Sidney Keyes

The British Army in Tunisia 1943 Infantry and carriers of the Grenadier Guards advance over difficult terrain near the Kasserine Pass, 24 February 1943. Courtesy Wikipedia/IWM in public domain.

About a year ago I wrote a piece for the World War 2 poetry blog about the poet Sidney Keyes  27th May 1922- 29th April . 1943 . This is a revised and lengthened version.

Lieutenant Sidney Arthur Kilworth Keyes was killed in action near Sidi Abdulla,  Tunisia, on 29th April 1943. He was serving  with the 1st Battalion of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment and was a month away from his 21st birthday : Keyes had seen active service for two weeks. and was posthumously awarded the Hawthornden Prize in 1943 for his second collection of poetry, ‘The Cruel Solstice’ which is dedicated to fellow Oxford University poet John Heath Stubbs.  He was buried at Massicault Cemetery, Tunisia.

There is fair amount of biography on line , including a recent feature on the War Poets Association website about Sidney Keyes. He came from a middle class background, brought up largely by his grandfather. Educated at Tonbridge School then Queens College, Oxford.  I have listed further sources for anyone interested in researching Sidney Keyes’ life below,

I have a second edition copy of ‘The Cruel Solstice’ from 1944. The huge range of poetic themes is impressive:  Titles such as ‘William Yates in Limbo, ‘St. John the Baptist’, ‘William Byrd’, ‘Don Juan’, ‘Orestes and the Furies’, ‘The Kestrels’, abound- perhaps one in ten poems are related to the War.

Certainly the poet Vernon Scannell in his much neglected work on World War 2 poetry- ‘Not Without Glory ‘  (1976) stressed that Keyes  largely seemed to be avoiding the idea of poetry being some sort of war reportage and was strangely detached from World events.  It is possible to go further, Keyes is almost retreating into his inner world of nature and mysticism .

To take a few lines from section 4 of ‘The Foreign Gate’ , Keyes was adopting an approach adopted by the ‘New Apocalypse’ movement in detaching his poetry from World War 2 but looking at War in more general terms. There is also a strong influence from T.S.Elliott.

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 crepe;

With mourning weeds muffle the soldeir’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;

Shround up the soldier’s common shame

And drape the soldier’s drum, but spare

The steel-caged brain, the feet that walk to war.

However other poems showed that Keyes could tackle specific themes, such as the role of the poet during war, a battle from the past, and fears concerning what has happening during Occupied Europe.

Keyes also wrote a poem titled ‘Dunbar, 1650’  ( written June 1942) ….referring to Cromwell’s victory against a Scottish army of double his size on 3rd September 1650.  I had wondered why he chose the Battle of Dunbar as a subject for a poem, and overlooked the most obvious explanation -Keyes was training in Dunbar in the officer cadet training unit (O.C.T.U.) from May 1942 October 1942. The information came to light in short book published in 2013 titled ‘The Rising Flame-Remembering Sidney Keyes’ , by novelist Rod Maddocks, whose father J.E. Maddocks, later to become a major served in the OCTU with Keyes .Another member of the OCTU at the time was actor Trevor Howard.

Keyes most famous poem is ‘War Poet’ from March 1942. One that has been regularly added to World War 2 anthologies.

War Poet

” 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.”

Often cited by people who favour the notion of a ‘ poet as a war reporter’ , it has to be pointed out that Keyes wrote this in March 1942, a year before he was to see any active service.

One of my favourite war related poems from ‘The Cruel Solstice’  is ‘Europe’s Prisoners’ . Just sums up what was happening in 1930’s/ 1940’s Europe.

The last two lines seem to suggest that  Keyes hopes that those in prison will break out to seek a devastating retribution on the world that has caged them.

“Until at last the courage they have learned
Shall burst the walls and overturned the world”

 Keyes was writing in 1941, and would have no concept of how horrific the labour and concentration camp conditions would be.  The poem is an interesting snapshot of how a British poet imagines the plight of the huge numbers of people in captivity, and yearns for them to stage a romantic rebellion. 

Europe’s Prisoners

” Never a day, never a day passes
But I remember then, their stoneblind faces
Beaten by arclights, their eyes turned inward
Seeking an answer and their passage homeward:

For being citizens of time, they never
Would learn the body’s nationality.
Tortured for years now, they refuse to sever
Spirit from flesh or accept our callow century.

Not without hope, but lacking present solace,
The preacher know the feels of nails and grace,
The singer snores; the orator’s facile hands
are fixed in a gesture no one understands.

Others escaped, yet paid for their betrayal;
Even the politicians with their stale
Visions and cheap flirtation with the past
Will not die any easier at the last.

The ones who took to garrets and consumption
In foreign cities, found a deep dungeon
Than any Dachau. Free but still confined.
The human lack of pity split their mind.

Whatever days, whatever season pass,
The prisoners must start in pain’s white face;
Until at last the courage they have learned
Shall burst the walls and overturn the world.”

21st May 1941 

A final word by Private James Lucas :

“During my Army Service I had a number of Platoon commanders. Keyes was the best of them. He was the quieter, determined, non-blustering type of leadership. His manners impeccable and he did not talk down to us, nor was he condescending to us- so many officers were. He was a gallant, Christian gentleman who sacrificed himself for the men under his command. “

Memoir included in Sidney Keyes ‘Collected Poems’ , Carcanet , 2002.

In fact  Sidney Keyes’ work is best explored via  ‘Collected Poems’ , Carcanet, 2002. Essentially the last update of the original  1944 collected works edited by Michael Meyer , an Oxford contemporary. Biographical material has been added including two accounts of soldiers who fought with Keyes.

War Poets Association  page on Sidney Keyes

Tonbridge School  page on Sidney Keyes

Do not forget to visit the blogs related to this website , the and the 17th century war and literature blog

UPDATE has been updated with a post about the life and work of Jewish Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, who was executed on 9th November 1944 along with some 21 others who were conscripted into forced labour and were too ill and exhausted to carry on working. A longer article on Radnoti will be published on this website in the near future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *