Monday, 29 April 2013

The Poetry of Sidney Keyes: "We Shall Never Forget Nor Escape You..."

Takrouna - Two Miles West of Enfidaville, in Tunisia during World War II, by Alex J Ingram. Used under IWM Non Commercial Licence

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.'

-Sidney Keyes, from Four Postures of Death

It is 70 years today since the death of Sidney Keyes, on 29 April 1943. He is considered one of Britain's most important World War II poets along with Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis. Aged only twenty, he died during his first battle of the war, in Tunisia.

It may not be a great surprise to readers of this blog that I discovered Sidney Keyes through Watership Down. The quotation above, from a poem sequence called Four Postures of Death, appears as the epigraph at the start of one of the book's chapters. What I find somewhat more mysterious is how I came to start reading his poetry, beyond those few lines. From the age of about ten, I read Watership Down so many times that the literary epigraphs, and the words of the book itself, are buried very deep inside me. However, even after I started using the internet (in 1995, I think) and after I started my university studies (in 1996, which gave me access to a whole new library) I don't recall looking for more information on Keyes, though I'm sure I could have.

I moved to Dublin in 2002, and from there to London in July 2005. My final 2004-2005 year in Dublin was largely spent trying to decide where I wanted to go next - it was only by April or May of 2005 that I was certain I wanted to go to London. In March, I visited London for a few days, partly to meet up with friends from Canada who were passing through. I was ill with flu for most of those few days, but fortunately I managed to see my friends, visit the amazing Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery, and see Derek Jacobi perform in the extraordinary revival of Schiller's Don Carlos.

I also went to Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road and bought Carcanet's edition of Sidney Keyes's Collected Poems. The mysteriousness of this is due to a "why then?" question in my mind which I can't resolve. I remember going to Foyles, and I remember that I specifically wanted to look for poetry by Sidney Keyes. But I had already been reading and buying poetry for years, and I had certainly visited Foyles before - so I don't know why I only went looking for Keyes in 2005. I can only assume that something told me that the time was now right.

I don't think I had previously been aware that Keyes was only twenty when he died, or even that he was a "war poet". It certainly put everything in context - the tragedy of his death, like the tragedy of other war deaths; and also the extent to which he was already a "finished" poet versus showing potential. I don't see Keyes as a "finished" poet in the way that Keith Douglas was, but they were plainly two very different people with very different styles, and this probably also has something to do with the difference between twenty-four (Douglas's age when he died) and twenty. Keyes really didn't have time to fully move beyond his influences, and their presence is a weighty one in his work: Yeats, Rilke, Eliot, Hölderlin and others. The translator Michael Meyer, a friend of Keyes who edited his work, wrote of Keyes not long after his death:

He had either inherited or been infected with a sense of guilt and evil destiny. The subject of pain and death fascinated him, and his duality had sharpened since his childhood. That inner chamber of his mind, where he held converse with the heroes of his imagination, had become unapproachable to human beings. It was inhabited only by ghosts and phantoms. Keyes had developed an acute historic sense which enabled him to recreate the very spirits of those who stirred his imagination; and the poet within him dwelt only among the mighty dead. Blake, Schiller, Wordsworth and, above all, Yeats and Rilke, were more intimate to him than the contemporary world. He was in the closest and most constant contact with their minds through their writing, and he preferred their company to that of the living. (from Memoir by Michael Meyer, reproduced in Carcanet's Collected Poems of Sidney Keyes)

There is certainly an inescapable morbidity to much of Keyes's work - I think I guessed as much as a child from those short lines from Four Postures of Death. One of his first significant poems, written when he was only sixteen, commemorates the death of his grandfather. His own death in April makes it that much more poignant:

April again, and it is a year again
Since you walked out and slammed the door
Leaving us tangled in your words. [...]

(from 'Elegy (In memoriam S.K.K.)')

