From Sidney Keyes : Collected Poems (1945)
Sidney Keyes died in Tunisia in April 1943 at the age of 20. Although usually spoken of as a war poet, none of the poems he is believed to have written during his short period of active service survive. However of the poems I have chosen to set, all but one (The Island City) were written after he had enlisted in April 1942. Their mood is darker than his earlier work, but it is significant that his major ‘war’ poem The Foreign Gate was written while he was still at Oxford in February 1942. He is probably best known for Tippett’s 1950 settings of The Heart’s Assurance and Remember Your Lovers, but his Collected Poems (a volume of little more than 100 pages) reveal a remarkably sophisticated perspective, heavily influenced by Rilke and Yeats but demonstrating an exceptional, individual voice, brutally cut off. Victoria Sackville-West wrote of ‘the astonishing maturity of his mind, the intense seriousness of his outlook, and his innate pre-occupation with major things’.
Seascapes was commissioned by Britten Pears Arts and the Nash Ensemble supported by Dr Shirley Ellis.
First Performance: 27 April 2021, Wigmore Hall, London, UK. Claire Booth/Nash Ensemble/Geoffrey Paterson
1. The Island City
Walking among this island
People inhabiting this island city,
Whose coast recedes, whose facile sand
Bears cold cathedrals, restively :
I see a black time coming, history
Tending in footnotes our forgotten land.
Hearing the once virginal
But ageing choirs of intellect
Sing a psalm that would appal
Our certain fathers, I expect
No gentle decadence, no right effect
Of falling, but itself the barren fall :
And Yeats’ gold song-bird shouting over all.
2. From : North Sea
The evening thickens.
Figures, figures like a frieze
Cross the sea’s face, their cold heads
Disdainful of the wind that pulls their hair.
The brown light lies across the harbour wall.
3. Night Estuary
And yet the spiked moon menacing
The great humped dykes, scaring the plaintive seafowl,
Makes no right image, wakes no assertive echo.
Though one may stride the dykes with face upturned
To the yellow inflammation in the sky
And nostrils full of the living samphire scent,
There is no kindness in man’s heart for these.
In this place and at this unmeaning hour,
There is no hope for a man’s hope or his sorrow.
O you lionhearted poet’s griefs, or griefs
Wild as the curlew’s cry of passage;
O hope uneasy as the rising ebb
Among the sedges, cold and questing guest;
Leave me alone this hour with the restive night.
Allow me to accept the witless landscape.
Our country was a country drowned long since,
By shark-toothed currents drowned :
And in that country walk the generations,
The dancing generations with grey eyes
Whose touch would be like rain, the generations
Who never thought to justify their beauty.
There once the flowering cherry grasped the wall
With childish fingers, once the gull swung crying
Across the morning or the evening mist;
Once high heels rattled on the terrace
Over the water’s talk, and the wind lifted
The hard leaves of the bay; the white sand drifted
Under the worm-bored rampart, under the white eyelid.
Our country was a country washed with colour.
Its light was good to us, sharp limning
The lover’s secret smile, the fine-drawn fingers;
It drew long stripes between the pointed jaws
Of sea-bleached wreckage grinning through the wrack
And turned cornelian the flashing eyeball.
For here the tide sang like a riding hero
Across the rock-waste, and the early sun
Was shattered in the teeth of shuttered windows.
But now we are the gowned lamenters
Who stand among the junipers and ruins.
We are the lovers who defied the sea.
afl.ob.bcl – hn – harp – pno – vln.vla.vcl