Sidney Keyes 1922-1943

Sidney Arthur Kilworth Keyes was born in Dartford, Kent, in 1922. His mother died of peritonitis a few weeks after he was born and he was raised by his paternal grandparents. His poem Elegy, written at the age of 16, is a moving tribute to his grandfather. He was educated at Dartford Grammar School, then Tonbridge School, from where he won a history scholarship to Queen’s College, Oxford.

Whilst at Oxford he wrote The Cruel Solstice and The Iron Laurel, which contained the prophetic poem The Foreign Gate. He also edited the Cherwell magazine and established a dramatic society. He fell in love with the young German Jewish artist Milein Cosman, who had fled Germany and was studying at the Slade School of Art, which had relocated from London to Oxford during the war, but it came to nothing. She is remembered in two of his poems, Not Chosen and For M C Written in the Train.

He left Oxford to join the army as a lieutenant in the Queen’s Own West Kent Regiment in 1942 and the following year was killed on the Tunisian front at the age of 20, only three weeks after having been transferred there. In 1943 he was awarded posthumously the the Hawthornden Prize for The Cruel Solstice. In 1944 The Collected Poems of Sidney Keyes was published, edited by Michael Meyer, an Oxford contemporary.

Sidney Keyes is justly recognised as a major poet of World War II. His work, which is partly romantic, partly symbolic, is pervaded by a certain morbidity and pessimism but reflects his sensitivity and his love of the Kent countryside. One of his best known poems, War Poet, was written at the time of his conscription into the army.

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