He also wrote poems with titles such as 'Shall the Dead Return?', 'Schiller Dying' and 'An Early Death'. His most reproduced poem (though not his best, I think) is 'War Poet', which you can find under Excerpt on Carcanet's Sidney Keyes page. He was also very interested in themes of nature and visual art ('Pheasant', 'The Kestrels', 'Paul Klee'). His love poetry tends to be sadly lacking in optimism, either for himself or for his beloved. He wrote this poem for Milein Cosman, a young German artist who only saw him as a friend:

NOT CHOSEN (Sidney Keyes)

(For Milein)

Not chosen, but unsure protagonist
Of my father's folly and his father's greed,
I rake the acres that I should have sown
And burn the corn to save next season's seed.

Forgive my heavy hands their new precision
Learnt otherwise than we had wished or hoped;
Look not too closely as I move beside you -
My feet are shackled and my neck is roped.

I am the watcher in the narrow lane -
My tongue is schooled in every word of fear.
O take me back, but as you take remember
My love will bring you nothing but trouble, my dear.

He was partly a Romantic (he wrote a very beautiful elegy for William Wordsworth, another influence) and partly a Symbolist; in his fascinating poem 'The Anti-Symbolist', he comments wryly:

[...] The tall old woman
Eating her sandwiches on a pompous vault
And her dog who loves to play tag with tombstones,
Need never recur, yet link me with the drowned ones
Of earth, quite unforgettably.

(from 'The Anti-Symbolist')

I have to admit that the sensitive, death-preoccupied Keyes reminds me somewhat of Joy Division's Ian Curtis. It's hard not to see the deaths of these young men as inevitable, though the war poets such as Keyes and Douglas were really just caught up in very difficult, deathly times and influenced by the profoundly dark atmosphere of the world at that time.

For myself, I prefer Keith Douglas's work at this point in my life, but Keyes has had a long influence on me just through those few lines reproduced in Watership Down, and through several years of reading his work on and off since 2005. I go back to his poetry when I want something dark, thoughtful and highly symbolic, to admire his developing voice and to wonder how he might have gone on to transcend his influences if he hadn't died when he was just a boy. The words "We shall never forget nor escape you," from the 'Elegy' for his grandfather, are very appropriate.

I really recommend that anyone with an interest in Keyes look up the Carcanet Collected Poems, as it not only reproduces all the poems available to us, but also includes interesting commentaries by those who have studied his work closely or knew him personally. This review by Robert Richman of the Collected Poems is also excellent, and challenges both the ideas that he was a "war poet" and that he was obsessed with death:

I am happy to be able to conclude this entry with a long excerpt from 'The Foreign Gate'. Although considered a war poet, Keyes's own participation in the war was obviously short-lived, and I think he was influenced much more by the darkness of his times than by war as a literal theme. 'The Foreign Gate' is certainly about war, though, and the bringing together of the voices of those affected by and participating in war across the ages. There are lines in it which have echoed through me ever since I first read it.

from THE FOREIGN GATE (Sidney Keyes)


The moon is a poor woman.
The moon returns to weep with us. The crosses
Burn raw and white upon the night's stiff banners.
The wooden crosses and the marble trees
Shrink from the foreign moon.
The iron gate glitters. Here the soldiers lie.
Fold up the flags, muffle the soldier's drum;
Silence the calling fife. O drape
The soldier's drum with heavy crêpe;
With mourning weeds muffle the soldier's girl.
It's a long way and a long march
To the returning moon and to the soil
No time at all.
                       O call
The soldier's glory by another name:
Shroud up the soldier's common shame
And drape the soldier's drum, but spare
The steel-caged brain, the feet that walk to war.

Once striding under a horsehair plume
Once beating the taut drums for war
The sunlight rang from brass and iron;
History was an angry play -
The boy grew tall and rode away;
The door hung slack; the pale girl wept
And cursed the company he kept.
And dumb men spoke
Through the glib mouths of smoke;
The servile learned to strike
The proud to shriek;
And strangled in their lovers' lips
The young fell short of glory in the sand
Raking for graves among the scattered sand;
The tattered flags strained at the wind
Scaring the thrifty kite, mocking the dead.
But muffle the soldier's drum, hide his pale head,
His face a spider's web of blood. O fold
The hands that grip a splintered gun.
                 The glittering gate
Baffles him still, his starvecrow soul. O drape
The soldier's drum and cry, who never dare
Defy the ironbound brain, the feet that walk to war.

