A commentary on a short WWII poem
The poem ‘War Poet’ was written by Sidney Keyes (1922-43), one of the most famous English poets of the Second World War, in March 1942 and published the following year, the year of his untimely death. Curiously, the day Keyes was born, 27 May 1922, was the exact same day that the actor Christopher Lee entered the world. Lee outlived Keyes by over 70 years, and it’s odd to think of the two men as exact contemporaries. Keyes was commissioned into the Queen’s Own West Kent Regiment and sent to Tunisia in March 1943, where he was killed, one month before his 21st birthday.
Of all Keyes’s war poems, ‘War Poet’ is perhaps the most famous – a short lyric of just a dozen lines of powerful polemic. Here is the poem, followed by a brief analysis of its language and imagery.
I am the man who looked for peace and found
My own eyes barbed.
I am the man who groped for words and found
An arrow in my hand.
I am the builder whose firm walls surround
A slipping land.
When I grow sick or mad
Mock me not nor chain me:
When I reach for the wind
Cast me not down:
Though my face is a burnt book
And a wasted town.
The imagery of ‘War Poet’ requires careful unpicking and analysis, since it’s far from straightforward. The poem begins, though, plainly enough: ‘I, the war poet, am the man who sought peace but instead found my own eyes assaulted by war. I am the man who tried to use language to express himself, but instead of a pen I found an arrow in my hand. I am like a builder, who builds walls but on unstable land that is doomed to crumble. When I become ill or mad do not ridicule me or lock me up. When I go in search of poetic inspiration in an attempt to capture the chaos around me, do not seek to silence me, even though what I write about is the death of civilisation.’ This constitutes a paraphrase of a poem that, in some ways, requires no paraphrase, but in other respects, cries out for interpretation.
We can divide ‘War Poet’ into two halves, each comprising six lines: the first six lines take the form of indicative statements about the identity of the war poet (‘I am … I am … I am’), with the poet making three statements, each comprising two lines, which contrast the aims of the poet and the harsh reality of the world around him. The last six lines then move from the indicative to the imperative mood (‘Mock me not’, ‘Cast me not down’), and give directions to the reader concerning how they should treat a war poet who finds himself faced with such surroundings. The two-word title ‘War Poet’ enacts this clash between the idealism of the poet (the Romantic poet William Wordsworth was one of Keyes’ influences) and the crushing destruction of war. To be a war poet is to have to rethink the ‘poetic’, what we think of when we imagine ‘the poet’.
Keyes brings home this tension between poetry and war through the imagery of his poem. The ‘arrow’, for instance, picks up on the word ‘barbed’ (arrows are barbed), but also chimes with the old image of a poet writing, quill in hand (quills and arrows both have feathers). The irregular metre of ‘War Poet’, too, can be read as an enactment of the breakdown of conventional notions of poetry when the young poet is confronted with towns laid waste (‘a wasted town’) and warfare (‘an arrow in my hand’). The reference to the wind (‘When I reach for the wind’) might be analysed as an allusion to the classical idea that poets spoke with divine inspiration, and this was associated with the wind. He may have been strongly influenced by the Romantics, but Sidney Keyes realised that the Second World War was incompatible with high-flown Romantic notions of the poetic.
Keyes’ Collected Poems (Poetry Pleiade) is available from Carcanet Press. If you found this analysis of Keyes’ ‘War Poet’ useful, you might also enjoy our post about the ‘war’ poet Drummond Allison and our discussion of this classic WWII poem by Keith Douglas. We’ve also blogged about Wilfred Owen’s classic poem ‘Strange Meeting’.