‘Sidney Keyes… potentially the finest English poet of the Second World War’ — Robert Nye.
Sidney Arthur Kilworth Keyes was born on the 27th May, 1922 at Dartford in Kent. Keyes’ mother died in his infancy and his tubercular father was largely absent during his childhood. Keyes was mainly brought up by aunts and by his dominating grandfather whom he commemorated in his first remarkable poem ‘Elegy’, written at the age of 16. Both his father and grandfather were thrice-married. Personal relationships in the family were contentious and clouded by unhappiness. Keyes grew up to be a solitary, studious boy who was sickly and frail, but he loved the Kentish countryside and read deeply about mythology, legends and history.
In 1935 he was sent to Tonbridge School where his precocious talent as a poet was first noticed and nurtured. A 1939 visit to France on the brink of war opened his mind to new images and a feeling for the wide sweep of history. He studied the work of W. B. Yeats, R. M. Rilke, the English Romantic Poets, and the ideas of C. G. Jung. He became fascinated by the morbid and the macabre and by Symbolist themes of death and metamorphosis. In October 1940, he went to Queen’s College, Oxford to study history and there met the poet John Heath Stubbs, the writer Michael Meyer, and the artist Milein Cosman, who became his reluctant muse. While at Oxford, the remote Keyes became more socially confident: he set up a dramatic society and put on plays where he honed the dramatic voice that would become such a feature of his poems. During this period, Keyes co-arranged the poetry collection Eight Oxford Poets which included poems by Keith Douglas. His own first collection, The Iron Laurel was published in 1942. It contained the prophetic poem, The Foreign Gate, which foretold his own death in battle.
Keyes commenced military training in April 1942. The dreamy poet was an unhandy, hopeless soldier, the despair of his training officers. However, he was commissioned into The Queen’s Own Royal West Kents , his father’s old regiment, in October 1942. A few months remained. He spent his leaves with his new lover, Renée-Jane Scott, and shaped his second poetry collection, The Cruel Solstice. His unit was shipped to North Africa in March 1943. His letters and Notebook evidence a calm acceptance of his fate. He lasted barely three weeks in the front line, although his men respected him for his courage and steadfastness. He died near Sidi Abdulla in the Tunisian mountains in an attack on Hill 133, in the early morning of 29th April 1943. He was last glimpsed fighting back–to–back with a comrade as they tried to fend off a German counter-attack. There is mystery about the precise circumstances of his death and burial that will never be fully resolved.
The poems we know he was writing at the time were lost on the battlefield but his letters and Notebook survive. The Collected Poems of Sidney Keyes, edited by Michael Meyer, came out in 1944 to much contemporary praise, although over time he has been unfavourably contrasted with his older contemporaries, Alun Lewis and Keith Douglas. His was an anticipatory talent that never had the chance to fully develop. To Geoffrey Hill, Keyes was a ‘Gothic pastoralist’, to Owen Lowery, he was ‘an exiled lover in harmony with nature and at odds with the violence of his time’. What is clear is that he gave us some fine poems and this work presaged greater things. Keyes’ own image of himself was that a candle flame rising up and burning the more brightly just as it was on the point of extinction.
Sidney Keyes is buried at Massicault War Cemetery, Manouba, Tunisia.
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.
Sidney Keyes, Collected Poems, Carcanet Press, 2002. (Also contains previously unpublished poems and memoirs by his muse Milein Cosman, by the author Michael Meyer and by James Lucas, a war comrade.)
Sidney Keyes, Minos of Crete: Plays & Stories, Routledge, 1948. (Contains key letters to friends and the poet’s notebook.)
John Guenther, Sidney Keyes: A Biographical Enquiry, London Magazine Edition, 1967. (A fine biography by a Pulitzer-nominated American poet.)
Rod Madocks, The Rising Flame: Remembering Sidney Keyes, Shoestring Press, 2015. (A memoir and tribute to Keyes and to the author’s father who served with the poet. Includes selected poems.)
John Lucas, Second World War Poetry in English, Greenwich Exchange, 2013 (Chapter One, ‘Premonitions’ examines Keyes’ poetry.)