Candid and unsentimental, the teenage poet's tribute to his departed grandfather is striking in its originality
Sidney Keyes was a few weeks old when his mother died of peritonitis, and his father, Captain Reginald Keyes, returned with the child to his own father's house. SKK, commemorated in this week's poem "Elegy", was the poet's paternal grandfather, also named Sidney. The boy wrote the poem in July, 1938, when he was only 16.
Born in 1922, he was the same age as Philip Larkin, and both were Oxford undergraduates at the same time. Larkin was wary of him, partly because of his own exclusion from the anthology Eight Oxford Poets, which Keyes and Michael Meyer produced in 1941. There were aesthetic differences too, of course. Keyes objected to WH Auden, and said so in his Introduction. For Larkin, Auden led the way. The Yeatsian strain in Keyes was an influence Larkin himself would struggle to resist.
Besides Yeats, Keyes admired the English and German Romantics, especially Rilke. Yet, he once said he wished he had been born in the 19th century, so he could have been "a good pastoral poet, instead of an uncomfortable metaphysical poet without roots". Who knows what kind of poet he might have become, given time. He was sternly self-critical and readily admitted there was "a vaguely bogus atmosphere" in his early poems. Perhaps he would have rejected symbolism in favour of realism, or consolidated them more successfully. But he was killed in Tunisia just before his 21st birthday, in April 1943 – the month in which, the poem claims, his Grandfather Keyes had died. April, 1942, was also the month Sidney joined the army.
Whatever influences the 16-year-old had absorbed, "Elegy" is remarkably free of imitative gestures. In fact, its originality is striking. The repetition, with slight variants, of the opening statement, "It is a year again", in the first line of the ensuing two stanzas, is forceful without being showily rhetorical, its simplicity all of a piece with the plain diction throughout. The rhyme-scheme (a,b,a,c,b,c) makes for a sturdy and cohesive stanza. There are confidently deployed half-rhymes (especially in stanza two) and some surprise pairings, such as "worms/ terms". Metrically, the poem is loose-limbed, resisting a heavy-stressed regularity that might have expressed the grandfather's character rather well, but which would have destroyed the fresh, insouciant tones of the grandson.
Dactylic rhythms in the first line, and picked up elsewhere, beat out a quietly emphatic tattoo. Before any expectations of a pentameter can be realised, the next line's four-beat stride stops sharply. As a metaphorical description of the death, this line is almost brutal. It might imply that walking out and slamming the door were habitual. But the third line, with its caesura before the last foot, complicates the grandfather's absence, extends his influence, and begins to restore his existence.
Keyes' images become increasingly daring: "Your brain/ Lives in the bank-book" … "your eyes look up/ Laughing from the carpet on the floor". Depersonalised intellect is expressed in wealth which outlives its owner; its power over the survivors clinched by laughter. The image of the eyes looking up from the carpet is almost surreal. Compare this line with the opening of a later poem, "The War Poet": "I am the man who looked for peace and found/ My own eyes barbed." These eyes, too, seem "barbed" – and multiple. Perhaps a pattern on an oriental carpet suggested a face and eyes, or perhaps Keyes was led simply by the association of the ground with the dead man's burial. Bizarre, faintly comic, faintly nightmarish, the images brilliantly reflect the grandfather's vivid, challenging presence. He has left the family "tangled" in his utterance, if blessed by his legacy, and he is still watching them. The assertion that "we still drink from your silver cup" returns to a more realistic mode, and hints at the pleasures of the rich inheritance.
The poem might almost be a prototype for Dylan Thomas's several great protest-poems against death and mourning. It's not Keyes' only treatment of the subject, either. One of his most anthologised poems imagines a magnificently resurrected, rocky-faced William Wordsworth. Both poems are defiant anti-elegies.
Here, forceful rhythms and stark imagery persist in stanza two. The grandfather is not merely buried: the ground is poured into his mouth. In hard, vigorous monosyllables the speaker insists the dead man still "drives" the family's thoughts "like the smart cobs of your youth". "Smart cobs" is a wonderful, brisk trot of a phrase. The equestrian simile turns an abstract idea into a strikingly concrete memory.
Entwined in the narrative of stanzas one and two are references to the grandfather's "words". Now the poet, confessing to the "delight" of making the poem, confirms his bigger, bolder ownership of language. Momentarily, a personal note is struck. Then the plural pronoun "we" is resumed for a final trio of impassioned pledges.
That the elegy, overall, is framed as a collective statement is another mark of its originality. The speaker is a proud heir who speaks publicly and authoritatively for the surviving family. There is a final handover of power to the dead man, and still his influence is not felt as oppressive. The young poet is a confident ally in the grandfather's defeat of "the swift departing years". Somehow a very English, as well as a very masculine poem, "Elegy" thrives on its youthful defiance, candour and lack of sentimentality.
Keyes would write more ambitious poems, some of them a little over-worked and florid compared with "Elegy". If he had only had as much time to mature as Larkin, perhaps he would have rediscovered this less literary style, and found nourishment in the plainer "roots" he thought he lacked.
(In memoriam SKK)
April again, and it's a year again
Since you walked out and slammed the door
Leaving us tangled in your words. Your brain
Lives in the bank-book and your eyes look up
Laughing from the carpet on the floor:
And we still drink from your silver cup.
It is a year again since they poured
The dumb ground into your mouth:
And yet we know, by some recurring word
Or look caught unawares, that you still drive
Our thoughts like the smart cobs of your youth –
When you and the world were alive.
A year again, and we have fallen on bad times
Since they gave you to the worms.
I am ashamed to take delight in these rhymes
Without grief; but you need no tears.
We shall never forget nor escape you, nor make terms
With your enemies, the swift departing years.