding sweet, O great god Pan !
The sun on the hill forgot to die,
And the lilies revived, and the dragon-fly
    Came back to dream on the river.

Yet half a beast is the great god Pan,
    To laugh as he sits by the river,
Making a poet out of a man :
The true gods sigh for the cost and pain, —
For the reed which grows nevermore again
    As a reed with the reeds in the river.

The limpid water turbidly ran” is one of those lines that marks the sign of a poet.

Also Ms. Barrett gives us this exquisite:

The sun on the hill forgot to die,
And the lilies revived, and the dragon-fly
    Came back to dream on the river.

The combination of tragedy and insouciance in Barrett’s poem is lovely.
Both of these poems are beautiful!
But Barrett edges out Bejetman, 82-80!
What a game!
Elizabeth Barrett advances!!

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