Furnish’d and Burnish’d

Furnish’d and Burnish’d

This week’s choice is “A Subaltern’s Love Song” by John Betjeman, a poem based on a real-life story.

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!

John Betjeman (1906—1984)

Poem 268. A Subaltern’s Love Song

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! full 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.

This poem is much anthologised, perhaps because it’s very closely associated with Betjeman and records his infatuation with the real Joan Hunter Dunn in 1940, for whom he wrote the poem, fantasising about playing tennis with her and getting engaged to her, though he was himself married.

There are some really pretty passages in the poem—“furnish’d and burnish’d” suggests that the lovely Miss Dunn is not only a child of the Sun (furnished in the sense of provided) but tanned by and glowing in its rays (burnished and perhaps furnished in the sense of having the Sun’s properties of warmth and brightness).

“With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won” gives the impression of an expertise modestly hidden so that it is not in doubt but not brashly on display, and that the winning shot is accompanied by a charming smile.

“How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won” gives us an idea of the mixed emotions felt by the subaltern—this young man is clearly stung and disappointed by his own lack of success but secretly delighted that he has been beaten by his charming partner.

The two players walk back to the house “buried in talk”—an image that concisely suggests the way a courting couple can be wrapped up in one another’s conversation to the exclusion of all others, like something buried deep that risks no interference from the outside world.

There is a nice alliteration throughout the poem but I like “westering, questioning settles the sun/On your low-leaded window” as Betjeman describes the setting sun shining on the bedroom window—perhaps the sun’s questing rays are reflected by the window in the same way as the questions that the subaltern has not yet felt able to ask are reflected to him.

“Into nine-o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells/And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells”—this is beautifully evocative, I love the idea of the air being so full of chiming bells that they seem to give it weight, and the scent of the woods through which they have driven on roads “not adopted”—minor roads where few would travel at that time of day and therefore ideal for a pair of loving hearts who want time and space to themselves.

And so we reach the end of the poem and the two of them are in the golf club’s car park, sitting in the Hillman (a Hillman Minx I assume—produced from 1931 to 1970—though it might be any of the models of the time) and it seems that despite the fact that the dance has begun and the sound of the “importunate band” can be clearly heard, neither he nor she makes any move and they sit in an intimate proximity (with nothing sexual suggested) holding hands for hours “till twenty to one” and his only possible course of action after such behaviour (given the social mores of the time) is to propose to the lady; she accepts, “And now I’m engaged to Joan Hunter Dunn”.

The reference to a press for the tennis racket harks back to the days of wooden-framed rackets that would lose their shape unless kept in a frame that ensured they didn’t warp (a racket left out of its press forms a clue in Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage”). A subaltern is an officer in the British Army below the rank of captain—usually a second lieutenant. Euonymous is a shrub, usually with variegated leaves of green and white (or yellow). The “pictures of Egypt” might refer to the period when the UK occupied Egypt and operated it as a protectorate and an assumption that one of her family had been involved.

I like this poem because it seems like a snapshot of the inter-war period, although it was written while Betjeman was working for the Ministry of Information in the early days of the Second World War. It reminds me of Wodehouse’s stories of Blandings and Bertie Wooster, too.


  • Read about Joan Hunter Dunn at Wikipedia.
  • Listen to Betjeman introduce and read his own poem on YouTube.