Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Sidney Keyes: 'Death and the Maiden' (Four Postures of Death)

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Spanish Dancer, 1888

'Death and the Maiden', the first poem in Sidney Keyes' Four Postures of Death sequence, is the poem from which Richard Adams took the first few lines for one of his epigraphs in Watership Down. So this is the poem which introduced me to Keyes, and it is an important part of the wonderful interwoven, nature-celebrating and literature-loving texture of Watership Down. For years before I even felt strongly impelled to look up the whole poem and to find out more about Sidney Keyes, I wondered what kind of poet had written such singular, unforgettable lines.




He said 'Dance for me,' and he said,
'You are too beautiful for the wind
To pick at, or the sun to burn.' He said
'I'm a poor tattered thing, but not unkind
To the sad dancer and the dancing dead.'

So I smiled and a slow measure
Mastered my feet and I was happy then.
He said, 'My people are gentle as lilies
And in my house there are no men
To wring your young heart with a foolish pleasure.'

Because my boy had crossed me in a strange bed
I danced for him and was not afraid.
He said, 'You are too beautiful for any man
To finger; you shall stay a maid
For ever in my kingdom and be comforted.'

He said, 'You shall be my daughter and your feet move
In finer dances, maiden; and the hollow
Halls of my house shall flourish with your singing.'
He beckoned and I knew that I must follow
Into the kingdom of no love.


  1. An outstanding, haunting poem - it makes me feel sad, but in an unfathomable way - truly, one of the few great poems of the last century.

    Gary Bills.

    1. Thank you for stoppping by! I'm always happy when people appreciate Keyes, who died so young.

      I know that when I first read those lines in the Watership Down epigraph, they had something about them which was utterly new and different to me, and I still tend to feel that way.

  2. I just read this in Watership Down, too. It is so beautiful that I had to look the rest up.
    Thank you for posting this, Classic Aykroyd

    1. You're welcome! I certainly recommend looking up more work by Sidney Keyes. I've posted some of his poems on this blog, and Carcanet Poetry publishes his Collected Poems.

  3. Aah I'm so happy to see other people who read this from Watership Down and were instantly intrigued. Beautiful book, beautiful poem.

    1. Thank you for stopping by. I'm always so pleased when someone had a similar experience with any of the Watership Down quotations/epigraphs, and especially with Sidney Keyes.

  4. Thank you, Clarissa. I too came here by way of Watership Down. Funny thing is that when I read it as a child, I hated the epigraphs -- they were confusing to me, and interfered with the rabbits. Now, as an adult, I can appreciate them, especially this haunting verse. Thank you for sharing the rest.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I pretty much always loved everything about Watership Down...but I definitely think it's a book you can grow along with, and appreciate somewhat differently in adulthood. The mysterious thing to me is that as important as the story is to me, I think that the epigraphs (and the allusions to literature scattered throughout the story) have ultimately proved to be just as important.