During the Second World War, Queen’s was the meeting place for a group of three exceptionally gifted poets. Drummond Allison (English, 1939), John Heath-Stubbs (English, 1939) and Sidney Keyes (Modern History, 1940) were contemporaries at Queen’s in the early 1940s, and produced an extraordinary body of work in a short space of time. Though two of the three men were killed in action in their early twenties, Queen’s Library is fortunate to possess several books of poetry produced by this remarkable group of poets.
A 1941 poetry anthology, Eight Oxford Poets, edited by Keyes and Michael Meyer, features work by the three Queen’s Old Members: Keyes, Allison, and Heath-Stubbs. Notably, the collection also features poems by the renowned war poet Keith Douglas (Christ Church), who was killed during the invasion of Normandy. In Keyes’ foreword, he notes that the authors share “a horror at the world’s predicament, together with the feeling that we cannot save ourselves without some kind of spiritual readjustment”. Our copy, which was donated to the Library by Dr David Constantine, was signed by several of the contributors including the three Queensmen.
Eight Oxford Poets is perhaps equally notable for an author who was omitted, given that writer’s later fame. A young poet reading English at St John’s by the name of Philip Larkin was not included in this collection, which Larkin took as a great slight. Writing later in The Guardian, John Heath-Stubbs noted that for years afterwards Larkin carried this grudge, despite having disowned his own poetry of the period.
The Library also has a copy of Poetry from Oxford in Wartime, a 1945 collection edited by William Bell, which includes contributions from Allison and Heath-Stubbs (this time Larkin made the cut). By this stage, both Allison and Keyes had been killed in action fighting in the Mediterranean Theatre of the Second World War. Keyes died in April 1943 in the Tunisia Campaign, while Allison died in December of the same year in the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy. The Queen’s Library copy bears John Heath-Stubbs’ bookplate.