keyesImage: Sidney Keyes by Milein Cosman, 2001

Sidney Arthur Kilworth Keyes, with Alun Lewis and Keith Douglas, is regarded as one of the outstanding poets of the Second World War.

Keyes’s mother died shortly after his birth and, as his father was largely absent during his childhood, he was brought up by his paternal grandparents. He went to Dartford Grammar School and Tonbridge School and in 1940 to Queen’s College, Oxford, on a history scholarship. He had begun to write poetry at an early age, influenced by the work of Wordsworth, Rilke and Jung. At Oxford he became friends with the poet John Heath-Stubbs. He edited The Cherwell magazine, formed a dramatic society, wrote poems and short stories and, with Michael Meyer, another poet, edited Eight Oxford Poets.

His first volume of poetry, The Iron Laurel, was published in 1942, when he was only twenty. His work also appeared in Poetry (London), the New Statesman, Horizon and The Listener.

Commissioned into the Queens Own West Kent Regiment, he was sent to Tunisia in March 1943. He was killed, one month before his 21st birthday, covering his platoon’s retreat during a counter-attack. He was awarded the Hawthomdean Prize posthumously in 1944. ‘War Poet’ was written in March 1942.

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.

Suggested reading:

Sidney Keyes: Collected Poems,  Manchester: Carcanet, 2002.

Vanessa Davis, February 2005.