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Exhibitions
Library display case Queen's College
Queen's War Poets, curated by Dominic Hewett, Library Assistant
Introduction

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.

image shows the cover of a book titled eight oxford poets, the cover of the book is red and the title is printed in large yellow font

 

 

image shows a page of a book bearing signatures

 

 

image shows a book cover with the title Poetry from oxford in Wartime printed in large black font

 

Sidney Keyes

Lieutenant Sidney Keyes (1922-1943) was born and raised in Dartford, Kent, before going up to Queen’s in 1940 to read Modern History. In April 1942, two months before he was due to sit his final exams, Keyes was called up to the Royal West Kent Regiment and underwent military training in Omagh and Dunbar before shipping out to North Africa. On the voyage to Algiers, Keyes gave lectures to his men on poetry and upon arrival took them on a visit to nearby Roman ruins (Press, 2005: 30). On April 1943 in Tunisia, the company was attacked by German paratroopers and Keyes was killed aged just twenty.

Keyes’ poetry was influenced by Wordsworth’s and Yeats’ respective interests in the pastoral and the mystical, and he especially admired Rainer Maria Rilke, that ‘Poet of Death’. Keyes wrote that his chief non-poetic influence was Jungian psychology and its concern with ancient primal symbolism. He enjoyed classical music, opera and film, and expressed ambitions to become a film director. While at Queen’s, Keyes staged several of his own plays including Hosea and The Prisoner. It was during an Eglesfield Players performance of the latter that Keyes struck his cast mate Allison overenthusiastically with a revolver butt – the blow severed an artery and caused blood to pour down Allison’s face, and he had to attend the Radcliffe Infirmary. The incident delayed Allison’s call-up by a term and even earned a mention in the Oxford Mail with the headline ‘Stage Blood Was Real’ (Davies, 2008: 50).

During his short life, Keyes wrote two pamphlets of verse, The Iron Laurel and The Cruel Solstice, for which he was posthumously awarded the prestigious Hawthornden Prize. After his untimely death, Keyes’ friend Michael Meyer edited The Collected Poems of Sidney Keyes and Minos of Crete, a collection of plays and stories. Queen’s Library is fortunate to possess copies of all of Keyes’ published work. Our copy of The Cruel Solstice belonged to Professor Gareth Alban Davies (Queen’s, 1944), a near-contemporary of Keyes who was one of the ‘Bevin Boys’ conscripted to work in the coal mines during the war.

image shows a black and white photograph of the poet Sidney Keyes

 

 

 

Drummond Allison

Lieutenant John Drummond Allison (1921-1943) was born in Caterham, Surrey, and went up to Queen’s in 1939 to read English. Though a talented poet, he was by all accounts more extroverted and less self-consciously ‘literary’ than his friends, described by his biographer as:

“[a] constantly-talking and joking whirlwind of a young man in love with and in headlong pursuit of life, and in particular of his three principal passions: poetry, cricket and girls” (Davies, 2008: 7).

It’s perhaps appropriate that Allison’s first piece of published writing was not a poem, nor indeed fiction of any kind, but a letter he wrote to the Daily News aged just eight years old offering advice to the selection committee for England’s upcoming Test match. Unfortunately, the England selectors did not heed Allison’s advice, and lost the 1930 Ashes 2-1 thanks to the Australian great Sir Donald Bradman.

At Oxford, Allison threw himself into the social scene, acting in plays, joining the Socialist Club, and socialising in coffee shops and pubs. He was faced with personal tragedy when in December 1939 his brother Douglas was shot down piloting a Wellington bomber. Allison’s poem ‘Come let us pity Death’ movingly refers to his brother’s death:

‘Swerving the cannon-shell to smash the airman

He had no time to hear my brother laughing.’

When called up, Allison trained at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, before joining the East Surrey Regiment as an intelligence officer. After moving through North Africa, in December 1943 Allison was killed during the Italian Campaign at the Battle of Monte Cassino while leading his platoon in a night attack.

Following his death, a collection of poems, The Yellow Night, was published by the Fortune Press, yet did not receive the same public attention as other poets such as Keith Douglas. It was not until the 1970s when The Poems of Drummond Allison was published by that Allison was critically reappraised and celebrated as a lost talent by the likes of Geoffrey Hill and Anthony Thwaite.

 

John Heath-Stubbs

John Heath-Stubbs OBE (1918-2006), perhaps the best-known member of the group, grew up in London, Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight. The course of his life changed significantly when aged eighteen he was diagnosed with glaucoma, losing all sight in his right eye after an operation. Ineligible for military service due to his eyesight, Heath-Stubbs was the only one of the three to complete their degree, and he went on to have a long career as an acclaimed poet and translator.

At Oxford, Heath-Stubbs attended lectures on medieval and early modern literature by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Neville Coghill, and he retained his interests in the aurality of poetry and adaptations of mythological sources throughout his career. Heath-Stubbs was close friends with Keyes and Allison, and as the widest-read member of the group was a major influence on their poetry. They had a Sunday afternoon ‘salon’ where they would read one another’s work and give feedback.

As a poet, editor, critic and translator, Heath-Stubbs published an extraordinary body of work between the 1940s and the 2000s. He wrote translations of poets as varied as Sappho, Horace, Hafiz, and Giacomo Leopardi and received awards including the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1973. Later in life, Heath-Stubbs returned to Queen’s for readings and discussions, including a special evening on Keyes and Allison in February 2003. An allusive (if at times elusive) poet, Heath-Stubbs died in 2006 aged 88.

 

Acknowledgements and further reading

Many thanks to Dr David Constantine, both for his generous donations of books by these authors and for his reading suggestions and encouragement.

I used the following sources in curating this exhibition:

  • Allison, Drummond. (1978). The Poems of Drummond Allison. Reading: Whiteknights Press.
  • Bell, William (ed.). (1945). Poetry from Oxford in wartime. London: The Fortune Press.
  • Curtis, Anthony. (2011). ‘Stubbs, John Francis Alexander Heath- (1918-2006), poet.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/97534
  • Davies, Ross. (2008). Drummond Allison: Come, Let us Pity Death. London: Cecil Woolf.
  • Keyes, Sidney. (1943). The Cruel Solstice. London: Routledge.
  • Meyer, Michael, and Sidney Keyes (eds.). (1941). Eight Oxford Poets. London: Routledge.
  • Press, John. (2005). Sidney Keyes. London: Cecil Woolf.