Merryn Williams applauds a new selection of poems by Sidney Keyes (edited by Rod Madocks) which should help restore the reputation of this nearly-forgotten World War Two poet

keyesThe Rising Flame: Remembering Sidney Keyes 
Rod Madocks
Shoestring Press
ISBN: 978-1-910323-21-2
104 pp     £10.

‘A period which can laud the poetry of Sidney Keyes is no period for me’, wrote Philip Larkin, who was the same age, and had been a fellow student at Oxford. But Larkin was annoyed with Keyes, because he had been published in some prestigious journals and appeared in a little anthology called Eight Oxford Poets, and Larkin had not. No doubt he would have been part of the literary establishment had he lived, but he died in the war. Afterwards his friends tried to keep his poetry in circulation, but Larkin never thought much of him, nor did Leavis, nor Clive James, who wrote that he was ‘hardly talented at all’.

Yet talent there was and it emerged very early in his short life. Here is a poem, remarkable for someone of sixteen, which Keyes wrote in memory of his grandfather:

April again, and it is a year again
Since you walked out and slammed the door
Leaving us tangled in your words.  Your brain
Lives in the bank-book, and your eyes look up
Laughing from the carpet on the floor:
And we still drink from your silver cup.

It is a year again since they poured
The dumb ground into your mouth:
And yet we know, by some recurring word
Or look caught unawares, that you still drive
Our thoughts like the smart cobs of your youth –
When you and the world were alive.

A year again, and we have fallen on bad times
Since they gave you to the worms.
I am ashamed to take delight in these rhymes
Without grief; but you need no tears.
We shall never forget nor escape you, nor make terms
With your enemies, the swift departing years.

He was not quite twenty-one when he was killed in Tunisia, in April 1943. Very few people of that age have written great poetry – I can think only of Sorley and Chatterton – and Sidney Keyes is not the great British poet of the Second World War. That is Keith Douglas, who had a precious extra four years; and Vernon Scannell also wrote marvellous war poetry decades later. As well, Keyes had no chance to write about his experience on the front line, because he perished after he had been in action for less than a month.

Instead, his writing is filled with foreboding about the approaching winter, that is, the compulsion to take part in the war. He could not, like Larkin, get out of it for medical reasons; he did not even think that it would be right to get out. But he absolutely hated it. My feet are shackled and my neck is roped. He was an incompetent soldier (at first), and was bullied by other troops including the actor Trevor Howard. He was also unhappily in love, and in his fine poem ‘Actaeon’ suggests, as others had done before him, that women sacrifice men in war:

For I was torn to shreds as well you know,
And in my mouth the blue-tongued lichens grow.

A fine poem? Yes. Just because he wasn’t as good as Keith Douglas doesn’t mean that we should dismiss him. His poems could be called post-Georgian, full of ‘cloudy symbolism’ (Andrew Motion’s phrase) but not at all difficult. He occasionally produced a pompous phrase – O wake them not, the big-boned kings – but he improved very fast, perhaps feeling that his time was running out. He was obsessed by the conflicts of the past. In one of his very best poems, ‘Letter to M.C.’, written in 1941, he thought of others/ Who would not be amazed at war.

Now that the scent of stocks invades my windows
I think of gun-torn Germany under Napoleon’s
Calipers cut, under his wheeltracks furrowed:
And Goethe working by his quiet candle
Undaunted by the soldiery, content
To rule the steadfast empire of the heart.   

In the same poem he talks about the need for courage and about Goya, who fought an inner war, vomiting/ His nightmares on to paper. That was more or less how he dealt with his own nightmares and, in the end, he went forward bravely and is said to have ‘sacrificed himself for the men under his command’.

Rod Madocks, in this valuable new book, has collected some of the best poems and also written a memoir of the last year of his life. His late father, ‘a more natural and pragmatic soldier than Keyes’, served alongside him and has revealed several new facts, so we get quite a clear picture of what it was like for him: ‘Tunisia is like Scotland must have been in the eighteenth century, a mass of bald mountains, terribly cold at night’. It is an excellent introduction for those who would like to know more about him, beginning perhaps with this poem:

I am the man who looked for peace and found
My own eyes barbed.
I am the man who groped for words and found
An arrow in my hand.
I am the builder whose firm walls surround
A slipping land.
When I grow sick or mad
Mock me not nor chain me:
When I reach for the wind
Cast me not down:
Though my face is a burnt book
And a wasted town.


Merryn Williams was the founding editor of  The Interpreter’s House.  Her third collection, The first Wife’s Tale, was long-listed for the Welsh Book of the Year; a fourth collection is expected this winter.  Her biography, Effie: A Victorian Scandal: From Ruskin’s Wife to Millais’ Muse, was turned into a Random House audiobook this year