April 17, 2008 / 11:19 AM / 10 years ago

Poet Betjeman's unrequited love dies at 92

LONDON (Reuters) - Joan Hunter Dunn, genteel muse to Britain’s Poet Laureate John Betjeman and the inspiration for one of his best known poems, has died at the age of 92.

Betjeman, who famously complained in old age that his one regret was not having had enough sex, worshipped her in verse — but his love was always unrequited.

“I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn,” he declared in “A Subaltern’s Love Song” which he wrote after their wartime meeting at the Ministry of Information.

The poem, a paean of praise to a doctor’s daughter, encapsulated Betjeman’s vision of an idyllic England where couples played tennis after tea on a country house lawn and then danced until dawn at the golf club ball.

“Love-thirty, love-forty, oh weakness of joy

“The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,” he wrote.

The poem may quiver with repressed desire but the relationship was always platonic.

Betjeman biographer Bevis Hillier, who twice interviewed the poet’s muse, said on Thursday: “He had a massive crush on her ... But she made it very clear to me that he never made anything approaching a pass at her.”

Recalling a bygone age in Middle England, he told BBC Radio: “It was a time when people didn’t just flop into bed with each other after dinner, after the first dinner anyway...”

The poem ends with the lines:

“We sat in the car park till twenty to one

And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.”

That flight of fancy caused a panic just as the poem was about to be published in 1945 as she had by then married civil servant Wycliffe Jackson.

Hillier said the publishers “very quickly approached her and very characteristically she said she had no objection whatsoever.”

After her husband died of a heart attack while working in Rhodesia, she returned to England in the 1960s where Betjeman helped her find school places for her sons.

The English rose, who died in a London nursing home aged 92, was always flattered at being immortalized and once recalled in a newspaper interview that Betjeman had skillfully woven his romantic fantasy with an accurate depiction of her young life.

“Actually all that about the subaltern and the engagement is sheer fantasy but my life was very like the poem.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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