The cold hand clenches. The stupid mouth
Writhes like a ripple. Now the field is full
Of noises and dead voices ...
                                          'My rags flap
Though the great flags are trampled ...'
                                                           'My mouth speaks
Terror and truth, instead of hard command.'
'Remember the torn lace, the fine coats slashed
With steel instead of velvet. Künersdorf
Fought in the shallow sand was my relief.'
'I rode to Naseby' ... 'And the barren land
Of Tannenberg drank me. Remember now
The grey and jointed corpses in the snow,
The struggle in the drift, the numb hands freezing
Into the bitter iron ...'
                                      'At Dunkirk I
Rolled in the shallows, and the living trod
Across me for a bridge ...'
                                            'Let me speak out
Against this sham of policy, for pain
Alone is true. I was a general
Who fought the cunning Africans, returned
Crowned with harsh laurel, frantically cheered
Through Roman streets. I spoke of fame and glory.
Women grabbed at my robe. Great poets praised me.
I died of cancer, screaming, in a year.'
'I fell on a black Spanish hillside
Under the thorn-hedge, fighting for a dream
That troubled me in Paris; vomited
My faith and courage out among the stones ...'
'I was a barb of light, a burning cross
Of wood and canvas, falling through the night.'
'I was shot down at morning, in a yard.'

The moon regards them without shame. The wind
Rises and twitters through the wreck of bone ...
                                            'It is so hard to be alone
Continually, watching the great stars march
Their circular unending route; sharp sand
Straying about the eyes, blinding the quick-eyed spirit.'
A soldier's death is hard;
There's no prescribed or easy word
For dissolution in the Army books.
The uniform of pain with pain put on is straiter
Than any lover's garment; yet the death
Of these is different, and their glory greater.
Once men, then moving figures on a map,
Patiently giving time and strength and vision
Even identity
Into the future's keeping;
Nourished on wounds and weeping
Faces and laughing flags and pointed laurels,
Their pain cries down the noise of poetry.

So muffle the soldier's drum, forget the battles;
Remember only fame's a way of living:
The writing may be greater than the speaking
And every death for something different
From time's compulsion, is a written word.
Whatever gift, it is the giving
Remains significant: whatever death
It is the dying matters.
Bronze eagle or bright banner or carved name
Of fighting ancestor; these never pardon
The pain and sorrow. It is the dying pardons,
For something different from man or emblem.
Then drape the soldier's drum
And carry him down
Beyond the moon's inspection, and the noise
Of bands and banners and the striking sun.
Scatter the soldier's emblems and his fame:
Shroud up the shattered face, the empty name;
Speak out the word and drape the drum and spare
The captive brain, the feet that walk to war
The ironbound brain, the hand unskilled in war
The shrinking brain, sick of an inner war.

Permission to reproduce the poems was kindly given by David Higham Associates. Poems © Sidney Keyes and the Estate of Sidney Keyes, taken from Collected Poems of Sidney Keyes, published by Carcanet Press Limited.


  1. Thanks for this post, Clarissa. It's great discovering new poets and I guess I'm about to fall in love with Keyes. (What's not to love?!)

    I understand why he is labelled a war poet (labeling artists is like an easy way out, isn't it?) but as you said, he is much more than that. His darker side seems to stem from something other than war and I'm eager to find out what it is. I'm off to read the New Criterion article. xx

    1. I'm so glad you liked Keyes! There is something special about him. I love his symbolic language and his sensitivity.

      I do wonder if he might have outgrown the morbid darkness a little bit if he'd had a chance to grow up. Many young people are very morbid.. I suspect in any case he would have retained an essential sadness, though. His Collected Poems includes some previously unpublished work such as poems based on the blues, which are quite funny. He certainly wasn't one-dimensional. (But the blues lyrics are quite dark in their own way, too!)

  2. O my head i veil and turn my face to the wall

    And pass from the place of wisdom's quiet children.

    Their presence is a scroll of peace
    Unrolled before the shattered face
    Of the dead soldier and the straying lover.